There may be no more divisive writer in science fiction than Robert Heinlein. Love or hate the majority of opinion I encounter online, his works are revered by some and castigated by others. I had read Stranger in a Strange Land, and while finding myself on the detractors’ side of the fence, was not put off reading the author. More in style than content, I held hope that perhaps the satirical ranting could be channeled differently to better effect. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress the next novel of the author’s I picked up, I’m glad I held out. A near masterpiece, the book is an inventive work of subversive science fiction that is focused, linguistically playful, influential, and, bottom line, well worth the read.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is the story of Mannie, a computer technician living in the lunar colony. The year 2075, the colony is only marginally free after operating for years as a penal institution for Earth’s criminals. Their underground farms providing food for the teeming billions on Earth, to say the Authority takes advantage of the moon’s population for cheap labor is an understatement. Taxed to death while their depleting resources are literally catapulted Earthside, the future looks grim for citizens of Luna. The computer system which governs and manages the infrastructure, economy, and production—everything—on Luna coming to life one day, Mannie is in the right place at the right time for the awakening. Making friends with the child-like AI (who he names Mike), Mannie, along with a couple of friends, embark on a revolution to shake the Authority to its knees and gain Luna’s freedom in the process.
Where Stranger in a Strange Land was loose and dynamic, at times straying from the ideas at hand, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a more focused effort. Heinlein routes his creative largesse into a cohesive story that does not digress into satirical tirades. Most often letting the characters and story speak for themselves, the book—and reader—wholly benefit. The wordsmithing is more often than not brilliant. Employing a Slavic version of English, the lack of articles, personal pronouns, and other signifiers takes a moment to get used to, but after a few pages fits the setting and characters. Not beautiful, it is rather the clever manner in which this language is toyed with and meaning altered or subverted—a delicious sub-text (literally) to an already subversive storyline—that make the text unique.
And a mouth-watering social setup it is. Heinlein slowly revealing the lunar colony all the way through to the conclusion, readers get a feel for what life on the globe orbiting our own might be like. Created is a wholly imaginative yet mostly realistic society; from the afore-mentioned language (which is an agglomeration and evolution of the ethnicities and cultures who find themselves living together in the underground caverns and cells) to the sense of independence each of the blue collar inhabitants possess, the line marriages which account for the 3:1 male to female ratio, to the anarchic values each person is willing to protect with their lives. Proudly calling themselves loonies, societal existence is more plausible (read: ragtag) than Clarke or Asimov’s visions of life in a lunar colony.
Given that “rational anarchy”, libertarianism, and anti-capitalism are openly discussed, many believe The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has an agenda. I would disagree (despite such delicious quotes as “I like Greg. I love Greg. And admire him. But you could never feed theology of his church through computer and get anything but null.”). There are too many events and indirect statements dulling the shine of anarcho-libertarianism for it to be a manifesto. That story structure is identical to the American Revolution only supports this. More a thought experiment, the novel reads like a sci-fi realization of humanity’s innate desire to rebel against oppression, politics and technology draped over the premise. Humanity as humanity is the only impetus the story needs to move forward from there.
In the end, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a classic of huge proportions. It features a strong plot that once it picks up steam doesn’t slow down for anything; interesting, relevant, and at times laugh-out-loud inventive experimentation with language; characters that fit the story being told; and, perhaps most importantly, a depth of perception into socio-political realities that few writers are able to express with such ease. Undoubtedly an influence on numerous later writers, the novel appears to be one of those must-reads in the genre. I will definitely pick up more of Heinlein.…I’m still smiling and shaking my head in appreciation of “much skull-sweat” and “make-work guy”…