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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Published by St. Martin's Press

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Robert A. Heinlein's career has three major phases. During the first part of his career, in which he produced the early short stories of the First Future History and his YA novels, he was typically working on very tight editorial direction, and as a result his works represented as much the views of his editors as himself. In the middle, as he became a respected figure in the field and editors increasingly trusted his judgment, he was given a far wider range of discretion in both length and subject matter of his works. Although he continued to work under editorial guidance, and his works were still edited for both length and content, he no longer had to deal with the sort of picayune objections he'd battled in his earlier career (as documented in Grumbles from the Grave). It is in this middle period that he wrote the novels that would secure his fame as one of the leading science fiction writers of his era, pushing the boundaries of the science fiction genre and showing that even an established author could compete with the avante garde authors of Britain's New Wave. The third and final period of Heinlein's life was one of decline, in which editors increasingly reluctant to tamper with success instead ceased to effectively edit him, even as age and ill health increasingly robbed him of the judgment which had previously made him a sharp and relentless self-editor, paring his stories down until they represented the perfect essence of themselves. The result was his last several books proving to be disappointing revisitations of old familiar worlds, sadly lacking in the laser-tight focus of story and theme which characterized the man at his apogee.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is the work of the man at the height of his powers, confident in his abilities and in the editorial respect he enjoys, and thus free to take significant risks in writing a novel that would stretch the boundaries of the genre as they stood at the time. And there were several significant ways in which this novel departs from what had previously characterized science fiction.

First, while most science fiction of the time was written in transparent prose that was to be effectively invisible to the reader, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is written in skaz -- that is, in colloquial language rather than in the literary language. Since it is a work of science fiction, Heinlein writes it not in the colloquial language of the early 1960's in which he was writing, but in an extrapolated lunar creole that has arisen from the forced intersection of multiple cultures and languages in the lunar penal colonies. The most obvious influence is Russian -- a logical extrapolation in a time when the Soviet Union was the only other spacefaring nation beside the US. The indefinite and definite articles -- a, an and the -- are conspicuously absent from the narrator's voice, and the present tense of the verb "to be" are either omitted or occasionally replaced with the infinitive form "be" (thus suggesting some influences of African-American dialects of English, consistent with the backstory of a Luna settled primarily by criminal and political exiles after the initial scientific explorations). However, there are also elements taken from Chinese and other Asian languages, as well as Australian dialect. Apparently some Hawaiian surf bums were swept up in the process of lunar colonization, because the Hawaiian pidgin expression "no huhu" appears frequently.

Second, the protagonist has a significant disability, but the story is not about his disability, nor is his disability the explanation for his role in the story. Instead, it's just part of his character, like his skills with computers and his interpersonal relationships, all of which have contributed to his being in the situation he's in and how he responds to it. Although he does use a sophisticated prosthetic arm which includes manipulators that enable him to perform very delicate precision work, it's still a prosthesis, not a substitute for his natural arm, and it doesn't give him any superpowers.

Third, there is the frank treatment of alternative family structures. Although it is treated as the logical result of the extreme skewing of gender ratios that resulted from the patterns of migration that settled the Moon, rather than the tittilatory "let's shock the squares" element that became so problematical in some of Heinlein's later works, they stand in marked contrast to much of the previous art, which tended to presuppose either the solitary hero who moved from one heroic adventure to another without the encumbrance of family ties (perhaps there were some casual references to a natal family now long out of the character's life), or the traditional patriarchal monogamous heterosexual dyad in which the man worked and had adventures while the woman dutifully kept house (Lije Bailey of Isaac Asimov's robot mysteries fits this pattern).

Fourth, there is the computer which suddenly wakes up to full artificial intelligence, but rather than becoming a Monster that threatens human society and must be destroyed as the primary Quest of the story, instead befriends the protagonist and seeks to become ever more human, a sort of digital Pinocchio. Although Mike is clearly an extrapolation of the mainframe computers of that pre-microprocessor era (frex, references to punched cards being used for important inputs and outputs), his usage of voice and image synthesis to create an artificial persona for himself prefigures the concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality that would become so important to the cyberpunks of the 1980's and 1990's.

In its bare-bones form, the plot of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a straightforward account of the growing dissatisfaction of the lunar colonists with the Lunar Authority and their desire for self-determination, which they realize in a series of violent confrontations first with its local representative (still called the Warden by ordinary Loonies, a cultural memory of the time when the Moon was a collection of penal colonies), and ultimately with Earth's government. However, it is not a direct retelling of the American Revolution, unlike works such as Robert Silverberg's Revolt on Alpha C, although some characters consciously draw upon it and its documents (Heinlein was first and foremost an American patriot). Instead, Heinlein spent significant time and effort extrapolating how exactly the physical and social environments of a settled Luna would produce breaking strains with a politically unified Earth.

As a result of the harsh environment of an airless world and the necessities of artificially recreating a working biosphere for the areas in which humans are to live, lunar society is explicitly monetized. Everything has a cost, even the air everyone breathes, hence the frequently repeated expression "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch," or TANSTAAFL. Because of this explicit monetization of social relationships, Loonies are better equipped psychologically to analyze costs and benefits, and have a strong work ethic. Even very small children earn their own keep, particularly children who have been orphaned as a result of the dangerous environment in which their parents must necessarily work.

Because Loonies are constantly aware of the costs of everything, they are quicker to see the systematic manipulation of prices which the Lunar Authority has been foisting on them over time. For instance, the Moon's principal source of income is the raising of wheat and other grains in tunnel farms, using ice drilled from the lunar rock. Although ice is growing steadily more difficult to find (and thus more expensive), the prices being paid for grain are remaining the same, meaning that the farmers effectively realize a steadily declining income for their labors.

