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.


The voters have spoken

Back on 22 June, I posted a poll to see which six allegedly classic science fiction novels you would like me to read as my summer reading project. I promised to read the books and then write a blog post on each one. In hindsight, it was clearly a foolish thing to promise, although perhaps there were one or two books in the seventeen I chose for the poll that I sort of wanted to read/reread. Sadly, only one of those made it to the final six. Which are, for the record:

rah_themooni The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A Heinlein 35 votes
childhoodsend Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke 32 votes
city City, Clifford D Simak 23 votes
TauZero Tau Zero, Poul Anderson 22 votes
Panther-1080-n Asimov Foundation Foundation, Isaac Asimov 22 votes
timeofchanges A Time of Changes, Robert Silverberg 20 votes

You lot must really hate me – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Foundation. Still, a promise is a promise. Foundation is one of three rereads of the six books. I last reread it in 2006, thugh for some reason I don’t appear to have written about it then. Childhood’s End I read some time back in the early to mid-1980s, I think. I’ve not reread it since. A Time of Changes I’ll have read around the time my Gollancz Classic SF edition was published, which was 1986. The remaining three books I’ve never read before. They’re also in the SF Masterworks series, and those are the editions I own – in fact, Foundation and A Time of Changes are the only books in the six that aren’t SF Masterworks.

Anyway, some time in July I will start my summer project, and after I have finished each book I will write a review here on the blog. I am not expecting my reviews to be positive, but you never know, I might be pleasantly surprised…


Reading Challenge #12 – Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

I first read Stranger in a Strange Land back in my early teens, twenty or more years ago. I think I may have read it more than once during that time. I vaguely recall being aware of the book’s reputation, but not entirely understanding why it had such a reputation – I enjoyed it, but I thought other Heinlein novels were better. My opinion of Heinlein’s oeuvre has changed considerably in the decades since then, and according to my records the last book by him I read was in 1996. And that was a reread of I Will Fear No Evil. Well, yes, I did read Starship Troopers last year, but I didn’t read it for enjoyment, so it doesn’t count – see here.

Throughout my science fiction reading career, Heinlein has never been a favourite sf author, although I’ve read around two dozen of his books, many of them more than once. I also owned around a dozen of them – although I purged my book-shelves of all but a handful early last year.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that, despite its reputation, I had relatively low expectations for this reread of Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein’s 1940s somewhat patronising dialogue-heavy prose style no longer appeals to me; his politics certainly don’t appeal. So what to make of the sf novel that, along with Dune (a personal favourite) and The Lord of the Rings (I really should reread it one of these days), was beloved by college students around the world in late 1960s and 1970s?

First, the plot. A mission to Mars comes a cropper, and a second mission sent twenty-five years later finds a single survivor living among the Martians: Valentine Michael Smith, the son of two members of the first mission’s crew. They return him to Earth. Smith is Martian in all but physiology, and he introduces his Martian way of thinking to the people around him. He also proves to have “magical” powers. For a while, he stays with Jubal Harshaw, a cantankerous multi-millionaire, who has opinions on everything. Smith leaves him to see more of the world – well, the USA of the time – and then creates a charismatic church. But society at large – well, the society of the USA of the time – does not want to hear his “message”, and he is torn apart by a mob. His church and message survive in his followers.

So. The good stuff. Stranger in a Strange Land is surprisingly readable. Heinlein’s prose is like beige – it’s not colourful, it doesn’t stand out as either good or bad. Some people think all novels should be written in beige prose. I happen to think that’s a waste of English. Why does the language have such a large lexicon if all you’re going to use are the blandest words in it?

That readability may well be because so much of the book is dialogue. A reader doesn’t need to exercise their imagination as much for dialogue as they do for descriptive prose. Sadly, for a book originally published in 1961, the dialogue in Stranger in a Strange Land sounds like it’s straight from some 1940s screwball rom com. In fact, the whole book reads as though it were written twenty years earlier. Nor is it really science fiction. Michael Valentine Smith may be a survivor from a mission to Mars, but there are sections of the book set among angels in heaven. And Smith’s powers are pretty much magical.

