The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; or, Adventures in Reader Parallax

This is in response to Megan’s, over at From Couch to Moon, completely different reactions to this novel. Don’t think of it as an argument. Think of it as illuminating perspectives on a famous work — or the reviewer equivalent of a matter-antimatter explosion, the gamma rays of perspicacity boiling off literary acclaim and sterilizing reputations.

It’s Adventures in Reader Parallax because I didn’t do a proper review.

I wouldn’t defend every claim of my 1991 self, but I stand by the gist of it.

Ian Sales is not a fan of the novel either.

Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Raw Feed (1991): The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein, 1966.

I always have trouble getting enthused about reading any author personally, rabidly recommended to me.  I read this after reading Roger Penrose’s artificial intelligence book The Emperor’s New Mind and part of a series of sf books dealing with computers including Alfred Bester’s The Computer Connection.

I expected a combination of interesting story and preachy pronouncements and got it.  But I was surprised how good this novel was.  It’s story is quite explicitly based on the American Revolution.  (Heinlein rightly points out that no revolution can succeed without the dominant power being distracted by outside matters.)  Most of this book’s “lectures” are on how to conduct a revolution (propaganda, subversion, agitation, diplomacy, military strategy, election rigging) and what the government post revolution should be.

This book doesn’t have one of Heinlein’s ultra-competent men á la the prescription in the Notebooks of Lazurus Long by Heinlein.  The closest is Professor Bernardo de la Paz.  The Professor, as his ex-pupil, narrator, and other contender for competent man — Manuel Garcia O’Kelly — says, knows a great deal and is willing to learn what he doesn’t know.  What he knows best is political theory and revolutionary tactics.  He also knows his science.  It’s him that first points out that Luna can’t keep exporting it’s precious water in the form of wheat.  However, Manny is more knowledgeable about computers and electronics than the Professor.  Still, Heinlein clearly sees the Professor’s intellectual curiosity as admirable, virtuous, and worthy of imitation.  While Manny and computer Mike supply the help, it is really the Professor who supplies the theory and dirty tricks.  And we feel sad when he dies after the revolution is successful — after being involved with so many unsuccessful ones which is why he’s exiled to the moon, a revolutionary martyr.  It his machinations that remind me most of Heinlein’s followers like Jerry Pournelle.

Pournelle’s John Christian Falkenberg, like the Professor, often does immoral or illegal things (like massacre a stadium full of people in Pournelle’s The Mercenary) just as the Professor lies and steals elections to bring about his revolution.  Both characters accept what they do as a grim necessity to bring about a more stable (in a physical sense) order.  Falkenberg, in The Mercenary, conducts his massacre on the planet Hadley to stave off collapse, famine, anarchy and death.  The Professor intends his revolution to make Luna self-sufficient.  Pournelle’s debt, in terms of story and theme, to Heinlein is obvious in this novel.

Heinlein has been wrongly accused of  fascism and elitism.  Starship Troopers with its extolling of martial virtues, the necessity of war, and the proposal that universal franchise leads to weak, decadent democracies often is the basis for this claim.  I don’t know how much Heinlein’s political views evolved over the years.  I know he was a communist (like Pournelle briefly was) until he visited Russia.  But I don’t think his views evolved that much.  I think Heinlein was interested in asking political questions:  Who should rule?  Who should have franchise?  What laws are just?  What should be illegal?  This novel, unlike Starship Troopers, doesn’t argue directly against universal franchise (though Stuart Reno LaJoie is a monarchist because he says a monarch can protect people against their own excesses).  It does argue for a minimum of laws — passed by a two-thirds majority.  “Accentuate the negative,” (what government is constitutionally forbidden to do) says the Professor.

Heinlein, as in other places, argues for alternate sexual arrangements — usually group marriages.  Here it is the clan marriage.  He makes a good case for the economic benefits of group marriage, but I suspect personal/sexual conflicts would not be easily avoided.  Heinlein doesn’t make any reference to such problems, but, then, group marriage is not Heinlein’s central theme.  It does show Heinlein reconciling evolutionary and other natural laws with morality.

One can also criticize some of Heinlein’s suggestions here for keeping government weak and inoffensive.  Monarchs (also proposed by Pournelle) can be tyrants as well as checks on popular delusions.  Politicians paying for government can work — it did in Republican Rome, but it also lead to the fall of the Roman Empire.  Indeed, Pournelle in his Imperial Stars anthologies has pointed out that virtually any government structure can be good or bad.  That is the miracle of government.  For his part, the Professor rightly says (he’s a proclaimed pacifistic anarchist) “government is an inescapable disease of human beings.”  Indeed, at story’s end, Luna is beginning to be a bit too tyrannical (though free from Earth) for Manny.  He’s thinking of moving on.

Manny is a colorful narrator who drops plenty of allusions (sometimes wrongly credited).  His competence as a reluctant revolutionary is of great aid — him and his changeable arm.  Mike the computer is a great character with his cleverness, like of Manny, and curiosity about humor.  I was sorry to see his death.  Heinlein showed a great, real knowledge of computers in this book  I suspect he probably knew more about them than any other sf writer in 1966.  His assumptions about artificial intelligence are dated, and it does take an improbably long time for Mike to figure out he can control the laser guns himself.  You can argue the non-sentience of the restored Mike argues against Heinlein really putting forth the notion that the number of logic units determining intelligence.  Still, Heinlein shows why he’s one of the greats not only for his story-telling verve but the detail — cultural, scientific, and political — of his worlds.


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