Craig Heap reviews the sci-fi classic, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, written by Robert A. Heinlein
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein
Gollancz S.F Masterworks
Review by Craig Heap
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, not unsurprisingly, is set on the moon, where a semi-autonomous penal colony seeks independence from Earth. Good science-fiction is about humanity under a microscope and despite Heinlein’s background as a physicist this is very much a political novel.
It was written in 1966, a few years before the Moon landing took place yet while it was still building in the social consciousness. This was no doubt great timing for Heinlein, but today the concept of living on the Moon can seem almost outdated or quaint when all we’ve done since is go back for another look. With the end of NASA’s space shuttle flights, 2011 is further from the Moon than Heinlein’s 1966. But remember, good science-fiction is never about the science.
Heinlein presents a society in which we can see mirrored British colonial America, or the Australian penal colony era. The description of the Lunar colony is sparse, a style which lends itself well to the barren nature of the setting; however, it is the people which provide the colour and detail.
The majority of Luna’s inhabitants are transported convicts, or the descendents of convicts. They are ruled by the distant Authority, the local figurehead being the Warden and his handful of bodyguards. Everything else is run by the convicts, who exist more or less freely on Luna, without laws to govern them.
They speak in a dialect unique to them, one which is clipped, sparse and straight to the point. Although the populace is cosmopolitan, there is a Russian influence reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, though less pronounced and easier to absorb, without the need to refer to the appendix every other page.
Heinlein’s views have been ascribed as right-wing, if not outright fascist, by some commentators. Indeed, if you recall the film Starship Troopers, it was something of a parody of the original novel and Heinlein’s glorification of a powerful military, corporal punishment and the need to earn citizenship. In, The Moon…, though, Heinlein takes on a libertarian stance, of promoting minimalist government and self-regulation.
Something else to watch out for is Heinlein’s portrayal of women. He never fails to describe them as attractive, but it’s done with an almost lost sense of chivalry, whereby women are to be placed on pedestals. This is evident in many of his other works, and exaggerated moreso in this text.
As a result of their scarcity (approximately two men to every woman), women are elevated in status. Without exception, the Lunar men respect and revere them, while the women always have control over any relationship, granted by their natural power of choice over a number of men. In this we can see a reinforcement of Heinlein’s libertarian views, where a consumer with the power to choose will always be better off than someone who has only one option, i.e. a state monopoly.
However, despite Heinlein’s noble outlook toward women, the concept is undermined by his own social upbringing and influences. For all their power, none of the women hold any serious jobs. They are all mothers and housewives, or beauticians and secretaries, apart from one.
Wyoming Knott, a promising revolutionary firebrand and gifted speaker, forms part of the original conspiracy and lasts through to the new government. Yet on closer inspection, you could argue she is superfluous. Removing her entirely from the novel would have very little impact on the story line that some remedial editing couldn’t resolve.
Though none are as ineffective as Wyoming, the other major characters, Mannie and Professor Paz, fail to develop in any real sense, and lack the flaws which make good characters. The exception here is Mike, the sentient central computer who conspires along with the other three to remove the Lunar Authority it serves. Joining initially on the basis that it would be fun, Mike grows from childlike origins, trying to grasp the basis of humour through jokes, to the figurehead of the revolution trying to manage an entire society. Towards the story’s end, he expresses guilt at failing to save a gun-crew from being killed during an attack by Earth forces, even though there was nothing he could have done. His ambiguous ‘death’ at the end, whereby he is reduced to non-sentience, could be attributed to Earth’s catastrophic nuclear bombing of the Moon, or an inconsolable grief at his inability to prevent it. Either way, there is more pathos at this moment than at the actual death of any human character.
The undermining factor of Mike’s development, though, is that his near omnipotence and omniscience means many of the problems faced by the revolutionaries are overcome with little difficulty. Ironically, as Mike assumes more control and responsibility, he effectively becomes that which the revolutionaries set out to overthrow – the distant dictator. This is highlighted by the moment when Mike replicates Mannie’s voice, who has since risen to become the Minister of Defence, to issue commands to the rebel troops.
That said, whether the irony was lost on Heinlein or if he meant to portray the relative impossibility of the libertarian ideal is part of what makes the concept interesting. Ultimately, the ending represents a hollow victory, as the libertarian golden age of individual freedom and self-regulation is slowly buried underneath politics and bureaucracy. In time, the heroes of the revolution find themselves looking to the new frontier and the freedom of the asteroids.
Professor Paz told Mannie that one day the Moon’s future would lie not in farming, but as a crossroads to the stars. In some ways, this sentiment sums up Heinlein’s book perfectly. This small revolution seems almost parochial in comparison to the great space operas of Ian Banks and Alistair Reynolds, but without the crossroads lain down by the likes of Heinlein some fifty years ago, today’s science-fiction writers might never have made it past the Moon.