Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a sprawling novel about a lunar colony’s revolt from Earth’s domination. Check out the vintage cover on the right. It is pretty awesome, and I thought that this novel was pretty great as well. The novel has a huge scope touching on everything from political structures, space warfare, global politics, to environmental and social politics on the Moon. This is a massive novel in many ways with a fully realized world. Heinlein has thought through this world along with creating his own unique Lunar slang that is at first somewhat obnoxious to read, but begins to fit quite well by 50 pages in. The book was published in 1966, 3 years before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, yet Heinlein creates a believable and engaging lunar world – the lower gravity levels on the Moon mean that when some of the Loonies, as they are called, travel to Earth, they struggle against its much higher gravity levels while on the Moon people tend to live much longer because their bodies do not have to work as hard.
The Moon had become a modern day Australia with all of the convicts, unwanteds, and political dissidents being sent to the Moon to work off their sentences. Of course, there is no easy way to get back to Earth and Heinlein theorizes that after a certain amount of time on the Moon’s lower gravity, the body goes through irreversible physiological changes that means a return to Earth would be extremely painful. So, the Moon becomes a place of permanent exile. The Loonies themselves are incredibly resourceful and live in a kind of frontier world nominally controlled by the Lunar Authority (a kind of colonial authority). The novel also has interesting gender dynamics given that there are so few women on the moon, families are matrilineal and women, more or less, have the final say in the general culture. If a man raped a woman, he would be killed by all the other men without trial or second thought. There are a number of different family structures at work, different forms of polygamy essentially, that make the Moon a kind of eccentric backwater of revolutionary ideas.
One critic, Adam Roberts, talks about how it is easy to get sucked into debating the politics of this novel, and I wholeheartedly agree. The Lunar revolution is a quasi-Marxist revolution mixed with a post-colonial rebellion. The narrator, Mannie, is a computer technician who forms a key part of the revolution ring-leaders along with Prof, an exiled political rebel from Earth, and Wyoming, a Marxist from Hong Kong Luna. Prof espouses a form of rational anarchism that permeates the novel’s political language yet does not overtake the action.
Oh, and did I mention that there is a self-aware computer named Mike? Well there is and Heinlein simply justifies it by arguing that at a certain point Mike simply reaches a critical mass of networks, circuits, and processors. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (possibly my favorite science-fiction novel) was published 2 years later, so both these books present interesting takes on artificial intelligence. In this novel, Mike’s capacities are nearly limitless and he becomes a crucial part in the Lunar revolt. Yet, he is oddly human as well and one of the more interesting subplots in the novel is his maturation and growth from a kind of infant-like state to a mature adult (if I can anthropomorphize him like that).
Heinlein’s novel is incredible and well worth pushing through some of the slower parts in the beginning. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good sci-fi read.
Heinlein, Robert A. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966. Print.