display | more...

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
Robert Heinlein
1965, G. P. Putnam's Sons


The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (TMiaHM) is a classic of science fiction, and one of Heinlein's better-known works -- although not among his-top five most popular. TMiaHM originally appeared as a serial in the SF magazine Worlds of If (December of 1965 through April of 1966), and then was republished as a novel. It won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 1967. As noted in other reviews on this page, it is one of the primary examples of his rather extreme libertarian ideas, the origin of the phrase TANSTAAFL, and arguably the template for most moon colonies found in later science fiction.

In 2075 the moon is little more than a glorified penal colony; a place for the Earth to send criminals and force them to work to farm food for a hungry planet. However, the Loonies are not slaves by any means; they have a thriving economy and can do pretty much as they please as long as they don't cause trouble. The story follows a small band of revolutionaries trying to cause trouble.

Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis, an aging computer engineer, has a secret; the central Lunar supercomputer has achieved sentience, and is bored. This works out pretty well, since 'Mike' wants company, and Mannie wants to get paid for working on Mike. Every so often Mike does something unexpected, and Mannie gets called in to fix it; he tells Mike to stop doing the unexpected thing, and they chat for a bit. Then one day Mannie attends a meeting of revolutionists that want to take back the moon for the moonies, and suddenly Mike becomes the center of a plot to throw of the shackles of Earth.

This will mean putting together a revolution, an army, a government, and, in the end, convincing the Earth that Luna deserves to be free, and does not deserve to be H-bombed. This, in turn, involves Mannie talking Mike through the intricacies of human culture, and Mike coming up with brilliant ideas. Shortly Mike and Mannie are joined by a small group of fiery, intelligent libertarians who will put their lives on the line in order to manipulate the masses into living free (or dying).

Heinlein spends quite a lot of time on various interesting ideas -- hypothetical forms of group marriage, libertarianism, the physics of low gravity and orbital mechanics, how to build the perfect rebel cell, and etc. The plot is fairly straightforward and slightly lumpy, because the true motive of the author is to introduce new ideas, not a central story. While many of these ideas (AI, mass launchers, moon colonies) are old news today, Heinlein was weird enough that a lot of his ideas are still unusual today.

TMiaHM also stands out because in addition to a lot of good science and science fiction, there is also a lot of politics, economics, and sociology. This is not uncommon in science fiction, but Heinlein was an early adopter and understood that describing a new world was much more than describing new technology. While this is apparent in many of his novels, TMiaHM may be the best single example among his works.

There is, as is usual in Heinlein works, also a downside. Heinlein takes great pleasure in being full-on sexist, having old men have sex with 15-year-olds, and just generally assuming that the point of the future is for old-fashioned men to have their most fiercely-held beliefs confirmed as generally correct and admirable. And yes, I know this was written 50 years ago; Heinlein was on the sexist side of normal even back then, not stopping at 'this is the way it is, get over it' but moving on to 'this is a good way to be, let's get way more of it!'.

That said, this is a pretty good story with a lot of interesting ideas, and Heinlein is an engaging writer. If you can get over the old-fashion with extra Heinlein on top, this is worth reading both for intrinsic entertainment value and because it is a classic of science fiction.

***WARNING***
This writeup discusses things that may ruin some suprises for you, if you haven't read the book
***ACHTUNG***

Aside from Mycroft the AI, libertarian politics and TANSTAAFL this book has something else that makes it a classic. Namely, launching big fucking rocks at Earth from the Moon. I know this sounds like I just picked out the most crass sci-fi plot device in a book that was more about humanity and politics, but look at it from the perspective of the colonists on the Moon. What advantage did the Moon have that the Earth didn't? A shallow gravity well. What did the colonists have in abundance? Big rocks. To me, it was beautiful in its simplicity.
Also a song by Jimmy Webb, widely considered one of the greatest songs ever, and recorded by such singers as Joe Cocker and Linda Ronstadt among others.
Webb took the title from Heinlein's book, which he said had fascinated him since he was a child - he claims to have got most of his inspiration as a lyricist from writers like Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke.

An interesting point about this Robert Heinlein book is that it presents a very comprehensive guide for setting up a secret organisation (the people in the book are being oppressed by the evil colonial moon authorities). The reason that it is particularly useful is that the book was written in the electronic era, and because Heinlein's writing was so forward-looking the communication, political climate and infrastructure he describes are very similar to the present day in many ways.

The structure he presents is basically a human trinary tree. The ruling triumvirate are a cell. Each of them is also a link to another cell on the next rung down, but noone in the top cell knows who the other two have recruited. Each of these subsequent cells then has the same pattern, with noone knowing anyone except their own cell, their senior contact and their own recruits.

Heinlein used a clever method for identifying the rank of an otherwise unknown member. The members of the first cell gave themselves aliases starting with the letter A. The people in the next level down had names starting with B and so on. This system allows for a very large number of people to be in the organisation - 3^26 or thereabouts - and for them to communicate with a maximum of 25 steps between themselves and the top of the tree. It also allows those at the top to estimate how many people have been recruited depending on which letter of the alphabet the lowest-ranked communications come from.

The key to the security of the structure is that there are no horizontal links between cells on the same level. Thus, if one person gets caught then under interrogation they themselves can only reveal at most six other members' identities: the remaining members of their cell, the person who recruited them and their own recruits. In the time between their arrest and this information being revealed to big brother the other cell members have a window of opportunity to sever ties, report the breach, destroy records etc. etc. and thereby minimise damage.

A final relevant element of the organisation is the existence of Mike, the Moon's supercomputer. He controls, amongst other things, all electronic communication networks. The reason that this is particularly pertinent is that, while we don't have intelligent computers today we do have the Internet. So whereas in the novel Mike would have protected communications from eavesdroppers in reality we can use encryption on the Internet. No wonder then that the US government is so keen to control the sale of strong encryption and to spy on e-mail using the carnivore and omnivore systems.

On a purely literary note, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress flies in the face of popular perceptions of Heinlein by presenting a pro-libertarian agenda, in contrast to the right-wing political antics of Starship Troopers. It is also notable for one of the most coherent presentations of a fictional future language in any science fiction novel ever - it is more believable than Orwell's Newspeak, for instance. Basically, Heinlein predicts that 'meaningless' words like 'a' and 'the' would be dropped from the popular vernacular. After a few pages it becomes disturbingly natural to read.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.