The Summer of Robert A. Heinlein: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
On the heels of last summer's exploration of some of Arthur C. Clarke's greatest hits, this summer we're moving on to another of the Big Three: Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein is probably the most challenging of the three, with his brand of science-fiction unafraid to get political, satirical, and offensive. Though he studies and respects the underlying science, he is not as concerned with the details the way Clarke is, nor does he often deal with the high-flung future fantasy of Asimov. His brand of science-fiction is grittier, focused more on hard-boiled characters, wicked dialogue, and provocation. He deserves his reputation as one of science-fiction's most talented literary figures, with a bibliography that includes some of the most influential novels of the Twentieth Century (sci-fi or otherwise), and though I couldn't possibly cover all of his great writings in a single summer, I do hope to cover some of the highlights of his career, from his juvenile pulp fiction early works to the somber political meditations of his later years. I intend to reveal over the course of the season exactly what it is that makes Heinlein required reading for anybody interested in science-fiction's golden age.
With Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land under his belt, Heinlein was quite familiar with controversy. In his later years, which we'll talk about a bit next week, he would get more abstract and obtuse, stretching his sociological philosophizing to insane degrees. Before that, however, he hit what I consider to be the sweet spot with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, easily my favorite of all the books I've covered this summer.
Heinlein takes a simple enough premise--a revolution on a futuristic colony on the moon as it struggles to be free--and expands upon it in detail. However, instead of giving us a zealot protagonist like Johnny Rico or an enigmatic prosthelytizing Wild Man like Michael Valentine Smith, he shows it all through the eyes of a relatively apolitical man swept up in a series of events. Manuel "Manny" O'Kelly is a farmer and engineer who we first meet as he gets to know the moon's massive and apparently self-aware supercomputer, affectionately known as Mike. Mike's curiosity knows no bounds, and while teaching the nascient consciousness the nature of humor, Manny is sent to spy on an unusual gathering, where the seeds of revolution are already being sown.
After a confrontation with the Authority, Manny conspires with a fierce woman named Wyoming and an elderly mentor they call Prof. Manny lets them in on the secret of Mike's consciousness, and the trio quiz the computer about the economic realities of life on the moon--which are dire if the political situation remains unchanged--and the odds of a successful revolution, which are low, but not too low. They then set out to overthrow the Authority, which Mike treats as a clever game, and it isn't long before tensions escalate and war threatens to break out between the nations of Earth and the band of rebellious upstarts on her distant satellite.
Heinlein takes the logistics of this revolution seriously, cribbing notes from various historical analogues but especially the American War for Independence. Still, he doesn't skimp on the sci-fi aspects of the story, imagining how and why a lunar colony would even be created and what kind of people would inevitably come to inhabit it. He doesn't get into the weeds of technology the way a hard sci-fi writer would, but he does acknowledge and use to his advantage the technical realities of life on the Moon. For example, and without spoiling too much, the story's climax relies on a fairly arcane understanding of orbital mechanics, though Heinlein thankfully doesn't dwell on them as much as he probably could. There's also the thread of the A.I. character throughout that makes it just that much more speculative and fun.
The point is, Heinlein clearly does his homework. This is more than just a simple thought experiment; it's a well-reasoned bit of futurism that comes across as startlingly plausible, at least for the time in which it was written. It still leans very heavily on libertarian politics, but by making the protagonist less emphatically political than the other main characters, it's more low-key than is typical for Heinlein at this point in his career. In other words, the politics are only turned up to eleven instead of thirteen.
It is all couched in a dramatically alien society and culture that has developed on the moon, or Luna as they call it. With men outnumbering women 2-to-1, there is a very different set of sexual dynamics at play, with women holding far more power and sway than they would in more typical Western nations. Marriage is also a more informal contract, with plural marriages--some growing to enormous proportions more akin to clans than families--dominating the scene. With the bulk of the population having started out as convicts or ex-convicts, the "law" that exists on Luna is an unwritten one that has found a comfortable balance between cruel social darwinism and chivalrous egalitarianism. Life is also much more difficult on Luna--with its surface radiation, low gravity, scarce resources, and hard labor--and so the people who populate the little world are a stubborn, gruff, and strong--albeit provincial--bunch.
This is probably my favorite cover
Manny is not an inactive participant in events--indeed, in the climax, he becomes the most critical character--but he also isn't a revolutionary by choice. He is pulled into it, swayed by the realities of the situation and the inherent pride he feels in being a "Lunatic." (Incidentally, calling the local news outlet on the moon The Lunatic is one of the most ingenious things ever.) In this way, he feels a lot like one of the American founding fathers: a simple farmer who fights, not because he wants to, but because the tyranny over his land is too great to bear. The character of Prof takes the place of the more political revolutionaries, especially Benjamin Franklin, and with the help of Wyoming, who is more of a Sam Adams, the trio represent the heart, soul, and mind of revolution.
Whereas Heinlein can easily get hung up on mind-numbing details, here it all feels familiar, at least to anyone who knows a little bit of history. And, more importantly, it's exciting. When Manny and Prof go to Earth to negotiate peace and entice various nations with the promise and potential of free trade with Luna, it never feels bureaucratic or bogged down. Instead, meetings with the Authority are intense, punctuated by the fact that the heroes are infirmed by a gravity their bodies are unable to cope with, and the surreptitious, unofficial meetings with Heads of State to discuss the logistics of trade between the two worlds is far more fascinating than it sounds. And when war finally breaks out during the climax, Heinlein delivers an amazing finish.
It's hard to call any Hugo Award winning novel underrated, but when discussing Heinlein's library of work, all anybody ever seems to talk about are Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. That is, in this writer's humble opinion, an outrage. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a more mature work, a more compelling narrative, a more thrilling read, and possibly the best novel Heinlein ever wrote. If you can only read one of his books, this is the one you should pick up without hesitation.
-e. magill 8/8/2019
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: