The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

Berkley, 1996 reprint of 1968 original, mmpb, ISBN 042503013X

So here it is; the fourth entry in my Heinlein Re-Read Project, in which I re-read his four Hugo-winning novels, roughly twenty years after first doing so.

I was really looking forward to revisiting 1966’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, largely because I remembered it so fondly.  One of SF’s classic novels, it’s a tale of lunar revolution against an oppressive Earth, augmented by then-top-notch ideas about space warfare, artificial intelligences, unusual social constructs and libertarian ideals.  It was so influential on me when I read it in the mid-nineties that I still have, somewhere in my files, an unpublished novel that takes heavy inspiration from it (along with a generous dose of Babylon 5).  As recently as a few years ago, I reiterated (in my Alternate Hugos list) that it was the best SF novel of 1966, describing it as “One of the great kick-ass hard-SF novels of all time, augmented by the usual playful Heinlein prose.”

Twenty years later… well, I have to own up to the fact that I once wrote those words.

The big difference between now and then, as far as I’m concerned as a reader, is that I have had nearly all libertarian sympathies evacuated out of me by the real-world demonstration that libertarianism is an idiotic ideology, fit for fiction and the daydreams of those deluded that they (of course) would be the masters of a purely libertarian society.  (Meanwhile, in the real world, citizens of libertarian societies such as Somalia don’t read much SF.)  I’m also far more inclined to question the assumptions behind didactic fiction, and not quite so impressed by a mass of plausible-sounding exposition thinly disguised as lecturing narration.

So, knowing all of this, how does The Moon is a Harsh Mistress measure up for the contemporary reader?

Not as well as it once did.

Oh, I’m willing to concede that it’s still a historically important novel, one that deserved the amount of attention that it got at the time.  Published in 1966, three years before Americans even landed on the Moon, it makes not-entirely-dumb extrapolations about the colonization of the Moon, the development of artificial intelligences, possible warfare scenarios between the Moon and Earth and the development of matriarchal polygamous “line marriages” in a place where men outnumber women 2 to 1.  It’s told vividly thanks to Heinlein’s renowned knack for readable prose (even though he handicaps himself by removing articles from the narration, giving it an interesting Russian-accented flavor) and his unequalled ability to make straight-up exposition and lecturing somehow enjoyable.  Much of the first third of the novel feels like a revolution procedural, complete with ideas on how to organize effectively.

Unfortunately, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress may be a bit too smart for its own good, especially when seen from a modern perspective.  For once thing, procedurals are only as effective as our belief in their accuracy.  By now, it’s obvious how much of Heinlein’s fiction was informed by his own dogmatic beliefs; we can see him palming the cards, stacking the deck and shutting down objections by claims of authority.  It’s also unfortunate that the novel was so influential in that reacting to it now also includes reacting to its imitators: there have been countless attempts to re-tell lunar revolutions since then, making the novel a major libertarian classic –it’s a bit too easy to (unfairly) argue against libertarianism by arguing against the novel.

Nonetheless, let’s take a look at the deck-stacking.  Heinlein takes great care to portray his protagonists as unfairly oppressed by an evil colonialist Earth government.  Hearkening back to Australian history, he posits a Moon mostly colonized by prisoners, forced to cultivate grain as a main export.  Neither of those assumptions seem like a viable economic model, especially the idea of having grain (cheap to produce, more useful in bulk) as a main export rather than more profitable products best manufactured in vacuum microgravity –try selling that business plan to would-be moon colonisers and you’ll be laughed out of the room these days.  The Terran influence on the three million lunar colonists (after more than seventy-five years of colonization!) is a curious blend of uninterested custodianship, with no self-government, an implausible lack of communications between Earth and the Moon, and an exploitative economic model that makes practically no sense.  Heinlein somehow portrays this as the vicious impact of government over a libertarian society… which then revolts to become even more libertarian, although not in a social sense but only in an economic sense… wait, what, does this novel even make sense anymore?  At times, I could swear that Heinlein was using TANSTAAFL as a libertarian argument about as effectively as some teenagers shout YOLO.

So, from a modern perspective, the very foundations of the novel have credibility issues, and that’s not even beginning to climb up the ladder to the novel’s other particularities.  In one of the great plot cheats even attempted, Heinlein tries to make us believe that revolution is going to be a risky thing for the colonists… excepts that he gives them the full powers of an Artificial Intelligence that is in charge of just about anything worth anything on the moon, from shipments to communications to personnel databases.  When much of the plotting for the revolution seems to come up on a whim in-between three people and their all-powerful pet AI, we’re somehow expected to doubt that the revolution’s going to fail once they control the information network.

So: As much as I’d like to remember The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as “one of the great kick-ass hard-SF novels of all time”, a re-read with a few more years’ hindsight reveals a far more flawed novel than I remembered.  The exposition is more blustering than sensible, the final act a bit more sadistic than warranted, the events obviously manipulated according to the author’s intention to re-create a valorous American Revolution in Spaaace!  The absence of anything looking like an Internet (or, heck, anything like a free press and basic communications between the Moon and the Earth) makes the novel an irremediable historical curiosity, as the past fifty years have taken us in directions far stranger than anything Heinlein set down in his novel. To a contemporary reader, the details of the AI running things are about as quaintly charming as a description of the Arpanet’s early days – punch-cards almost included.

