The Moon is a Harsh Mistress The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
Publisher: Orb Books
Year: 1966/1997
Pages: 384

Heinlein is known as the father of science fiction, but it’s obvious to anyone who reads him that lumping him with mere storytellers like David Drake or [insert prolific but mediocre science fiction writer here] is very much unfair, because Heinlein placed far more importance upon allegory and message than he did with entertaining narrative. The frightening disparity between Starship Troopers the novel and Starship Troopers the film should illustrate that well enough. It would have been easy for Heinlein to write a thin tome detailing the destruction of very many insectoid creatures and not a few armored humans, but instead he chose to wrote a novel consisting largely of exposition and flashback, dealing with the nature of war, civic duty, and capital punishment.

Thus, it is with no surprise that I tell you that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is not a dashing adventure about lunar colonists, but instead a rather abstract tome, at times quite dry, that chronicles the tragically ironic bid for independence and national sovereignty by the colonists of “Luna” (Earth’s moon) in the year 2076. Much like Australia’s checkered past, Luna is populated largely by ex-convicts who were shipped there either for crimes or to solve the growing overpopulation on earth. Mannie, the novel’s protagonist, is a one-armed computer technician who befriends Mike (short for MyCroft), the intelligent supercomputer1. One thing leads to another, and through the tutelage of Professor La Paz, an aging soi-disant “Rational Anarchist,” he foments rebellion and finally outright revolution. I won’t bother going any further than that: if you wish to read plot spoilers, go to Wikipedia.

Heinlein’s peccadilloes are a matter of record—again, see Wikipedia for a more complete background—and it’s easy for me to see now where authors like Leo Frankowski get their damned strange approach to science fiction. The more odd bits of any Heinlein novel—in this case, polyandry and pretty unabashed libertarianism—are the direct result, perhaps, of his odd rather odd views. A good deal of time in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is spent detailing the vagaries of life on the moon, which in Heinlein’s universe includes an approach to sexuality that is both positively Mormon and in some ways oddly enlightened: rape is unheard of on Luna, as any sort of sexual abuse of women is socially proscribed and enforced, but family units are a sort of mixed marital bouillabaisse that would make social conservatives blanch.

But the real crux of the book is political, and follows what some see as a persistent thread is Heinlein’s work—that is, libertarianism, which Heinlein illustrates masterfully, with a sense of irony that is at once subtle and inescapable and positively mammoth. Whereas I believed at first that the book’s conflict would arise from MyCroft’s above-average emotional intelligence, it is in fact the process of Luna’s independence from the bureaucratic-cum-corporate political structures that exist on earth, and all the tragically hilarious and hilariously tragic fighting, fumbling, and finger-pointing pursuant to it.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a wonderful piece of both science fiction and political allegory. Then, too, I could replace title with just about anything from Heinlein’s corpus and the statement would be equally true. Whether you read this (possibly his most overtly political, and certainly his most unabashedly libertarian) or something else, I would suggest reading something by Heinlein.

  1. Mike asymptotically approaches real artificial intelligence as the story develops; I thought this would become a major plot point, but it was merely fancy on Heinlein’s part[]

10 Comments to “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

  1. TMIAHM is possibly Heinlein’s best book; it at least ranks up there with Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and Time Enough for Love. Perhaps the main reason for this is that it is not just an adventure novel: the political and social scene that he sets is very much integral to the plot, and provides a great alternate look at how such things could be done, instead of what the American scene is now. Whether things like his described line marriage are actually workable models for living in practice is a point that can be debated almost endlessly; unfortunately there aren’t any real-world examples that I know of that you could point to and say “yes that worked” or “No, that has never worked in real life”.

    But that really wasn’t his point – like most such ideas in his works, he was trying to shake up his reader’s world view, make them question the status quo. Which applies doubly to the political comments in this work. Prof’s musings on how to organize a government that cannot tyrannize its citizens makes for some excellent brain-fodder, and should lead to some sharp questions put to any potential candidate for office in our real world.

    Any writer of sf today owes a severe debt to RAH, as his ideas and style helped pull sf out of the pulp ghetto of the thirties and forties, and back into the world of worthwhile reading (not ‘literature’ – RAH had some very caustic opinions about ‘art for art’s sake’). And as you say, any reader of sf should read at least something by this man, just to see how it can be done.

  2. Rusty says:

    *sigh* So that’s another one to add to my list then…

  3. Ben says:

    Have you read Fforde’s Thursday Next series? If not, you’ll have to add it to your list as well when I review The Eyre Affair within the week.

  4. Ben says:

    Bwhahahaha! I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it: it’s a limey author. I was expecting you to respond to my forthcoming review with an “Oh, I read that five years ago”.

  5. S4R says:

    I’m suddenly surprised that Starship Troopers isn’t also a Hollywood renaming of that book’s title.

  6. I just wish Hollywood had renamed that movie to something else, like BUGS ATTACK, rather than keep Heinlein’s title, as the movie does serious damage to the ideas Heinlein was trying to present in that book.

  7. Demonz says:

    The works of Heinlein will never cease to amaze me

  8. Demonz says:

    The works of Heinlein will never cease to amaze me

    His books are pure joy, and I can never stop reading them.

  9. psikeyhackr says:

    Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are called fathers of science fiction. Of course Mary Shelley beat them both with Frankenstein and so was the mother of science fiction.

    Heinlein is said to be the Dean of science fiction.

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