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The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress Paperback – June 15, 1997
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Tom Clancy has said of Robert A. Heinlein, "We proceed down the path marked by his ideas. He shows us where the future is." Nowhere is this more true than in Heinlein's gripping tale of revolution on the moon in 2076, where "Loonies" are kept poor and oppressed by an Earth-based Authority that turns huge profits at their expense. A small band of dissidents, including a one-armed computer jock, a radical young woman, a past-his-prime academic and a nearly omnipotent computer named Mike, ignite the fires of revolution despite the near certainty of failure and death. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“We proceed down a path marked by his ideas.” ―Tom Clancy
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Say what you will about the libertarian politics of this novel (which are overt), or say what you will of its failure to predict cell phones or other sorts of technology we have now. It is still a literary gem (of the second order, I'll have to say -- it isn't King Lear or Paradise Lost, of course, but what is?).
It begins with the voice of the narrator, Manny, through whom Heinlein channels the narrative. The voice is convincing as a reluctant revolutionary who hails from a multicultural background. Add to that the voice and character of Mike; clearly in the late 1960s Heinlein had anticipated (among so many other things) the power of computers to process huge amounts of data quickly, to communicate to each other, and to take control of our lives in disturbing ways.
Add to that the quirky character of the Professor, Wyoming, and the various members of Manny's curious family, and you have the kind of splendid collection of idiosyncratic souls that make for a great story. My students (and I) found ourselves convinced by and drawn into this fascinating world.
And that's the brilliance of Heinlein, isn't it? Sure, I love the way he imagines life on the moon and future economic and political organization on earth and all that, but lots of sci-fi authors do that. Reading his work, especially this one, I'm reminded that really fine sci-fi isn't all about the technology or the math or the clever gizmos folks have. It's still about people, and Heinlein makes us care about and cheer for and fear for his people.
I'm not sure which critic it was -- perhaps Northrup Frye? -- who argued that the power of science fiction is that it made us think of humans here and now by making us imagine how human nature, as we understand it, would adapt to radically new conditions.
In this novel, Heinlein, I think, hit that nail pretty squarely on the head.
It is a tale of revolution, of the rebellion of a former penal colony on the Moon against its masters on the Earth. It is a tale of a culture whose family structures are based on the presence of two men for every woman, leading to novel forms of marriage and family. It is the story of the disparate people--a computer technician, a vigorous young female agitator, and an elderly academic--who become the movement's leaders, and of Mike, the supercomputer whose sentience is known only to the revolt's inner circle, who for reasons of his own is committed to the revolution's ultimate success.
One thing I noticed right away was the way the Loonies use language differently than people from earth do. In fact, it threw me at first -- I couldn't figure out what was going on or why the language was so rough and unpolished and choppy. Eventually, though, I found the rhythm of it and settled in just fine -- I didn't even notice it after a while. It makes sense; Luna started off as a penal colony and has since developed completely seperate from Earth and relatively unmolested. Of course they would have their own dialect and speech patterns! To my mind, their language seems to be as efficent as possible. They trimmed away any unnecessary deadwood -- they don't use articles, for example, and very few personal pronouns, and they seem to prefer to use fragments to complete sentences. Only the essentials remain, much the same as the original colonists/prisoners had to start their lives over with only the bare essentials and sometimes not even that.
This book was written about forty years ago, and it has stood the test of time quite well, but there are some aspects of it that do seem rather dated. For example, the idea behind the character of Mike -- the computer that is connected to everything and has "woken up" or become alive -- is one that is very familiar to modern readers, one that we accept easily. Apparently, we accept it much more easily than Heinlen expected his readers in 1965 to accept it, because he spends more time explaining it than he really needs to. When Mannie, the narrator, tells Wyoh about Mike and introduces them via a telephone conversation, she is shocked that Mike already knows what she looks like. He looked up her medical records and found a picture of her immediately after being introduced to her. To modern readers familiar with the internet, this is an obvious step and hardly shocking; we expect it, and Wyoh's shock and apparent need to have every detail and implication of Mike's "life" spelled out for her makes her seem a little bit stupid to us. If we don't remember that Heinlen is using Wyoh to explain things to his 1965 audience that his 2005 audience intuitively understands, then we'll get a little frustrated with Wyoh's denseness.
All in all, this is a novel about politics -- a very complex, deep, intellectual and sophisticated look at politics, government, revolution and war. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has a very definite world-view and political philosophy, some of which I agreed with, and some of which I really, really didn't. My agreement (or lack thereof) with the politics espoused in this book didn't seem to have much bearing on my enjoyment of it. This is a book that requires the reader to think. And that, I think, is why I loved it so much.
I'm also finding the book to be a good primer on insurgency and revolution. I had no recall from reading it in the 60's and 70's that "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" could possibly be meaningful to the 21st Century in so many ways. I wonder if it's required reading for today's insurgents. If the TEA Party can read it, the space program might get a boost.
The plot is dated as is the writing. Heinlein never was as good a writer as a visionary. The book gets very dull in the middle but the world Heinlein created in this book is worth examining for its lessons for today.