The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert E. Heinlein

(This is a review I originally wrote about two and a half years ago – in light of recent discussions, it seemed appropriate to repost it.)

If you read any science fiction at all, sooner or later you will hear about Robert A. Heinlein. Boy, does he piss people off. Heinlein was sexist! Racist! Misogynist! Fascist! Militaristic! A misogynist fascist! And he committed the most heinous crime possible by 21st century American standards – he was mean to a dog.

Okay, I made that last bit up. But only just. Heinlein’s been dead for twenty years, but he still gets people riled up…and his books still occupy quite a lot of bookstore shelf space. Yet for all that, I’d never read anything of his. Deciding to rectify that, I picked up a copy of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and read it.

Moon is the story of the revolt of Luna, Earth’s first lunar colony, as narrated by computer mechanic and all-around handyman Manuel. Manuel’s got a secret; he knows that Luna’s central computer “Mike” has acquired sentience, and he’s struck up an unlikely friendship with the budding artificial intelligence. Manuel’s apolitical; he’s more interested in doing his job, taking care of his wives (because Luna has two to three men for everyone one woman, the custom of line marriage has evolved), and getting on with his life, but political events overtake him.*

Luna was founded as a penal colony; it’s hard to escape from the Moon, after all, and it’s evolved into a sort of plantation, shipping hydroponic-grown grain to Earth. This means impending disaster, however, because Earth returns nothing to the Moon, and sooner or later the Moon’s going to run out of water and mass starvation will result. Manuel falls in with Wyoming, a fiery female political agitator, the Prof, a cheerful old man with radical political ideas, and together with Mike’s godlike computational abilities they set out to make Luna an independent nation.

What follows is a fascinating tale of revolution and war. Heinlein was quite obviously a libertarian, which colors his writing, but to his credit he doesn’t flinch from the consequences of the revolution; lots of people die, things get wrecked, bad stuff happens. Despite the book’s political and economic themes, there’s major amounts of narrative tension; the reader knows that enormous quantities of stuff are going to hit the fan sooner or later, culminating in the near-apocalyptic Earth-Luna War.

I’ve noticed that the works of older writers tend to have a vitality, perhaps, that is missing in modern writing. Or older writers simply write with far greater candor about politics, society, gender relations, and economics than you see with many modern writers. People have such a moribund fear of “giving offense” or getting hit with the various “-ist” names (sexist, racist, elitist, etc.) that many books today seem to have a sort of vague semi-liberal orthodoxy as their unquestioned foundation, and people who do express unvarnished opinions tend to be obnoxious jerks (numerous political bloggers, for instance). Heinlein was neither.

On the other hand, maybe we only remember certain older writers like Heinlein (or Howard, or Doyle, and so on) because they were the ones who wrote well. Whatever the case, I enjoyed Moon, and will definitely be reading more from Heinlein in the future.

-JM

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