Monday, July 19, 2010

SF Masterworks #72: Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

"It is a tale of revolution, of the rebellion of the former Lunar penal colony against the Lunar Authority that controls it from Earth.  It is the tale of the disparate people--a computer technician, a vigorous young female agitator, and an elderly academic--who become the rebel movement's leaders.  And it is the story of Mike, the supercomputer whose sentience is known only to this inner circle, and who for reasons of his own is committed to the revolutions' ultimate success."  (Publisher: Orb Books, 1997 1st edition back cover)

Robert Heinlein won 4 Hugo awards and 3 retro Hugo award for his works including The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1967.  He was considered one of the most influential science fiction writers and won the first Damon Knight Grand Memorial Master award for lifetime achievement by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.   Many of the central themes in Heinlein's works included race, individualism, sexual freedom, philosophy and politics. He created many Utopian worlds revolving around political themes from liberal to conservative to fascism to libertarian.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a Utopian tale of a lunar colony in 2075 rebelling against authority and setting up a libertarian style government and is intriguing and thought provoking. The moon has been designated a penal colony and is populated by "loonies,"  who are either prisoners, political prisoners or descendants of prisoners.   Once prisoners have served their sentence they have to continue living on the moon because, after a few months, irreversible biological changes to their body force them to remain. They live in underground colonies and make their livings by exporting ice and wheat to the Earth. The men outnumber the woman two to one which has resulted in woman taking multiple husbands.  There are basically no laws and the population is self regulating.  Their women are held in high esteem and justice is served by ousting the trouble maker through an air lock.   They are loosely regulated by a Warden and all the facilities are controlled by one master computer, the HOLMES IV whose name is Mike.

"Mike was not official name; I had nicknamed him for Mycroft Holmes, in a story written by Dr. Watson before he founded IBM.  This story character would just sit and think--and that's what Mike did.  Mike was a fair dinkum thinkum, sharpest computer you'll ever meet."  (pg 11-12)

The story is narrated in first person point of view by  Manuel Garcia "Mannie" O'Kelly-Davis, a computer technician who takes care of the computer and discovers it has been malfunctioning out of boredom and is making mistakes on purpose.   Because controlling all the lunar functions only take up about 2% of it's operating capacity, the computer started learning as much as possible in it's free time and became self aware. 

"But on Monday, 13 may 2074 I was in computer room of Lunar Authority Complex, visiting with computer boss Mike while other machines whispered among themselves. 

Some logics get nervous breakdowns. Overloaded phone system behaves like frightened child.  Mike did not have upsets, acquired sense of humor instead.  Low one.  If he were a man, you wouldn't dare stoop over.  His idea of thigh-slapper would be to dump you out of bed--or put itch powder in pressure suit.

Not being equipped for that, Mike indulged in phony answers with skewed logic, or pranks like issuing pay cheque to a janitor in Authority's Luna City office for $10,000,000,000,000,185.15--last five digits being correct amount.  Just a great big overgrown lovable kid who ought to be kicked." (pg 13) 

The story is broken up into three sections:  Book 1 - That Dinkum Thinkum  is the prelude to the revolt with Mannie, Wyoming Knott and Professor Bernardo de la Paz deciding, along with "Mike" to form a covert executive cell and begin recruiting members.  Book 2- A Rabble in Arms in which every single person wants to have their say in how the government will be run.  "Mike" is given the persona "Adam Selene" a mysterious rich backer who is the Chairman of the executive cell who never appears in public for security sake.  The professor actually sets up a "congress" simply to keep the people occupied while he and Mannie go down to earth to sell the benefits of a free Luna society.   Book 3 - TANSTAAFL  (after one of Heinlein's saying "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch")  in which Earth attacks and Luna figures out how to counter attack by flinging rocks at Earth.

I was intrigued by Professor Bernardo de la Paz who was an anarchist and when the new congress formed, was surprised they choose him as one of the permanent heads of congress.  He did his best to cast doubts and pick apart their ideas.  Some of his ideas were interesting, but scary to say the least.

"Comrade members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom--if you can keep it.  But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant.  Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word.  I would not be unhappy if this convention sat for ten years before reporting--but I would be frightened if you took less than one year.

Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional...for in the past mankind has not done well when saddling itself with governments....

I note one proposal to make this congress a two house body.  Excellent--the more impediments to legislation the better.  But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws.  let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority....while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third majority.  Preposterous?  Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law?  And if a law is disliked by as many as one third is it not likely that you would be better off without it?

But in writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtues of the negative!  Accentuate the negative!  Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do.  No conscript interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or involuntary taxation.  Comrades, if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your government should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome." (page 301 - 302)

A large part of the story deals with the rights of the individual and does have a big libertarian slant, despite the professors attempts at anarchism and it's interesting to note that other readers believe the book reflects Heinlein's Libertarian beliefs.  According to David Boaz who wrote Libertarianism: A Primer

Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person's right to life, liberty, and property--rights that people have naturally, before governments are created. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force--actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud.

Readers have had a hard time separating the author from the story.   In actually, he was very private about his political and religious beliefs.  According to the Heinlein society:

"People with particular slants seem to latch onto one work or another that suits their opinions or biases and take it as being representative of all of Heinlein. "Starship Troopers" is regarded by some 'fascist' (particularly after the hideous distortion presented in the movie version), it isn't . "Stranger in a Strange Land" became a banner book for liberals--yet it was written at the same time as "Starship Troopers" so couple the contradictions together on that account. Libertarians adore "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" with the anarchistic type of society that works so well, yet Heinlein came along with "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" and smashed that same perfect setup to bits, showing the potential unpleasant outcome. For every political or social stance you care to choose to assign to Heinlein you can probably find something in his writing to support that opinion... and something else to contradict it"

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of stories about politics and wasn't too particularly thrilled with the story as the majority of the book is taken up with discussing politics and setting up the new government.  It was rather dry at times and the narrator's voice takes some getting used since he spoke with a dialect closely resembling Russian eliminating articles and some pronouns.  However, it is well written and does provides many diverse viewpoints for debate about the pursuit of liberty.


  1. Ah, I should reread it. I've read it so long ago, that I don't remember anything anymore.

  2. I know what you mean. Some of the books on the list I read eons ago but can't remember which. The authors are more familiar than their works when it's been 20 years or more.

  3. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is my favorite Heinlein book. I especially loved all the interplay between Manny, Mike, and Wyo. Everytime I reread Harsh Mistress, I tell myself I need to pay attention to the politics, because that is the point of the book. But I usually fail at that, because I'm too busy getting a kick out of the lunar family culture, Manny's dialect, and Mike's little stunts and oops's. and paying attention to the politics always brings out my libertarian streak. . .

  4. @little red I really liked Mike, too. He was quite a character. Liked how they managed to make him a major part of everything and still hide his identity. There are so many things going on in the book that it does deserve to be reread a few times to get all the nuances.

  5. I have read quite a bit of Heinlein and do have this one on my shelf but haven't read it yet. lately I've been concentrating on what are called his 'juvenile' series of books more than these later ones, although I've liked many of the later works that I have read.