And then there’s the politics… Which is sort of Rand lite. But with sexual liberation and some distinctly dodgy 1950s gender politics. Heinlein, many will tell you, was a proto-feminist – and yet one female character, Jill, in Stranger in a Strange Land says, “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault” (p281). This is after two pages of her ruminating on why she enjoys showing off her body to dirty old men and why it is A Good Thing. As is, apparently, pornographic depictions of women.

Stranger in a Strange Land is also apparently a satire – it says on the back-cover of my 1980 NEL edition: “a searing indictment of Western Civilization”. All I found it in were a few off-the-cuff observations of the sort found in a some channel TV sitcom, and a made-up church that owed more to 1920s carnivals than it did to organised religion. In fact, Smith actually joins a carnival for a while after leaving Harshaw’s mansion – but this is a an old-style carnival, rather than simply a travelling funfair.

Incidentally, I couldn’t find a copy online of my NEL edition’s cover art, hence the current Hodder edition shown above. Still, look at that hyperbole “the Hugo-winning bestseller they wanted to ban”.  It doesn’t say who wanted to ban it – lovers of good literature, perhaps. If it was some religious group – well, don’t forget one such group also wanted to ban Watership Down, a book with a cast of rabbits.

Heinlein’s characterisation never stretched much beyond Competent Man and Perky Female, but in this novel he also manages Dim-Witted Innocent – science fiction’s very own Forrest Gump, if you will. Except Valentine Michael Smith, the Man from Mars, is a Magical Forrest Gump. There are a couple of feeble attempts at passing off his powers as ESP, but I’m not aware of any previously-documented psionic power which makes clothes disappear – telecdysiasism, perhaps? The many mentions of the Martian “Old Ones”, who are “discorporated” members of that race but who still interact with the living, also read more like fantasy than science fiction.

I’d always pegged Heinlein’s later works – the 1970s and onwards – as his Dirty Old Man books, so I was surprised to see he’d actually started on that phase a decade earlier. In 1961, when Stranger in a Strange Land was first published, he was 54, so not really that old, but it’s plain that Jubal Harshaw is Heinlein. Admittedly, Heinlein was known for putting mouthpieces into his fiction, but Harshaw has to be the least subtle of any of them. He’s also, quite frankly, full of crap. He gives a lecture on modern art that is little more than ill-informed opinion. Indeed, some of the “facts” he spouts are anything but. Not to mention that, for all his much-vaunted egalitarianism, he’s nothing more than an old school capitalist patriarch.

Which makes Smith, the Magical Forrest Gump, something even worse. Perhaps in 1961, he might have been seen as something akin to a carnival freak, a “good monster”. But now, he’s more of a Charles Manson / David Koresh type figure – and Smith’s church, with its creed of nudity and group orgies, only makes the resemblance worryingly closer. I personally find little to admire, and much to condemn, in such cults, so a novel celebrating them is unlikely to find much favour with me. To be fair, Heinlein is innocent in that regard, as Stranger in a Strange Land predates both Manson and Koresh, not to mention Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate.

I knew before I opened the cover that reading Stranger in a Strange Land was not going to be fun. That’s one reason why this post is late. But I’d forgotten how downright irritating Jubal Harshaw is, how annoying his Heinlein’s female characters are – and how interchangeable: Harshaw has three “secretaries”, a blonde, a brunette and a black-haired one, but they might as well be the same woman with a few bottles of hair-dye; likewise the other women in the book. I’d also forgotten how stupid the whole concept of “grok” is. Try rereading the book, and substituting “understand” or “comprehend” for “grok”. The book is entirely unchanged.

In the history of science fiction, Robert Heinlein was undoubtedly an important writer, and Stranger in a Strange Land is one of sf’s few break-out books, enjoying success outside the genre. Like Rand’s novels, I suspect Stranger in a Strange Land is also a book read more for its politics and philosophy – it certainly can’t be for its prose, characterisation, or depiction of a near-future USA. And, again like Rand’s novels, there’s not much in there that appeals to me. Nor is it especially timeless. Stranger in a Strange Land reads like a novel of the 1940s, and feels wildly inappropriate in the twenty-first century.

