Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

"It may not be possible to do away with government--sometimes I think government is an inescapable disease of human beings.  But it may be possible to keep it small and starved and inoffensive...."

Whenever I find myself at the West Des Moines Library I check out the book sale. Earlier this month I found they had a Berkley 1983 paperback copy of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, one of Heinlein's most famous novels.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of those books I feel like I see on the shelf of every library I wander into, so it wasn't really necessary to buy it, but it cost me less than 10% of the cover price and I was charmed by the embossed stamp on the first page, informing me that this volume was once part of the Library of Bruce A. Wedeking.  You may recall I was fascinated by a similar stamp in a copy of Gallery of Horror.  When I buy and read these books I feel like I am part of a SF tradition and community (without the hassle of actually meeting or talking to people in the flesh.)

Last week, as I bragged on Twitter, I scored a pile of Heinlein paperbacks at the local Goodwill.  This windfall, and the subsequent discussion with other SF fans on Twitter, brought Heinlein back to the forefront of my mind.  I thought, before reading any of those Goodwill paperbacks, I'd reread The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I read 25 or so years ago, in my early teens.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was serialized over five issues of Worlds of If in 1965 and '66.  You can check out fifteen interior illustrations for the novel by Gray Morrow at Heinlein scholar Rafeeq O. McGiveron's website.

In his long career Heinlein wrote quite a bit about revolutions and wars of independence, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is about the three million inhabitants of the moon, most of them transported convicts or the descendants of such convicts, achieving independence from Earth in 2076.  The 300 page novel is split into three sections; the first section, over half the book's length, is about overthrowing the government on Luna, which is known as "the Authority," and is led by "the Warden," an appointee of the late 21st century version of the UN.  The second section covers diplomacy between Luna and the nations of Earth, while the third describes the war between Luna and Earth.

All three sections are narrated by Manuel O'Kelly, a freelance technician who, many years later, is recounting his pivotal role in the revolution (and correcting the history books, which he claims have many things wrong.)  Among his jobs is repairing the super computer that handles all the infrastructure on the moon.  One day he discovers that this machine has somehow gained consciousness and a personality.  Manuel becomes best friends with the computer, christened Mike, and when Manuel gets recruited into a revolutionary conspiracy by sexy redhead Wyoming Knott and genius philosopher Professor Bernardo de la Paz, it is the fact that Mike runs all communications, transportation and media to, from and on Luna that makes the revolution possible.  These four individuals manage the entire revolution. 

Gray Morrow's conception of Manuel O'Kelly
In some ways The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an archetypal "speculative fiction" novel.  Heinlein does lots of speculating about future technology.  Manuel has a versatile prosthetic arm with a wide array of tools and attachments, Mike the supercomputer produces computer-generated audio and video of fictional people which is indistinguishable from audio and video of real people, and there is lots of talk about gravity wells and the technical issues of transporting things and people between the Earth and the moon.  Scientists and engineers are glorified and romanticized in the way we so often see in older SF literature.

But Heinlein is probably more interested in social speculation: what kind of society might arise on the moon with its population of rebels and criminals whose sex ratio is two men for every woman, a population which is completely divorced from the Earth because the low lunar gravity renders people who stay on the moon more than a few months unfit to live on Earth?

The society that Heinlein comes up with could perhaps be described as an anarchist utopia.  There is little or no violent crime, little or no racism, no taxes and practically no government, even before the 2076 coup-- the Warden commanded an armed force of less than 100 members.  The gender imbalance is resolved by alternative family structures; most people are in group marriages of one kind or another.  These large families are also presented by Heinlein as a more efficient and less coercive means of providing the social needs that 20th century welfare states attempt to provide via taxation, bureaucracy, redistribution and regulation.  Similarly, police and court functions are dealt with through private and voluntary institutions.  There is also a Darwinian factor which helps this anarchic society work: life on the moon is dangerous, and people who are incompetent and anti-social, the kind of people likely to end up on the dole if they were on Earth, are killed when they fail to seal their vacuum suits correctly or commit some other fatal blunder.

