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.
- 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[↩]