The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover image

Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: 1966
Printing: September 1968
ISBN: 0-425-03436-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 302

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Depending on how one wants to divide his career, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress comes in the center of Heinlein's strongest period or near the end of the good "early" Heinlein (contrasted with the inconsistent at best "late" Heinlein). It was his last major critical and influential success (although some of his later novels were still popular successes).

The most famous part of this book, its portrayal of a libertarian utopia that gave the SF community the term TANSTAAFL ("There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch"), is only a small part of it. Like most utopias, it doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny and is based primarily on cheating: setting up artificial, ideal conditions for a utopia and then showing how well the utopia would deal with those conditions. But the plot and the action deals primarily with the process of revolution rather than the results, and the utopian aspects can be shuffled under the carpet of suspension of disbelief.

The plot, sadly, could be summarized as follows: a hyperintelligent computer learns the techniques of revolution and arranges a rebellion of the Moon penal colony, while the humans mill about, wax poetic on the merits of complex polygamous family structures, and generally act silly. It says a lot about Heinlein's competence as a writer that he manages to salvage an entertaining page-turner from this. By all rights, the book should have been either stultifyingly dull from the politics or pointless given that the computer ends up solving nearly all of the problems in the book. Heinlein mostly avoids both traps and manages a decent story, although I had to laugh when the computer started impersonating the main characters to get things done when they weren't in the right places at the right time.

The beginning of the novel is its weakest part. The first-person narrator has an enjoyably cynical voice, but it stretches credibility right from the start that the computer running everything in the Moon colony has magically become self-aware yet he's the only one who has noticed. Quickly he picks up a female companion whose role (matching the role of nearly every other female in the book) is to be emotional, look pretty, and have sex. They, the computer, and a professor with political experience (the most likeable character in the book) decide to start a revolution, which never manages to be more than a laughable farce. It's painfully impossible for the good guys to fail no matter how badly they bungle. The computer silently and untracably controls everything electronic in the colony and is absolutely loyal, and the evil rulers of the colony are so stupid and incompetent that they don't suspect the computer even when they start getting phone calls from each other that neither party placed. (The characters even notice this and remark on how stupid they are. It's usually a bad sign when your characters are complaining about your plot.)

Decent characterization, at least of the men, and good pacing carry one through, though, into the far more interesting second half of the book. The local revolution is successful. Now the colonists have to deal with Earth. This is not by any stretch realistic political intrigue, but with the good guys and bad guys clearly defined, I found myself emotionally involved in the success of the good guys. Mostly this was due to blantant emotional string-pulling, but it did work. There are struggles, losses, and daring adventure along the way, and the novel reaches a satisfying climax featuring unusual weapons and the victory of the plucky, loyal comrades in arms. And, since this is Heinlein, the guy gets all of the girls and everyone marries everyone.

This is a mostly well-written book at the technical level, although I have a couple of complaints. In contrast to his usually clear prose, Heinlein wrote this book in an oddly clipped style that I think was intended to convey the feeling of a Russian accent by omitting articles. This is probably where David R. Palmer got his inspiration for the narrative voice of Emergence, but he handled it much better and provided far stronger justification. Heinlein also betrays a tin ear for slang, peppering the dialogue with phrases that clang horribly. Thankfully, one gets used to both flaws and the irritation subsides considerably past the first hundred pages.

I won't spend too much time discussing the politics. If you've read Heinlein, you pretty much know what to expect: every man for himself libertarianism, dislike of governments, dislike of mobs of people, and an emphasis on personal loyalty above all else. This story can say nothing meaningful about politics since it contains no grey areas. In real life, politics is largely concerned with trying to referee between diametrically opposed parties who are not conveniently right or wrong. In the book, everyone opposed to our heroes is evil, corrupt, stupid, and incompetent, whereas mysteriously nearly all of the inhabitants of what was a penal colony are polite, courteous, respectful, loyal, and brave. Heinlein confidently states that the latter is the natural result of a harsh environment where anyone without these traits is killed, and illustrates this with a story of an exiled mob boss who's too stupid to learn how to put on a space suit. Convenient how evil and abject stupidity invariably go hand-in-hand in this world. And of course, within the carefully constructed parameters of the story, all of the beliefs of the heroes turn out to be the only reasonable solutions.

Since this is Heinlein, the story is also painfully sexist. Obsession with women as hypersexual brood mares disguised as male gallantry abounds. While Heinlein allows them to fight hand-to-hand in a few places when threatened directly, the primary contribution of women to the war effort is to sleep with the men to keep morale up. There's a lot of that sort of nonsense to tune out.

One reads this book mostly because it's important in the history of SF, particularly as an early example of the sub-genre of libertarian military SF. TANSTAAFL has shown up somewhat regularly since, in Niven and Pournelle's writing if nowhere else, and the polygamous line marriages lovingly described here are at least a regular feature of the rest of Heinlein's writing. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of those books that nearly everyone has read, and that's worth reading just so that you understand the references when they come up in conversation. Just remember to avoid giggling when thinking too deeply about the world background.

On its own merits as a story, this book is okay but not great. It's a satisfying if obvious good versus evil adventure with generally likeable characters, a background full of holes and authorial manipulation, a bit too much preaching (but entertaining preaching), the standard Heinlein sexism problems, and a few too many pretensions of political relevance. It's not a bad read, but there are a lot of better books out there.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-10-01

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