It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Summer reading #1: The Moon is Harsh Mistress


I’m starting to wonder what I’ve done that you should all hate me so much you’d make me read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Because surely you knew it was going to be worse than I expected. I had reasonable expectations for it – after all, it’s in the SF Masterworks series (that’s the edition I own – that’s the old, numbered SF Masterworks; it’s number 72). I’d also read a bunch of Heinlein back in the dim and distant past and remembered enjoying them… Also, the first true sf novel I ever read, aged ten or eleven, was Heinlein’s Starman Jones, Anyway, I’d expected to not like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, much as I’d not liked Stranger in a Strange Land a few years ago when I reread it…


But it’s worse than I imagined. It really is. Given the size of Heinlein’s oeuvre, am I supposed to seriously believe The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the best of his books SF Masterworks could get the rights to? Because it is shit, so shit that I am revising my opinion of all the people I know who insist it is a good book… Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but I can see no good reason why it is so well-regarded. In fact, I suspect its reputation is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with the genre and fandom.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a first person narrative by Manuel Garcia O’Kelly who speaks in some sort of pidgin English throughout. It’s supposed to be a creole, the sort of English spoken by people who came from several different language groups but settled on English as a lingua franca. A lot of those people were apparently Russian speakers. You can tell this because sometimes Manuel, or Mannie, forgets to use the indefinite article and sometimes he forgets to use the definite article and sometimes he even forgets to use the first person pronoun. Oh, and his dialogue is liberally peppered with da, nyet and spasebo – because of course the last words you learn in any new language are “yes”, “no” and “thank you”. Mannie, or Man, is a “computerman” in Luna City, which is the sort of computer-related job someone who knows nothing about hardware, software, databases or systems administration might imagine an IT professional would do. It takes Mannie a while to realise, for instance, that a vocoder doesn’t need to actually generate sound in order to use the telephone. To be fair, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was first published in 1966 (so it’s as old as me but, to be honest, I think I’ve aged better – and I’m no oil painting), but even back then computing was a deal more sophisticated than represented by Heinlein’s invented late twenty-first century (the DEC PDP-10, for example, was introduced in 1966).

Mannie spends a lot of time working on Luna City’s High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV – HOLMES IV – which is what’s known in the IT industry as a “bollocks backronym”. The HOLMES IV is Luna City’s master computer – it runs everything. Because in the future, we will have a Giant Computer Brain in charge of everything, just like we had in the past– no, wait. Anyway, the HOLMES IV is so sophisticated it has developed sentience. But only Mannie knows this. The computer – nicknamed Mike for Mycroft Holmes by Mannie – has not made any effort to hide the fact it is an AI, but everyone else is so stupid they haven’t noticed. Except Mannie.

One day, Mannie decides to attend a political meeting. There he meets Wyoming Knott, a beautiful blonde political agitator. The “beautiful” bit is important, because every male that meets her has to look her up and down and whistle appreciatively. This is common practice when meeting an attractive female on the Moon. All women exist to be ogled by men, but it’s okay because they like it and they’re really in control. We know this from, well, from every book Heinlein has written, pretty much. There is in fact a nice long speech in Stranger in a Strange Land by one of the female characters explaining why it is a Good Thing for her to show off her naked body to dirty old men (p 280 in my NEL edition).

Luna City is an ex-penal colony and is administered by the Lunar Authority, headed by a Warden, and is just as draconian as it was back when everyone was a convict or transportee. Those at the meeting want to change that. The Warden gets wind of the meeting and sends along some goons. They try to arrest everyone present but instead the attendees kill them. Have a problem with someone on the Moon? Kill them. Disagree with someone on the Moon? Kill them. Don’t like someone’s politics on the Moon? Kill them. This is how Luna City with its “no laws” works. They kill each other. As a result, they’ve learned to be polite and courteous to each other. So that’s all right then. They might kill a person for the slightest of infractions, but at least they say “please” and “thank you” – well, they say spasebo.

A case in point: an Earth tourist who is supposed to be some sort of French/Scottish aristocrat, but is a “dinkum cobber” nonetheless – did I mention the really annoying Comedy Australian used in the novel? Anyway, said tourist is on the receiving end of some flirting by a fourteen-year-old girl in a bar, so he moves in for “a kiss and a cuddle”… only to be hauled away by a bunch of male teenagers. Rather than just kill him, their first inclination, they uncharacteristically decide to look for a judge, and come across Mannie, who stands in for the absent judge. Cue lecture on Luna City mores, and everyone gets fined. The tourist had no intention of having sex with the girl, that would be statutory rape. Except there’s no such thing on the Moon. If she wanted sex, then it’s fine. Except… kissing and cuddling a fourteen-year-old girl is still skeevy as fuck:

Had wandered into a taproom which lets stilyagi hang out, a sort of clubroom. This simple female had flirted with him. Boys had let matter be, as of course they had to as long as she invited it. But at some point she had laughed and let him have a fist in the ribs. He had taken it as casually as any Loonie would… but had answered in distinctly earthworm manner; slipped arm around waist and pulled her to him, apparently tried to kiss her.

