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The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress Paperback – June 15, 1997
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“We proceed down a path marked by his ideas.” ―Tom Clancy
About the Author
Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) is widely acknowledged to have been the single most important and influential author of science fiction in the twentieth century. He won science fiction's Hugo Award for Best Novel four times, and in addition, three of his novels were given Retrospective Hugos fifty years after publication. He won Science Fiction Writers of America's first Grand Master Award for his lifetime achievement.
Born in Butler, Missouri, Heinlein graduated from the United States Naval Academy and served as an officer in the navy for five years. He started writing to help pay off his mortgage, and his first story was published in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine in 1939. In 1947, he published a story in The Saturday Evening Post, making him the first science-fiction writer to break into the mainstream market. Long involved in politics, Heinlein was deeply affected by events such as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Cold War, and his fiction tended to convey strong social and political messages. His many influential novels include Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Time Enough for Love. At the time of his death in 1988, he was living in Carmel, California with his wife Virginia.
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The novel is set on the moon, which houses a penal colony as well as people who are more-or-less free. The Authority is the moon’s governing body, created as sort of a United Nations agency to administer the moon on behalf of the Earth. Farmers on the moon grow wheat in caves. The farmers (and most other inhabitants) consider themselves to be exploited by Earth, which doesn’t return fair value for the wheat that is catapulted into Earth orbit. Led by a fellow named Manuel and a computer named Mike, a group of revolutionaries plot to win their independence.
Manuel spends much of the novel expounding on his libertarian philosophy, which he calls rational anarchy. Libertarianism was one of Heinlein’s favorite themes … and it might actually be viable if everyone had the same sense of personal responsibility as Heinlein’s characters. A book review isn’t the place to debate the merits of Heinlein’s political thought, so I will only say that Heinlein’s philosophy plays a larger role in this novel than in many of his others. That will attract some readers and turn off others.
The novel also gives us a “how-to” manual in the art of revolution. Most of the steps would apply to any revolution, although this one is unique in that throwing containers of rocks at the Earth is the primary weapon. A character known as Prof has primary responsibility for planning the moon’s quest for freedom which, if not exactly bloodless, minimizes the consequences to Earth because killing people is not the way to win hearts and minds. Prof understands the art of propaganda and the strategies that must be followed to build support among the revolutionaries, to overthrow the local governance of the Authority, and to convince Earth’s nations that recognizing the Moon as an independent entity will be easier than trying to pacify a group of feisty rock-throwers.
The setup occupies about two-thirds of the novel. It also includes discussions of alternative family arrangements (line families that feature multiple wives and husbands) that would have been considered revolutionary in the 1950s. Fortunately, Heinlein was first-and-foremost a storyteller, so lessons in libertarianism and revolution and family structure are interspersed with character development and action scenes, leading to a final third that ratchets up the excitement. Readers who don’t care much for the story’s intellectual merits will enjoy the scenes that actually implement the revolution. Manuel and Prof are memorable characters who are easy to like. I would recommend Stranger in a Strange Land or I Will Fear No Evil or Starship Troopers to readers who are new to Heinlein, but there’s no doubt that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was an important addition to the Heinlein canon.
As the plot unfolds, Heinlein has an opportunity to play out not only his deep knowledge of science (much of which seems pretty basic by today's standards--hand programing a computer by typing lengthy commands?) but a semi-anarchist view of politics. He summarizes Loonie political philosophy as "There Is NO Such Thing As A Free Lunch." This means everyone has to work and pay for what they need (including air, which is in short supply on the moon), but also that everyone forms extended families who undertake care for the elderly.
Heinlein does a great job of moving the story forward, developing a couple of characters we care about (including oddly the supercomputer, and building anticipation towards several well paced climaxes of the narrative. The science is right, and fairly complex, but Heinlein does such a good job of explaining it, and integrating it into the story, that it never distracts.
This is the first Heinlein I have ever read (which is embarrassing, since the book is now over 50 years old!), but it definitely will not be the last.