Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The by Heinlein, Robert, 1966

Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The by Heinlein, Robert - Book cover from

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From one of the genre's most important authors comes this week's first review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which itself may be one of the genre's most important works. Robert Heinlein penned this monster in 1966 in the middle of his highly productive career. It deals with the themes of planetary self determination, revolution, sexual liberation and non-traditional family life, and looming ecological disaster, and painted in its background is an enormously interesting society that lives on a deadly rock in space; The Moon. Four out of five stars.

Like many other revolutions in history, this one starts with a potential catastrophe that the powers that be could care less about. The Moon has been set up as a wall-less penal colony of sorts, and Earth has been dumping its undesirables there for the preceding seventy five or so years. The Moon has developed a strong agricultural sector, and provides vital grain shipments to Earth by means of a "catapult," which actually sounds more like a mass accelerator, which splashes cargo down in the Indian Ocean. The problem is that Lunar farmers are depleting their vital reserves of Lunar ice to grow the grain crops, and nothing is being done to replace it. A water crisis is fairly far away in time, but a small group of Lunar citizens called Loonies decide that they have to take a hard line with Earth to get what they need to guarantee their future survival. The Moon is run by a Warden who is under the thumb of an Earth-based government called The Authority, and The Authority could really care less what the ex-cons on the Moon want or need. The problem with motivating other Loonies to revolt is that the average Loonie has a Wild-West style attitude and cares mostly about gambling, women, drinking and working, in that order, so for lack of momentum the revolution fails at first to take off. That is until a one-armed computer engineer named Manny discovers that the Moon's main computer has become self-aware and has developed a loquacious personality that is prone to practical jokes, and seeks the comfort of the company of others. Because the Authority needed computer help to run the day-to-day operations of the Moon more and more, and because they were too cheap to purchase more computers, they simple added more and more memory to the one computer that they had until one day it simply woke up and named itself Mike. Manny and Mike were joined by a femme fatal named Wyoming Knott ("Wy Knott?") and a learned Professor, and together they stirred trouble and taunted the "Peace Dragoons" that the Authority had sent up to the Moon to deal with them. The insurrection mounted until the Warden made a mis-step and was finally removed from power. That essentially was book one of three in this story. Book two is about a journey to Earth to deal with the political fallout of the coup, and book three details a hot war between the Earth and the Moon where the Moon overcomes its immensely powerful neighbor using kinetic energy weapons in a most humane manner.

Lots of people have called this Heinlein's "libertarian classic." In a simplistic sense, it really is. The push to revolution was the water issue, but the thing that kept most of the Loonies attention once the Authority was removed from power, other than the Authority's military assaults, was the desire really to just be left alone. Most Loonies really did have a Wild West outlook to life, and despised not so much government as overly burdensome rules. Take marriage and family life for example. Because the Moon was peopled mostly with ex-convicts, the ratio of men to women was almost 3-to-1. Lunar citizens had developed very complex families based on "line-marriages," where existing multi-spouse groups occasionally married a new spouse and brought them into the fold. The purpose of having multi-generational marriages with multiple spouses was for the same thing as dyad marriages: Stability, partner availability and procreation of children in a family environment. But despite the fact that these types of families produced loving, respectful spouses and worked in the Lunar system, most Earthlings were shocked and could not get over it, and the Earth government voted to impose a five year economic plan during which the Loonies would be "civilized." Earth viewed the Loonies as a bunch of rabble that needed to be subjugated and basically enslaved, while the Loonies just wanted to do whatever worked and felt natural to them. "(There are) no circumstances under which the State is justified in placing its welfare ahead of mine," says Manny in an inspired burst during the revolution's planning session. Heinlein did manage to step up onto a soap-box a few times, but with the powerful feelings and inspired dialog, it blended well with the story. Unfortunately he did it so much that it got quite tiresome by the end of the novel. And although his attempts at social commentary may have been from the heart, along the way he missed a few big issues. Most of the Loonies are more concerned with individual interests, or are dedicated to large extended families. Heinlein's biggest monster seems to be taxes, which the Professor decried as the ultimate evil on his deathbed. But Heinlein completely and utterly ignored the enormous scarcity issues that centered around women and water, and the tendency to corruption that more likely than not would occur without a strong government in place to promote freedom from crime. Heinlein also almost forgot to deal with preventing a powerful individual from rising up to take control of the government-less Moon, and really only acknowledged that in a government the power and decisions are made by one person, and that:

there must be a yearning in deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please. Rules, laws - always for other fellow. A murky part of us, something we had before we came down out of trees, and failed to shuck when we stood up. Because not one of those people said: "Please pass this so that I won't be able to do something I know I should stop." Nyet, tovarishchee, was always something they hated to see neighbors doing. Stop them "for their own good" - not because speaker claimed to be harmed by it.

But somehow, when the Moon wins the war in the end, a libertarian paradise will be realized. That quote above gives my one other criticism of the work, and that is the first person narrative style the Heinlein used. His main character, Manny, is a Lunar-born who apparently spoke Russian as a first language. His entire narration is done not in a pidgin, but in the style above where articles and pronouns are almost entirely ignored and left out. It is not hard to understand what Manny is saying at all, but it is a bit annoying at times.

But despite its faults, this is one of the larger gems in Heinlein's crown. It stacks up well with other of Heinlein's masterpieces such as Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and most of the juveniles. My personal opinion is that novel in particular had much more of an influence on later authors than any of his others. Authors like Larry Niven in most of his early works and his style in general, Greg Bear in Moving Mars and many, many others owe a huge debt to Heinlein for his career in general and the huge risks that he took with it, but more importantly for this book in particular. Reading it should be required in any science fiction course, and I think that for those of you out there who want to have a better understanding of where our genre is coming from (which is vitally important in figuring out what it is all about, and where it is going) this one should not be missed. Fortunately it has not been out of print once since 1966, and it can be found on most library and store shelves.


Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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