LaJoie shivered. “At her age? It scares me to think of it. She’s below the age of consent. Statutory rape.”

“Oh, bloody! No such thing. Women her age are married or ought to be. Stu, is no rape in Luna. None. Men won’t permit it…” (p 164)

This is a fourteen-year-old girl, remember. Note that the situation is still her fault, that girls of her age are expected to be married, and that men get to decide what is and what isn’t rape.

The whole idea of a society succeeding because its members are free to kill each other without consequence – other than becoming a target for another murdering citizen – is just so stupidly dumb, I’m amazed Heinlein ever thought it workable. No, it wouldn’t lead to polite people, it would lead to dead people. And the survivors would be those more willing to kill than anyone else. This is not a village in some foreign land, either. It is on the Moon, where people cannot survive without technological assistance. So what happens if you kill the person who runs the air-plant? Everyone dies.

Heinlein is fond of pointing out that air is free on Earth but not on the Moon. Except, well, it is. You can crack it out of the regolith. And how else would the Moon be able to support a population of several million if it didn’t use such a method to generate air? The power for the process is also free – solar power. And, rather than measure living space in area, Heinlein uses the term “cubic”. Not volume, which is to three dimensions what area is to two dimensions. Cubic. Stupid.

Heinlein has been celebrated within science fiction as some sort of proto-feminist because of his “strong female characters”. While he certainly gives them voices in his narratives, and even occasionally some agency, they are still usually wives and mothers. Which is what all of the women in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are – even Wyoh, the beautiful blonde political agitator all the men whistle at, who effectively disappears a quarter of the way into the story, and is only wheeled out whenever Mannie needs a hero’s welcome. (She marries into Manny’s extended family and becomes a hairdresser – I kid you not.) Mannie needs several hero’s welcomes because he’s an important figure in Lunar city’s fight for revolution. Not because he is political, not because he is smart, not because he is a charismatic leader. No, because he is the only person who knows the Giant Computer Brain is actually sentient, and he is friends with it. Bernado de la Paz is the brains behind the revolution – and he’s another Heinlein mouthpiece, full of shit which he spouts with as much authority as Heinlein can muster in his narrative.

The revolutionaries form a secret terrorist organisation, and the Giant Computer Brain impersonates their invented human leader, Adam Selene. Things start to get a bit hairy, so the Warden calls in the troops. But, of course, these trained military professionals are no match for spree-killing Loonies with no moral compass, and are readily vanquished. When Earth tries to get even heavier, the revolutionaries threaten to bomb cities using rocks fired from the mass-driver they normally use to send grain. Mannie and the Prof travel to Earth in order to argue their case before the various nations of Earth, but the perfidious politicians of Earth stab them in the back. Of course, what Mannie and the Prof are doing isn’t politics – that would make them just as bad as the nasty earthworms. There is another attack on Lunar City by Earth forces, and again it fails. As does a second attack. The Loonies bomb Earth, the Earth accepts Luna’s independence. The Prof is elected leader but dies, so Mannie and Wyoh take over. But they don’t like what the revolutionary party has become, so they resign.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress irritated me from the first page, and as the story progressed, and Heinlein spouted his bullshit through his various characters and manipulated situations to make points with all the subtlety of Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I grew to really dislike the book. I’d throw it, but it’s number 72 in the SF Masterwork series and that would make my collection incomplete. But I shall certainly never read it again. And I will cheerfully mock anyone who claims it as a classic of the genre. It is didactic in the worst possible sense, its politics are risible, its moral landscape is hopelessly confused, and it reads like the wet dream of the dirty old uncle everyone ignores at the family barbecue.


36 thoughts on “Summer reading #1: The Moon is Harsh Mistress

  1. Funny; I always got the impression that this was considered one of Heinlein’s better books. Mind you, I got the same impression about Stranger In A Strange Land, and that…didn’t go well. I liked the first half of Stranger, but then loathed the second.

    Don’t think I’ll be reading this in a hurry.

    • That’s the problem: it is considered one of Heinlein’s better books. Just like Stranger in a Strange Land is considered a classic and Asimov is considered a good writer…

  2. Tell us how you really feel.

    You got me thinking, though, wondering if the suck fairy would hit me hard if I re-read this (or a lot of things). I liked this when I read it, but that was a long time ago. A long time ago.