Still, I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t compare it to the novel of its time.  Heinlein’s “strong female characters” are more informed by his lechery than actual belief in equality of agency (I’m skipping over a number of somewhat icky passages regarding the age and consent of some of the characters…), his portrayal of information technology is a creature of the mainframe world, his willful ignorance of communication networks is required for the novel to work as such, and his didactic tendencies are only a few novel away from spilling out in full cranky solipsism, but The Moon is a Harsh Mistress still holds up better than its contemporaries by a significant margin.  It has scope, daring self-imposed handicaps, an accumulation of technical details and a perspective that at least tries to acknowledge an entire world. This does not ensure that it’s a novel fit to hand to any circa-2014 readers, but it does means that it will remain a historically important SF landmark.

Still, I emerge from this re-read considerably less enthusiastic about this novel than I did beforehand.  Some of the ideas still hold their own, but most of the others have become historical curios.  The political intent of the novel is intrusive enough to alter the plot in ways that just seem dumb to anyone who doesn’t agree.  And for a novel that left such a good impression years later, I was a bit surprised to find out that it leaves much to be desired as sheer story: Much of the first two-third is exposition upon exposition about an internal revolt whose outcome is practically assured by the aces in the rebels’ pockets, while the rest is told in a surprisingly unengaged fashion.  That few imitators have managed to be as good as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is no assurance that a sufficiently-talented author could improve upon it.  But, please, let’s leave the libertarianism out of it, or at least explore it in a way that doesn’t make any politically-savvy reader want to bang their heads against the nearest wall.

* * *

This may as well be the best place to draw a few hasty conclusions about my four-book twentieth-reading-anniversary tour of Heinlein’s Hugo-Winning novels.

I started out with the best of intentions.  Mocking Heinlein has become a bit of an easy target in today’s online fandom, as older readers tssk-tssk younger ones for not knowing Heinlein, and younger ones aw-c’mon their elders by demonstrating that RAH doesn’t hold up as well as memories suggest.  My self-taught SF education was directly inspired by the old-school, and I have read enough disingenuous cheap-shot condemnations of classic SF novels to last me for a while.  I started the re-read project after making my way through a Heinlein biography, and was partially motivated to do so out of yearning for the same flash of excitement that accompanied most of my early Heinlein experiences.

Alas, one never steps into the same river twice, and so my reading today is equally informed by the criticism that have been aimed at Heinlein than by the books themselves.  Even being sympathetic to the idea of Heinlein’s novel as historically-important references, inside and outside the SF genre, wasn’t enough to make me ignore the growing issues in considering those books today.  Yes, Heinlein wrote better female characters than most other SF writers of the time.  Today, that’s nowhere near an excuse for how they read on the page.  Sure, Heinlein’s grasp of politics resulted in unusually complex ideas on the nature of self-determination and power.  But today’s models are a bit more complex, and the current perception of Heinlein has to belabour against the imitators and fans that have dumbed down many of his more nuanced ideas.  (Not that Heinlein, at times, was immune to the exasperating tendency of claiming that there were simple solutions to every complex problems –as long as they were his!)  No one is going to take away Heinlein’s importance in the development of the genre’s history, but it’s probably time to acknowledge (putting it bluntly) that he is dead, that his influence is waning and that soon enough, he will be read for historical purposes far more than straight-up entertainment.  (As it happens to nearly all authors.  That we’re still talking about Heinlein 25+ years after his death is a pretty good achievement in itself.)

As for the four novels themselves, I note that my initial ranking of them would have been something along the lines of Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Double Star and (significantly lower) Stranger in a Strange Land.  (If you want to rank these novels by cultural influence, absent any personal preference, then the order still remains Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and (significantly lower) Double Star.)  After a re-read, the only change in my order of preference would probably to put Double Star first (surprisingly enough), with the other three novels in the same order.  Double Star has aged pretty well, largely because it’s an interesting story well-told (the other books aren’t as strong in terms of story, and suffer from a lot of excess lecturing) and its universe is now so far away from accepted reality that it’s now charmingly quaint and reflective of the SF of the time.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is probably the book that has suffered the most from a re-read: Like Starship Troopers, I find it more fun to argue against, but while Starship Troopers still had some wit and plausible deniability about its most outlandish statements of opinion-as-fact, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress seems crankier, embittered and easier to dismiss.

It would be dishonest for me not to acknowledge, despite my misgivings about Heinlein’s novel as read today, that I do admire this quartet of novel, as much for their influence than for their willingness to stake out ideological positions that initially seem so starkly at odd with each other.  That the same man would be able to write novels that would be so respected by groups so different (hippies, soldiers, libertarians, with a side-order of parliamentary monarchy for Double Star) is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  Nothing like it will ever be achieved again.

I may, for fun, try re-reading those four novels again in twenty years.  Perhaps I’ll arrive at a more nuanced opinion then, perhaps I’ll be even more dismissive of their failings than I was in 2014.  Perhaps social conventions will evolve closer or farther away from those novels.  I don’t know. That’s what makes the prospect of re-visiting them again so exciting.

2 thoughts on “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein”

  1. I think a re-watch or re-read will almost invariably lead to a different perspective on the story. Once we understand the trick we start looking for where the magician misdirected our attention the first time around instead of simply enjoying the experience. Still, I found your insights into the book’s shortcomings interesting but as someone who hasn’t read it yet I wasn’t in encouraged to pick it up any time soon. Just my thoughts.

    1. For someone who almost never re-read books, I have spent a surprising fraction of my reading time last year tackling old favorites and I now find re-reading fascinating for what it tells us about ourselves.

      As for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I think that its interest (like all of Heinlein’s books) is getting more historical than absolute –anyone interested in the history of Science Fiction should definitely read it, but anyone else can probably spend their time reading more current examples of the genre.

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