Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
© 1966 Robert Heinlein
382 pages



So you say you want a revolution? Bozhemoi! The Moon is a Harsh Mistress combines politics and science fiction to follow a colonial rebellion…in space. In the year 2076,   the residents of a Lunar penal colony tire of Earth’s   mercantilist policies, which keep the “Loonies” impoverished. After a political rally is brutally crushed by the Lunar Authority, a few souls decide to homebrew a little regime change.  The resulting story follows a conspiracy of three as it ripens into a popular revolt, defending itself against the indignant government of Earth.

The lunar settlements began as collections of Earth’s combined political and criminal refuse, but have since become full-fledged communities, with homesteading families and unique customs.  Save for the authority invested in a man called the Warden, there is little overtly penal about the various settlements scattered about the lunar landscape. There are no walls, no chains – only the fact that long-term lunar residency makes a return trip to Earth virtually unthinkable, given the weakening of the body.   The adjustments needed to operate on the moon are an important plot point later on,  when earth-lubbing troops attempt an invasion.  More interesting is a figure central to the plot and the revolution: the supercomputer used by the Lunar Authority to manage various systems. Unbeknowst to virtually everyone save the computer engineer (Manny) who serves as the main character, the central computer has been expanded so much that he has become both self-aware and mischievous; assisting in a revolt against the Lunar Authority is a joke right up his alley.   Another area of interest are the social arrangements on Luna; because women are greatly outnumbered by men, polyandry is common.

Although I assumed from the start that the revolution would be a success, these various elements ensured that the novel remained thoroughly interesting. Kudos to Heinlein for borrowing from both American and Russian revolutionary mythology to inspire his conspiracy. Frankly, given that this book was written during the Cold War, I was surprised at the abundance of Russian names and slang; Heinlein wasn’t exactly a fellow traveler, referring to the Soviets as the ‘butchers of Budapest’.  Welcome were the  forays into political philosophy, as the conspirators argued over what the root problems facing them were, and how they should avoid them if a new government was created. (“If” because overt laws were unknown on the moon, replaced by rigorously-enforced customs.)   One character describes himself as a rational anarchist, maintaining that – regardless of abstractions like “the state” – every man alone is responsible for the choices he makes.  Nothing can be sloughed off onto the state, nothing excused.    Moon is an overt expression of libertarianism, in both insisting that every man bears his own moral responsibility, and in denouncing those who attempt to claim control over another's life.  Still, Mannie observes with a sigh, there seems to be some instinct within us to want to meddle.

Fifty years after publication, the political philosophy isn't the only relevant portion. Although modern readers will find the notion of one computer controlling the entire planet as rendered here (and in much of Asimov’s early fiction), fanciful, Heinlein is closer to the mark than is obvious. The sorts of mischief that Mike employs to aid the rebellion – providing information entrusted to him by the warden,  spying via telephone hookups, providing secure channels of communication, disrupting services – are the same kinds of havoc cyberwarfare can wreck today. We do entrust the planet’s care to a machine: a network comprised of millions of computers, with more connection every day.

In Moon we have a novel with all manner of notable subjects which is at the same time an fun  story in its own right. Oh, the ending is more or less foretold, but  the author intrigues from the start by delivering the story in a pidgin English heavily flavored with Russian expressions.  It seems odd on the first page, but seems natural within a few sentences.  Heinlein provides a fair amount of humor, as when Manny receives a massive smooch from a lady rebel upon his induction into the nascent conspiracy and says "I'm glad I joined! What have I joined?" Most of it comes from Manny's own narration however, as when he is commenting on the mess that is being human.  This will remain a favorite, I think, and one so brimming with argument that it merits frequent re-reading.


3 comments:

  1. I read a lot of Heinlein decades ago - including this one. Unfortunately I can't remember any great detail. I do remember from his other books about his distrust of Government and his more libertarian/anarchist political leanings which I found interesting. This sort of thing was probably the first time I really read 'politics' as such and probably informed my present political beliefs.

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    1. Heinlein is an interesting fellow to try to get a handle on. Libertarianism and militarism are an odd match, but I suppose it was the era.

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    2. The older, 'wiser' and more widely read I got I actually found his politics increasingly distasteful. But he was still one of my founding fathers of my early SF reading.

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