    • I think as teens we’re more willing to be lectured at by the writer – in fact, we welcome it. And we’re less critical of the ideas being forced on us. One thing Heinlein did well was present his ideas with authority, and it’s easy to swallow them without thinking. Now, I can’t help thinking about them as I read… and consequently I find them risible.

  3. Great review. ‘The whole idea of a society succeeding because its members are free to kill each other without consequence’ is vintage Heinlein. And, as you point out, stupidly dumb. And he was as proto-feminist as I am proto-white.

  4. It can be a classic, but still by now horribly dated and … horrible. Well. It was probably important for the development of science fiction, but there is no obligation to like it now.

  5. You might be right. I may have been misreading the “several”. It didn’t look right though.

  6. I’ll echo the sentiments. I’m tempted to re-read it now, partly to give myself a better sense of just how far the genre has come (or at least, as far as I think it’s come), and also to compare it to my own childhood memories, but if I wound up throwing my Kindle against the wall replacing it might be expensive.

    I think I mentioned to you in the past I tried re-reading an old Heinlein (Glory Road), partly for research purposes, and it was beyond godawful. Utterly dire. The best I can say for people recommending his books is that they probably haven’t read them since they were very young. But Heinlein and pals exert such an enormous influence it’s hard to figure out a way forward for sf without dragging their corpses after us. They’re like the uncle who seemed kind of fun when you were ten but strikes you as extraordinarily creepy and embarrassing when they turn up at your brother or your sister’s wedding when you’re eighteen.

    I should add however that there is a certain bracket of fan who, upon reading your entry here, would still see nothing wrong with Heinlein’s expressed sentiment, especially the bit about killing people on a random whim being the way to a better tomorrow. Such people tend to be over-represented at conventions, and I’ve known quite a few, and generally seem to be emotionally locked in their early teens regardless of their actual years. I’m talking about people who will happily actively argue for a society exactly like the one Heinlein describes.

  7. I read this (for the first time) a couple of years ago and, while accepting most of your criticisms, took a far more charitable view of this book. You see, what your review overlooks (in my opinion) is that underlying its many flaws is a great story. Even accepting all your criticisms (which I by and large do) it’s still a great story.

    I would have to agree that it probably doesn’t deserve its place in the SF Masterworks Series. I haven’t read any Heinlein that I think does. But, at the risk of being mocked, I still think it is a good book.

    • To me, a “good story” is what you hear down the pub from some drunk bloke who’s an entertaining raconteur. A book is so much more, and to be a good book it has to succeed in many areas and at many levels. Some areas are less important than others, naturally, but the failures in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are so egregious that they dominate. Having said that, I’m not especially enamoured of the plot anyway.

  8. Loved Heinlein when I was a kid. Especially Job, Stranger, To Sail Beyond the Sunset. The lecturing was thrilling. Don’t THINK I ever internalised any of it. Don’t think I was provoked to thinking critically about it really either. Hmmm.

  9. “…it reads like the wet dream of the dirty old uncle everyone ignores at the family barbecue.”

    Great line to cap your evisceration. Anyone who defends Heinlein or Asimov stylists is an idiot. Even as juvenilia, their works are crimes against literature. Loved your takedown–it was more than well-deserved.

  10. I was also a Heinlein fan as a teen and devoured them at the time. But I, too, was always a little suspicious of his politics, his male lead characters’ tendencies to act as ventriloquist dummies for the author and his weird politics, the characterization of women as brilliant and beautiful but entirely compliant sex-bots, and his increasing fascination with incestuous story lines (Lazarus Long goes back in time to have sex with his mom while his younger self sleeps down the hall? REALLY, dude?). There were also vaguely racist hints here and there, and it seems that a couple of times in “Stranger” and “Farnham’s Freehold” he stops just short of using the word “darkies.” Not cool, even for a ’60s vintage work. You’re supposed to be envisioning the future, remember?

    In talking about my own fiction work, I’ll readily admit that I was influenced by him to a degree, but as I grew older all the above-mentioned issues became bigger issues for me, so in a way he’s taught me what NOT to do: Don’t spew your personal politics from a single, blowhard lead character. Give your female characters more depth and make a few of them actually NOT interested in screwing your lead character. And if you’re going to include kinks and prejudices, make them less nauseating and dated and more reflective of a character’s personality and motivation.

  11. “The whole idea of a society succeeding because its members are free to kill each other without consequence – other than becoming a target for another murdering citizen – is just so stupidly dumb, I’m amazed Heinlein ever thought it workable”

    Well, except that, historically, essentially that system has worked successfully in many instances. See, e.g., Bruce Benson’s ENTERPRISE OF LAW and Terry Anderson and P. J. Hill’s NOT SO WILD WILD WEST.