It might also be important to note that many of the "criminals" who populate Luna are not thieves or murderers, but political undesirables exiled by the despotic governments of Earth, like the Soviet Union and China, which by 2076 has conquered much of the Pacific Rim, including Australia and New Zealand. 

An interesting twist to Heinlein's utopia, if we choose to describe the book as one, is that it is doomed.  The first lines of the novel indicate that, by the time Manuel pens these memoirs, all that anarchism business has gone by the wayside, and the successor governments to the revolutionary Party have started taxing and regulating everything just like on Earth.  The novel could as easily be seen as a tragedy about human fallibility.

Heinlein is a good writer with a smooth and easy style, and all the philosophical stuff and science stuff is interesting.  So the book is readable and doesn't feel long.  What The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is missing for much of its length is human drama and excitement.  Manuel and Wyoming are not particularly interesting characters.  The Prof is another of Heinlein's mentor characters who has vast knowledge and wisdom.  Mike the computer is interesting, but there are long stretches when he is not around.  The revolution goes according to plan, with few bumps in the road or surprises for the rebels or the reader.  This is not an adventure story with ups and downs, suspense, and a cathartic victory at the end; instead it moves forward with a sense of inevitability, like a history book about a conflict whose course and outcome you are already familiar with. 

One of Heinlein's interesting choices in constructing the book is that he doesn't give us a heinous villain; Manuel even admits that the Warden "was not a bad egg, nothing to hate about him other than fact he was symbol of Authority...."  (As the prof explains, the real reason a change in government is imperative is that the moon is being depleted of natural resources--Luna grows grain that is shipped to Earth by economical catapult, but because it is so expensive to launch anything out of Earth's gravity no fertilizer or water is sent to the moon from Terra to replenish Luna's resources--and lunar society will collapse in seven years.  This reminded me of leftist critiques of Western trade with Third World nations, the idea that the metropole just strips the periphery of its natural resources.)  Because the lunar government is not particularly oppressive, the vast majority of the lunar populace is not particularly keen to overthrow it, and our protagonists, the vanguard of the revolution, have to work hard to inspire revolutionary fervor among the masses.  Their efforts include blatant lies about Authority policy, and egging the Warden's men on into creating a "Boston Massacre" moment.  Lies, PR stunts, and antagonizing the Earthers into committing some sort of atrocity are also essential parts of their diplomacy with Terra.

Portraying the revolution as based on trickery and manipulation by a small elite Party that is no more democratic or transparent than the government it is deposing may be realistic, but doesn't necessarily make for a rousing drama.  When the Warden met his bleak fate I sort of felt bad for him.

In the last fifty pages of the book things heat up a little bit.  We get fewer debates and lectures and some tension and danger as Earth's warships drop bombs and land assault troops on the moon, and the rebels bombard Earth using their catapults.  We also get some pathos as the Prof dies and Mike reverts back to being a lifeless machine.  

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress fits comfortably in Heinlein's body of work.  Hazel from The Rolling Stones, a grandmother in that book, appears as a teen in this one, and one of the interesting philosophical aspects of Podkayne of Mars, the assertion that nothing that is immoral for an individual to do is moral for a group to do, gets an airing.  Even though this is a book about resisting authority, Heinlein's common theme that one must obey one's captain is also present: the Prof manipulates meetings of the moon's brandy new legislature so that votes are only cast after he has guaranteed an outcome he likes, and the matriarch of Manuel's group marriage treats family meetings the same way.

I enjoyed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress more than I expected to.  In college (some years after I had read the novel) I read Alexei Panshin's criticism of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in his book Heinlein in Dimension (you can read the book, and lots of other interesting SF criticism, online at his website), and this had a major impact on my mind.  (Perhaps like Marcel in his attitude about La Berma, I am a little too easily swayed by tastemakers like Panshin.)  After rereading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I still share some of Panshin's complaints, but others seem off base--is it possible that Panshin's criticisms apply to the original serialized version in Worlds of If  and not the version later published in book form? 

It has its weaknesses, but I certainly recommend The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and it is obviously essential for Heinlein fans and libertarian types.

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