I very much doubt I’ll ever read Stranger in a Strange Land again, but I think I’ll hang onto my copy for the time-being…


Jackboots in Space

I’ve always believed that Paul Verhoeven’s response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was the only sane one. He made a satire of it. (He also never bothered to finish reading it either, which is probably even more sane.) I saw nothing wrong in holding this opinion even though I’d never read the novel myself.

Recently, however, I decided I was being unfair, if not hypocritical. I “knew” the book was crypto-fascist, despite every mention of it on the tinterweb claiming that it isn’t.

Well, I’ve now read it. And…

Starship Troopers isn’t even a novel. It’s a lesson in military operations and Heinlein’s crypto-fascist politics wrapped in the thinnest of stories. Rico is a stand-in for the dumb reader, who is lectured in every chapter on how fair and democratic is the Federation, and how effective a military force is the Mobile Infantry. We know this because we’re told it. Repeatedly.

The plot, such as it is: Johnny Rico graduates from high school, and follows a friend into Federal Service. He is assigned to the Mobile Infantry. Earth goes to war against the Bugs. Rico fights a number of battles and rises up the ranks.

That’s it.

Military sf Starship Troopers almost certainly is. But does that make it crypto-fascist? Let’s examine the evidence (all page numbers and quotations from the 1998 NEL film tie-in paperback).

Exhibit 1:
Only veterans of the Federal Service of the Terran Federation have the vote. Heinlein apologists claim that Federal Service is not necessarily military, but this is not true. When Rico signs up, and is given a physical, the doctor says to him:

“No offense. But military service is for ants … And for what? A purely nominal political privilege that pays not one centavo and that most of them aren’t competent to use wisely anyhow.” (pp 32)

Further, the recruiting sergeant on duty when Rico signs up has no legs and only one arm. Because, he explains:

“… suppose we do make a soldier out of you. Take a look at me – this is what you may buy… If you don’t buy the whole farm and cause your folks to receive a ‘deeply regret’ telegram.” (pp 30)

Exhibit 2:
According to Heinlein, spanking produces well-mannered moral children. After a page or two discussion on the best way to raise puppies – when they make mistakes, scold them, rub their noses in it, and spank them – Rico’s “History & Moral Philosophy” teacher, Mr DuBois, explains that the same methodology should be applied to children. Because not doing this led to the lawlessness of the Twentieth Century:

“Back to these young criminals – They were probably not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes … This incredible sequence could go on for years while his crimes increased in frequency and visciousness…” (pp 101)

Exhibit 3:
Heinlein directly references fascism. Once again, Rico – and thus the reader – is being lectured in “History & Moral Philosophy”. During this, the instructor explains the actual meaning of the vote:

“Force, if you will! – the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax.” (pp 155)

The Rods and the Axe, of course, is the fasces, the word from which Mussolini derived the term fascism.

Exhibit 4:
Any society which is authoritarian, elitist, militarist and nationalist fits the characteristics of a fascist state. The Terran Federation as described in Starship Troopers certainly meets that description. As Mussolini himself said, “Anti-individualistic, the fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only insofar as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity.” True, Rico is in the military and at war, and so his interests are firmly aligned – by training and indoctrination – along the lines demanded by the Terran Federation. But that continues to hold true should he leave the Mobile Infantry, because only someone who has served is part of the political process.

It’s been said that just because Heinlein posits a fascist state in Starship Troopers that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s his own personal politics. For most novels and novelists, this is certainly true – Robert Harris, for example, wrote Fatherland, set in an Europe in which Germany won WWII, but that doesn’t make him a Nazi. But in Fatherland‘s case, Nazi Europe was the setting for the plot. Starship Troopers is not a story, it’s a poorly-disguised lecture. Which suggests to me that Heinlein adheres to the politics described in Starship Troopers.

I have now read Starship Troopers. My opinion on its politics remains unchanged. Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation< is greatly superior to the book.