    • From what I gather, they had sheriffs and marshals and judges in the Wild West, so there was a legal framework in place. There may have been zero consequences for some – I guess it depended on your wealth and the colour of your skin – but there was no system which allowed free killing. And really, using the Wild West as a precedent for a story set on the Moon? That’s one of the things that’s wrong with science fiction…

  12. Thank you! I recently made a painful and ultimately unsuccessful effort to read this book, because I believed it was a classic that any true SFF fan was supposed to like. I’m relieved to know I’m not the only person who thought the book was dreadful.

    • # I believed it was a classic that any true SFF fan was supposed to like.

      There are no books that you are obliged to like, being an SFF fan is not a religion! (Well, for some people, maybe, but they’re crazy people).

      I reckon you can be an SFF fan even if there are no works that you really like. You could be an SFF fan who lives in hope that one day the genre will produce a work you like, or you can like the form of the genre and the opportunities it provides, without liking any existing works.

      # I’m relieved to know I’m not the only person who thought the book was dreadful.

      But, for a while there, you were an individual! Then Ian came along and spoiled it.

  13. # I’d throw it, but it’s number 72 in the SF Masterwork series and that would
    # make my collection incomplete.

    Then throw the whole collection! That way you’ll avoid the danger of re-reading the others and discovering they’re all as bad. It’s the only way to be sure.

  14. Pingback: Robert Heinlein: Still Crap | Our Mechanical Brain

  15. I more or less agree with you – except I do think The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is an important book (not a good one) because of the impact Heinlein’s philosophy has had on a distressingly wide range of people (from Ronald Reagan to Elon Musk).

    In fact I think there’s a case to be made for the idea that Heinlein’s books is more important to the American right wing libertarian (Tea Party) movement than Ayn Rand because, while they pay lip service to Atlas Shrugged, it’s pretty clear that most of them have mostly read Heinlein and they’ve adopted the gung-ho militarism and nationalism that are absent in Rand’s work.

    So, while it’s a bad book, it is an important book and one that should be dissected for its stupidities as often as possible – as you have done.

    • Non Musk (Musk cites Asimov), the other Paypal guy, Theil?

    • But wasn’t Alan Greenspan a fully-fledged Randite? And his position as Chairman of the Federal Reserve allowed him to set financial policy for the US based on her stupid ideas. Certainly Heinlein’s politics made as big a point of self-interest (ie, selfishness) as Rand’s, but I don’t think he had a readership as large as hers.

      • Greenspan knew and admired Rand, but I’m not sure his policies at the Fed had much in common with the specifics of Randian philosophy except in the most general sense. Running the world’s biggest economy didn’t lend itself much to the kind of simplistic homilies Rand dealt with.

        I don’t think Heinlein sold as many books as Ayn Rand on the back of the libertarian movement but I think more people might have actually finished his stuff…

        There’s an interesting piece about this by Nick Mamatas here

        I think (as Mamatas suggests) that many of the current generation of right wing libertarians came across Heinlein first and Rand provides the more intellectually/socially cover for their beliefs. I think Heinlein’s militaristic/nationalistic approach remains important though perhaps the more socially conservative Rand – with tendencies towards homophobia and knowing your place – has the edge with Tea Part members.

  16. Pingback: The Tarnishing of The Golden Age | Where Worlds Collide

  17. huh. I really like The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. but, different strokes for different folks, right?

    does that make me part of what’s wrong with fandom?

  18. Hi

    I am a bit late but will weigh in. I have given some of the SF writers that were important in my youth their own shelf and Heinlein is one of them. But it consists mainly of copies of his juveniles, Farmer in the Sky, Space Cadet, Starman Jones, and some of the pulps with his early short stories,
    the Roads Must Roll, silly idea, great Rogers cover. Even as a callow youth Stranger in a Strange Land struck me as a waste of time and the books that followed seemed no better so I stopped reading them although I like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,, male teens can be pretty amoral, but I tried to read it a couple years ago and yuck. I followed that with Door in to Summer and Time for the Stars and concluded most male Heinlein characters should have monitoring bracelets. I decided then to stick with Sir Isaac Newton of Between Planets and leave Heinlein “mature works” alone. And there are always my Andre Norton’s to fall back on.


  19. Pingback: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; or, Adventures in Reader Parallax | MarzAat

  20. I held off reading this, but it looks like I used the same rape quote and liberal use of the term “bullshit” in my own review. And dirty old uncle is exactly the vibe I get from ol’ Bob.

  21. Pingback: Robert Heinlein: Still Crap – The Drawing Board

  22. I liked it, but then I find Heinlein stories nostalgic. I find his attitude towards sex and women a bit overdone, a bit dirty old man. I mostly just ignore that part of his stories as it’s cringy at times. He’s a good story teller IMO. That’s why I like a lot of his books. Moon is a Harsh Mistress is not my favorite by any means but I did enjoy it. I really like the juvenile books…good stories, positive message, less cringy sex.

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