Like a handful of rebelling Loonies, a reduced collection of Beamers braved the rigors of travel on planet Earth to meet and compare notes on Robert Heinlein’s classic tale of the war for Lunar independence, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Used to Terran gravity, we had a bit of a struggle to navigate around the Moon’s colony cities and their various customs and philosophies. Even without a friendly computer to aid us, though, we did arrive at a happy ending.
Going Out with a Bang, not a Whimper
Originally serialized in Worlds of If magazine in 1965-1966, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress won the 1967 Hugo award for Best Novel. It is frequently offered as the answer to “What was the last *good* Heinlein novel?”, a question guaranteed to break the ice (and maybe furniture) at any sf convention. In it, Heinlein offers a society in which the only law seems to be “Play nice” and transgressors are swiftly punished by evacuation out the nearest airlock (pressure suit not included). Modeled on the system of criminals transported into exile (see Botany Bay), Heinlein’s Luna is an anarchist frontier of small family households, operated as a penal colony under a Terran Warden. Until its main computer system wakes up. Then, a variety of its friends begin to seriously plot the overthrow of the Warden and the Terran Authority.
Wonder if It Runs under DOS or CPM
Mike, aka Mycroft HOLMES, is not the protagonist of the book, but it is likely the most memorable of its characters. A literal “deus ex machina” (as Nick noted), Mike the computer undergoes the most development of any of the characters. From struggling with the idea of humor (Mike is introduced when computer tech Manuel O’Kelly-Davis tries to find out why it issued a janitor a paycheck for $10,000,000,000,000,185.15) to writing poetry and delivering stirring patriotic speeches, Mike becomes a fully “human” figure. We all enjoyed the time we spent with it or its numerous aliases (leading a revolution requires as much stealth as staying incognito as a self-aware AI). Liz much preferred Mike to HAL, the unstable AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a choice that Chris was quick to echo. (I had to offer some sympathy for HAL’s “death” scene, but Liz was glad to see the red light go out.) And the mystery of Mike’s disappearance at the end of the novel did intrigue us all. I remember in my first reading of the book, long ago (40 years or so), being both upset and pleased that Mike was able to escape from its duties and from seeing what becomes of the Lunar revolution. Better for it to blip out as suddenly as it blipped in.
A Rabble in Arms
The other characters, like Mannie O’Kelly-Davis or Wyoh Knott or the Prof, Bernardo de la Paz, are also well-rounded and interesting. Liz remarked that Heinlein clearly liked his characters and liked to spend some time on fleshing out their lives, giving us a set of people whose struggle feels very personal to the reader, something that is happening to folks we know and learn to care about. (Not so much for their opponents, however, whether they be blustering Terran politicians or Lunar intelligentsia “yammerheads”.) Mannie acquired his hyphenated surname due to his marriage into the Davis “line”, a multiple-person marriage of assorted males and females ranging in ages from 70 down to 15, a matrimonial tradition that Heinlein introduces as a social adaptation to both long Lunar life expectancies and to the imbalance between males (2/3rds) and females (1/3rd) in the Lunar population. Regardless, he also portrays the various Davis husbands and wives as individuals, with unique talents and personalities, not a minor accomplishment for a pre-New Wave sf author.
The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be
Unfortunately, quite a bit of the novel shows its origins in the times before the emphasis on literary quality (the New Wave) and before the second wave of women’s liberation took hold. While it could be the case that a lack of females would provoke an exaggerated care and respect for them to rise, in practice, Heinlein’s women are pretty much stuck up on the old pedestal, again. Liz pointed out that Wyoh was not given farm tasks after joining the Davis family because she was “too distracting” for the male workers. Nick was confused by both the over-the-top responses expected by females (catcalls and whistles are considered expected forms of greeting) and the overly exaggerated protection offered to them (with one offworlder being tried for the crime of putting his arm around a woman’s waist, with execution the expected punishment). Alan, commenting via e-mail, found Mannie and Wyoh’s dialogue reminiscent of the flirtatious banter of 1930s screwball movies like Bringing Up Baby, but seemingly out of place on 2070s Luna. Wyoh, like Katherine Hepburn, is meant to be a modern, “liberated” woman, but where we can make allowances for the 1930s setting, it is harder to excuse a similar “domesticated” if mildly libertine role in the future. Lunar society may have reasons to wish to guard a rarer resource, but a gilded cage is still a cage, we decided.
A Rand-y Place to Live?
And in a number of ways, Heinlein leaves out a lot of what makes such a society work. Mannie’s mentor, Prof de la Paz, is a “rational anarchist”, and much of the political discussion in the book tries to devise ways in which a Lunar constitution can be written to grant maximum freedom, including eliminating electoral districts to prevent gerrymandering, or replacing voting with petition signature gathering. But, he also includes calls for establishing a monarchy and a lot of disparagement of groups bigger than three individuals for decision making or taking action. Alan felt that Lunar society, even if modeled on frontier settlements of the Old West (cf. mining and farming as major occupations), should have written laws, just as Old West towns did.
The alternative Heinlein presents is a society where a rude remark can get one tossed out into the vacuum and the only recourse to justice is the threat of a vendetta. The economic system is a simple capitalist market economy of small producers, too, so how the Moon’s new, reduced government (Prof advises writing a constitution consisting of negatives, what the new government *cannot* do, and having one house for writing laws, one for repealing them) would handle large corporate organizations is left as an exercise for the reader. “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” is the book’s most famous line and acronym (TANSTAAFL). Heinlein seems to leave the reader to pick up the bill.
[Post-script: Kathy, in a post-meeting e-mail, did express her admiration for the way in which Heinlein portrayed the evolving sentiment of “home” for his Loonies, who start out regarding the Moon as a prison but eventually come to have strong feelings toward the place, birthing notions of patriotism and belonging. And stretching out the change from exile to native land made it plausible, in her reading.]
On the Other, Other Hand …
Worse, the amount of philosophical discussion really hit all of us as being an impediment to enjoying the narrative. Chris, who normally gobbles down our selections in large bites, had to take his time and read the book in shorter sections, to keep the ideas and the debates over them from overwhelming his enjoyment of the story. On the plus side, the plethora of ideas does mean that Heinlein is harder to pigeonhole. And he seems to try hard to offer a diversity of characters, as well, a nice change from much of classic sf. Mannie’s ancestry covers several Terran continents, and comments on skin color, when they pop up, reveal that most of our main characters are not WASPs. Still, I can recall that even in my first reading, I had a hard time accepting that a future society would condone marriages with 15-year-old women, something that struck me as being medieval in outlook rather than futuristic.
Jumping Over the Moon
In spite of the very rough edges that Heinlein leaves for the reader (like reconciling “hard truths” of Lunar shortages and Malthusian predictions of cannibalism together with predicted solutions depending on assumed development of matter transmutation), we did stick with the book all the way through to independence. The marks we offered were ‘6’ to ‘8’ (Chris offered a ‘9’ for the story and a ‘7’ for the execution). George, a regular visitor from the SF Society of Northern NJ, summed it up for us by noting that this work is part of the culture of sf and so makes it a worthy read for both entertainment and educational purposes. As we headed back out into the harsh winter night, without pressure suits, alas, we were warmed by our encounters with Mike and Mannie and the thought of having learned a bit about science fiction.