Apr 16 2016

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

I remembered three things from when I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress long, long ago: the taxonomy of jokes (not funny, funny once, and funny always), that dropping rocks onto earth from the moon was an important part of the revolution, and the significant death at the end. I also remembered liking the book a great deal, enough to have retained a rough outline of the plot and a few significant aspects more than 30 years later. But that was about it, and I am sure that I hadn’t re-read it in at least 20 years, more likely 25 or more.

Re-reading, I can see the book that I liked then, and I saw some of the things that made it stand out back in the 1960s. I also saw the reasons it’s much more of a period piece than its near contemporary, The Left Hand of Darkness — and just look at that run of Hugo winners: 1967 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress; 1968 Lord of Light; 1969 Stand on Zanzibar; 1970 The Left Hand of Darkness. From falling rocks and computing trajectories with the Heinlein straight into a mashup of SF and Indian deities, followed by an explosive stylistic masterpiece, and an anthropological look at power and gender. Only three years later, Moon was already looking a bit old-fashioned.

The book that I liked then was the adventurous story of a revolution: the colonists of Luna rising up against the unjust and oppressive system laid down on them by the powers-that-be on Earth. It’s a brisk tale with a few reverses, some clever maneuvers, and the good guys win in the end. Looking at that story with older eyes, though, I see how thoroughly Heinlein stacks the deck in his characters’ favor. Their conspiracies work; nobody leaks, or flakes out, or is too weak to hold out against the machinations of the power structure. There’s little in-fighting: the People’s Front of Judea gets along with the Judean People’s Front. Their opponents misread the colony even worse than George III misread the revolting Americans. And that’s without even mentioning the sentient computer who takes the colonists’ side and does all kinds of things for them.

Speaking of Mycroft, he’s still a joy to read. Heinlein handwaves away the problem of consciousness, portraying Mike’s emergence from networked systems as an anomaly, but within the book it works well, because nobody is as surprised as the computer expert who stumbles upon Mike and, fortuitously, befriends him. That expert is the novel’s narrator, Manny, and his first-person voice is one of the things that may have nettled mid-1960s readers. Manny’s voice reads like someone whose first language is Russian. The verbs are sometimes a bit out of place, while definite and indefinite articles get dropped almost as often as they get remembered. At the height of the Space Race, implying that Russian was the source of speech patterns in the lunar colonies would certainly have tweaked part of Heinlein’s established fan base.

The economics of the book don’t make a lick of sense. Its approach to population growth, and its Malthusian outlook belong to the era it was written in, but the proposed solution of feeding Earth by farming on the moon is just, no. No way. Suspension of disbelief flies right out of the launch window. It’s a good thing the story moves past it so fast, even though it’s supposedly the reason for the colony’s existence and the basis of its relationship with earth.

Heinlein’s portrayal of relations between characters of different gender are clunky at best. Lunar society has an extreme version of chivalry that Heinlein describes as the result of the shortage of women among the first colonists. There must have been something in the air, because no society that I can think of (and penal colony Australia is a good analogue to Heinlein’s Luna, even to the point of its having a lot of Australians among the early colonists, and using some Australian turns of phrase in Manny’s narration) has taken that adaptation. Usually it’s violence among the men and oppression of the women. Aren’t we a great species sometimes? Anyway, one of the outcomes of social change on Luna is multiple forms of marriages. Heinlein details the one that Manny is a part of, and maybe it’s best viewed as a thought experiment that makes as much sense as the book’s politics.

Jo Walton ended her consideration of re-reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress with, “I don’t know how to sum this one up. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me grit my teeth, it made me gag, I couldn’t put it down but I probably won’t read it again for a long time.” That does it pretty well for me, too.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/04/16/the-moon-is-a-harsh-mistress-by-robert-a-heinlein/

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