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Revolution, political philosophy, and rock throwing
on August 17, 2016
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a great title. Is it a great book? I don’t think it is Heinlein’s best, but I enjoyed it when I read it in my teens, and probably enjoyed it more in a recent rereading. Fans of Heinlein’s political philosophy will find much to admire here, while readers searching for a good story will have to tolerate the philosophy while waiting for the story to develop.
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.