Saturday, February 16, 2013

1967: The Moon is Harsh Mistress

              The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the final Robert A. Heinlein book to win the Hugo Award for best novel. How did it compare to Heinlein’s other winners?  Quite well, in fact. While it was not as good as Starship Troopers, I enjoyed much more than the disappointing Stranger in A Strange Land (sorry hippies and free love enthusiasts). The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a great sci-fi read and it would recommend it to anyone who loves the genre.
                The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is narrated by Manuel Garcia "Mannie" O'Kelly-Davis. He is a born “Loonie” (inhabitant of Luna) and the computer tech for HOLMES IV, the super computer that keeps the Moon colony running. In this future, the Moon was a penal colony for American and Soviet criminal and political dissents. This fusion of the two groups is shown through Mannie’s narration. He speaks English but there are a number of elements from Russian in his speech. He does not use articles (“a”, “an”, and “the”) and say “My god” as “My bog”, bog being the Russian word for god. As a Russian speaker I appreciated these elements and thought they were well done. Luna is loosely governed by a Warden; it did start as a penal colony after all, but for the most part the people of Luna are self-governing anarchists. Their principal export is foodstuffs and they have started to chaff under the rules of the Lunar Authority about how much they are export and the dues owed on their products. A rebellion begins with Mannie, his mentor Professor Bernardo de la Paz, Wyoming “Wyoh” Noit, and the supercomputer HOLMES IV who Mannie calls Mike after Mycroft Holmes.
                Mike is both the best and worst part of the novel. Mike has achieved consciousness and Mannie helps him understand humans and such uncomputer like concepts as humor. This is funny because Mike has a sense of humor. At one point in the novel, Mike multiplies a few of people’s paycheck to the 100th power giving them more money than the economy of Luna. Mannie told him doing that was not funny but I disagree. They also go over jokes and discuss the elements of humor. I loved these parts. Mike felt like a supercomputer learning to be human. He was massively intelligent but often understood things like child. He was a well-developed likable character. I still smile to myself when Mannie asks how Luna will defend itself from the Earth and Mike responds “We’ll throw rocks at them, Man.” Or how he refers to Mannie as his “best and only friend” and changes it to “my best and first friend” as he meets other people. Those are the good parts of this character. I will explain the bad parts as I talk about the rebellion.
                Professor de la Paz and Wyoh are typical Heinlein characters. De la Paz serves as a mouthpiece for Heinlein himself as he talks about political philosophy and leads the rebellion. Wyoh is one of Heinlein’s usual female characters: strong, capable, but still subservient to the males in the story. I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that Heinlein’s female characters are this strange combination of progressive and traditional. Not sure what to make of them. Sadly, Professor de la Paz doesn’t come out as realistic as other mouthpiece characters such as Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. While Jubal Harshaw seemed like a real person even though he was a Heinlein surrogate, de la Paz hardly seems like a real person. He always is in control and knows what to do next making him thoroughly understanding.
                This is part of the novel’s greatest flaw. Professor de la Paz and Mike are so perfectly in control of the rebellion that there is no tension. Never did I feel that the revolution would fail despite Mike giving them less than favorable odds. For everything that happens de la Paz and Mike seem to have a plan response to it. They never were at a loss and never failed. There were small set back but even those seemed to play into their plans. In many ways the actual revolt is the worst part of novel. It never seems to be a struggle and with no struggle there is no tension or excitement. That is also the problem with Mike. His calculations are always perfect. I have noticed this problem in other science fiction as well. Supercomputers are often portrayed as so powerful that they cannot make mistakes. It irritates me and makes the stories less interesting.
                Still The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a good read. Mannie is a likable character and his narration gives the story an interesting flavor. As a political scientist, I don’t believe that Luna’s self-governing anarchy would work but Heinlein’s description and the thoroughness of his imagined Luna work. I would safely say that this is the second best Heinlein novel I read and would gladly read more of his work in the future. It is not hard to see why he is one of the fathers of science fiction. And if you are libertarian, you should read this book. You will love it.


  1. I agree with you on this one, completely. Also on stranger. I liked about the first third of that book.

    1. Thanks, Budd. I had high hopes for stranger but after that first third it just went downhill.