The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: The American revolution in an SF context

Robert A. Heinlein The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. HeinleinThe Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

“Sometimes I think that government is an inescapable disease of human beings. But it may be possible to keep it small, and starved, and inoffensive.”

It’s the year 2075. The Earth, which has a worldwide government of Federated Nations, sends its criminals and exiles to the moon where they won’t bother anyone on Earth. The “Loonies” are governed by wardens who require them to grow hydroponic grain which is sent back to Earth. This has been going on for over a century, so the lunar colony is no longer just criminals and exiles. They’ve had families and have built a society, but they’re still treated as Earth’s slave labor force. They do work for Earth, but get no benefits. Now they want to be free.

When a computer technician named Mannie realizes that the moon’s central computer (Mike) is sentient and lonely, he befriends it and they begin, with the help of a professor and a radical young woman, to plan a revolution. Along the way Mike keeps calculating the chances of their success as new developments occur.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the story of the American Revolution (or it could be any revolution) in a science fiction context. Readers familiar with Robert A. Heinlein won’t be surprised that this is an anti-authority story — Heinlein’s libertarian views are on full display and those of us with a libertarian streak will be rooting for the “Loonies” as they lament the inadequacies of representational government and demand a free market, a free press, voluntary rather than compulsory taxation, and the right for all citizens to be free and self-sufficient. (Heinlein’s libertarianism borders on anarchism, though, and his characters don’t seem to have a problem with stealing power, water, and phone services from the government, allowing the computer to steal money for their revolution, or rigging elections.) Heinlein’s fans also won’t be surprised to encounter an incestuous type of polygamy in the “line marriages” of the lunar colony.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of my favorite Heinlein stories. It’s exciting and well-plotted, has strong male and female characters of all ages and races (perhaps Mike the computer is the best character, though!), has some humor, interesting ideas about the purpose of government, and I learned enough about how to run a revolution that I feel like I’m prepared to plan my own. Plus, a catapult on the moon? That’s awesome! (Though Philip K. Dick did it first).

The style of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is noteworthy. The Loonies come from all over the Earth and have developed their own slang. Mannie narrates the story in a choppy voice that skips a lot of personal pronouns and articles and sounds like he’s taking notes:

 Proud of my ancestry and while I did business with Warden, would never go on his payroll. Perhaps distinction seems trivial since I was Mike’s valet from day he was unpacked. But mattered to me. I could down tools and tell them go to hell. Besides, private contractor paid more than civil service rating with Authority. Computermen scarce. How many Loonies could go Earthside and stay out of hospital long enough for computer school? — even if didn’t die. I’ll name one. Me. Had been down twice…

Listened to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in audio format. Produced by Blackstone audio and read by Lloyd James. Took little while to get acclimated to Heinlein’s strange style in audio, but Lloyd James did great job, and got hang of it after not too long. Loved what he did with Mike the computer. Recommend this version.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was published in 1966 after being serialized in Worlds of If. It received a Hugo Award and was nominated for a Nebula Award.

“Free Luna! Luna shall be Free!”

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress — (1966) Publisher: Robert A. Heinlein was the most influential science fiction writer of his era, an influence so large that, as Samuel R. Delany notes, “modern critics attempting to wrestle with that influence find themselves dealing with an object rather like the sky or an ocean.” He won the Hugo Award for best novel four times, a record that still stands. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was the last of these Hugo-winning novels, and it is widely considered his finest work. It is a tale of revolution, of the rebellion of the former Lunar penal colony against the Lunar Authority that controls it from Earth. It is the tale of the disparate people — a computer technician, a vigorous young female agitator, and an elderly academic — who become the rebel movement’s leaders. And it is the story of Mike, the supercomputer whose sentience is known only to this inner circle, and who for reasons of his own is committed to the revolution’s ultimate success.

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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One comment

  1. Tizz /

    This was one of the earliest SF novels I read — and I thought it was pretty darn good at the time. Good to see it has weathered well!

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