Review of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by

Book cover for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

It didn’t take me long to understand why this book received such acclaim and is still regarded as a classic. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an emblem of political science fiction. Robert Heinlein manages to take the idea of a penal colony on the moon and turn it into a romantic story of political revolution. This is an idea that has been explored repeatedly since this novel was published, but those stories almost all owe a debt to this one.

Manuel/Manny/Man O’Kelly-Davis is a computer repair technician. He was born on Luna to transported parents. He’s also the only person, Loonie or Terran, who knows that the central lunar computer is sentient. He calls it Mike. And along with an old exiled professor and a political firebrand from Hong Kong Luna called Wyoming, Mike and Manuel plan and launch a revolution against the Terran-controlled Lunar Authority that runs their lives.

Manuel isn’t actually all that interested in revolting, at least not at first. (Truthfully he probably gets into it because he wants to “bundle” with Wyoming, and he knows the Prof.) He is a self-described apolitical, like, he tells us, most Loonies. (We could have a conversation about unreliable narrators and whether Manuel tells us the truth. Frankly, though, I don’t think Heinlein was interested in that level of deconstructionism. It would have gotten in the way of his fantasy.) Initially, Manuel is happy enough with the status quo: when Mike breaks, or just tries something it thinks is a joke, Manuel gets called in to fix it, and gets paid to do so. Life is actually pretty good.

But it’s all an illusion, because everyone is going to starve and die in seven years unless they take over the joint! Or at least, that’s what Mike tells them. And Mike wouldn’t lie to them just because he thinks it’s funny, would he? Mike totally isn’t into pull practical jokes … oh, shit.

The “character” of Mike is my favourite thing about The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Heinlein has written here one of the earliest representations of classical strong AI (this predates HAL 9000 by a couple of years). Yet this book is decidedly not about AI in the sense that cyberpunk and Singularity fiction focuses on AI. Mike is merely a plot device, as well as part of Heinlein’s extended political metaphor. However, the fact that Heinlein relies on the abilities of a networked central computer to make the lunar revolution successful probably says a lot about the extent to which he viewed such a revolution as possible in contemporary terms. As Manuel reflects at one point, Mike is their ace in the hole: a shadowy, unseen figure whose presence is nevertheless always felt. Without Mike, everyone would be out of luck.

Mike evolves throughout the story too, as portrayed through its increasingly adept grasp of language, tone, and voice. Some of this evolution is directed by Manuel, but much of it is an organic consequence of Mike’s role in the revolution and its portrayal of “Adam Selene.” Maybe it’s my background with Singularity fiction, but I kept waiting for Mike to turn on our poor revolutionaries.

It’s important to remember, too, that this book was written before we ever visited the Moon. We had some grainy pictures, and we had managed a couple of low-Earth orbits and a spacewalk—and most of that was courtesy the Soviets. (Although the Soviet-inspired dialect that the Loonies use and other Soviet influences on the setting provide a convenient way to allude to revolutionary Russia, I can’t help but feel like Heinlein is also reflecting the zeitgeist. Up until the end of the 1960s, it must have felt like the Russians were dominating the Space Race, and Heinlein’s future reflects that.) But we didn’t really know what it was like to travel through space, much less live in it.

Heinlein makes much of the idea that the 1/6th-g gravity of the moon means we couldn’t live there long before permanently adapting to it, preventing us from returning to Earth. Turns out we can live in microgravity for at least a year without permanent ill effects (though one must convalesce and rebuild muscle after coming back). But Heinlein didn’t know that. Interestingly, a great deal of Luna’s economy revolves around the harvesting of ice, and in that respect Heinlein was a little prescient: the presence of ice, while proposed and perhaps suspected in his time, has only been confirmed much more recently.

So working within the bounds of what he knew at the time, and some speculation, Heinlein creates a fascinating vision for what a lunar colony might be like. Although he employs technology like laser guns, he also invokes more realistic—and, in my opinion, more frightening—weapons, such as using rocks accelerated down Earth’s gravity well as ballistic missiles. Heinlein shows that science is often cooler than science fiction.

Are there uncomfortable libertarian politics that threaten to overwhelm the story? Yes. It took me most of a week to read this book, despite it not being very long, because it is on the dry side. Between Manuel, the Prof, and Wyoming, we get enough political theory sandwiched between the action to fill a slim textbook. Regardless, I soldiered on, because I wanted to know where we ended up. After the revolution succeeded, would heads roll?

Similar to his politics, Heinlein’s portrayal of gender roles is dubious at best. Though women like Wyoming, or Manuel’s senior wife, Mimi, are presented as capable and having agency, they are nevertheless always subject to the male gaze. Heinlein explores alternatives to conventional marriage—namely, polyandrous arrangements like the idea of the line marriage Manuel is involved in—and depicts slightly different sexual mores. Yet any credit he might deserve for such things is diminished by the fact that his particular brand of 1960s sexual liberation is little more than a smokescreen for male fantasies of women as sexual objects. Heinlein tries to explain that the imbalance of genders in lunar society means women have the “power” to choose men. In actuality, this means women are always presented in the novel as objects of sexual desire who frustrate or reward men capriciously. I’m trying and failing to come up with a woman character who isn’t defined somehow by a relationship to a man—Hazel comes close, but ultimately gets pigeonholed into being a sexual object for Slim as well as the “mother” figure to the Baker Street Irregulars. But no, there are no women judges, no women politicians, nothing like that.

So, ultimately, Heinlein’s diverting sexual politics here just go to show that, when you get right down to it, you can have all the weird gender stuff you want, but it doesn’t matter if you forget that women are people too. The default in this book is still very much “heterosexual male,” and that’s what makes it problematic.

With these two things in mind, I can see why some don’t enjoy The Moon is a Harsh Mistress at all, and I didn’t enjoy it unreservedly. Rather, I appreciate Heinlein’s artistry and skill at science fiction as a setting and as a vehicle for political storytelling (even if I find the actual politics somewhat strange). There’s a curious mixture of intelligence and romance here, so it’s capable of grabbing at both head and heart. The tension between these two modes, however, results in a story that vacillates most disharmoniously even as it impresses with the scope of its ambition.

Engagement

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