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.