Heinlein also drew upon the growing awareness of ecology (an awareness that had been the heart of one of the previous year's two Hugo Award winners, Frank Herbert's Dune) to make the continual siphoning off of scarce organics a threat not just to the economic survival of the lunar inhabitants, but their physical survival. If the resources they were exporting were not replenished in some way, eventually their ability to grow their own food would run out and they would face direct starvation, rather than just the loss of their ability to grow a cash crop.

However, the triggering incident drew upon another aspect of Heinlein's extrapolated lunar society, namely the different attitudes toward women as compared to terrestrial attitudes. The result of a particularly egregious rape-murder, followed by the murder of the woman who first discovered the evidence, is a mass uprising to punish not only the specific Peace Goons who committed the atrocity, but the entire system that made them feel able to do so with impunity.

Heinlein also does not simply translate the battles of the Revolutionary War into his future world, but considers the environments in which his characters will be fighting. There are no grand movements of armies on the airless surface. Instead all ground fighting is carried out within the underground habitats, the tunnel warrens, and actually proves to be a pretty good anticipation of modern urban warfare (although he may well have drawn upon what was known at the time of the Battle of Stalingrad). He even anticipates how lunar gravity will affect the movements and reactions of people newly arrived on the lunar surface, four years before the first actual landing. Heinlein's portrayal of the abandonments of efforts to retake the habitats and the switch to orbital bombardment intended to render them uninhabitable is also convincing -- but as a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Heinlein would have the advantage of extensive study of both historical patterns of warfare and the technological underpinnings of changes in them, which would give him an advantage in extrapolating what a war between the Earth and the Moon would look like.

However, this is not to say that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is without its share of Zeerust. In fact, there's quite a bit -- and a lot of it has accumulated in the past two decades. When I originally read it in the mid-1980's, the most Zeerusty part for me was the excessively optimistic timeline for lunar exploration and settlement -- and even then it was still believable that as soon as we finally got a space station built, we'd resume our outward drive into space, getting back to the Moon and planting permanent bases that would turn into large-scale settlements. Writing during the height of the Space Race, Heinlein had overestimated both the ability of human society to maintain a long-term commitment to space exploration and the rate at which launch costs would drop. The whole idea of massive lunar settlement through the exile of criminals, political prisoners and other undesirables is predicated on launch costs diminishing to rates similar to those of terrestrial transportation systems, particularly the 17th and 18th century oceangoing ships that carried prisoners to North America and Australia.

The medical aspects, particularly the rapid and irreversible adaptation of the human body to lunar gravity conditions, to the point that after a few months one could never safely return to Earth, were gathering a little Zeerust in the wake of the early Soviet experiments with long-duration zero-g flights aboard their Salyut and Mir space stations. (Heinlein had nothing but the Mercury and early Gemini flights to go on, and all of them were very short duration, so the possibility of irreversible major changes in the human body as a result of long-term reduced gravity were still a very real possibility discussed in medical circles -- when the crew of Soyuz 10 died during re-entry, there was very real concern that they were killed by something about long-duration spaceflight, rather than the asphyxiation that actually took their lives). Yet Heinlein's writing was sufficiently compelling that we could at least suspend our disbelief in the face of the narrator's assertions of the difficulty of traveling to Earth, and not toss the book aside simply because we knew that various cosmonauts had spent over a year in zero-g and after a period of discomfort had been able to successfully re-adapt to Earth-normal gravity and live a reasonably normal life. Of course one could also argue that adaptation to lunar gravity worked at the speed of plot, since it was a critical plot element both in terms of the protagonist's personal experiences and in the general cultural plot-drivers.

However, the computer technology was just starting to show the Zeerust as desktop computers were moving beyond the enthusiast community and becoming common enough that ordinary people were acquiring and using them for ordinary work, so Heinlein's world based upon a straight-line extrapolation of then-existing mainframe computer technology was still somewhat plausible. Even as late as the early 1990's, I worked at a library that still used dumb terminals rather than real microcomputers for the online catalog. It's only as microprocessor-based computing has become increasingly ubiquitous -- not just desktop and laptop computers, but cellular phones, music players, video players and the like -- that his vision of a single giant computer with its tendrils reaching everywhere has become almost painfully Zeerusty. A modern writer would probably envision Mike not arising in any one mainframe computer, but as a distributed entity emerging in the lunar Internet as a whole, perhaps relying heavily on the big server farms that would provide its primary infrastructure, but also borrowing processor cycles from idling desktop, laptop and handheld machines, maybe even finding ways to use dedicated processors in runtime applications.

The social structures, and particularly the extrapolations of changes in gender politics, have also grown painfully Zeerusty over the last two or three decades. Although Heinlein may have held progressive, even transgressive, views on gender roles and sexuality in his time, they come across as downright backward to many readers now, for the simple reason that they've been left behind by changing views on how women should deal with, frex, unwelcome advances from boorish louts who can't or won't pick up on signals that the young woman isn't interested. Then there's the whole thing of massive illiteracy among a society that's massively dependent upon advanced technology just to survive. Perhaps there are enough natural-language-based voice interface systems that people can operate these technologies without needing to know written language, but if people don't understand how the technologies work, they can't repair them except on a monkey-see-monkey-do basis, and certainly can't innovate or improvise effectively, which is going to be a huge handicap for a society in a situation where every aspect of biological existence is dependent upon sophisticated machinery.

That shouldn't be taken to mean that the changes in my perceptions of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress have all been negative. For instance, when I first read it, the joke on the first page that conflates Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories with Thomas Watson the founder of IBM flew right past me. By the time I re-read it, I'd done some significant research on the history of IBM and picked up the joke.

For all its problems, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress remains a significant work of science fiction. It has served as an inspiration for many later works of science fiction, from the straight-up lunar revolution action-adventure of Bruce Bethke and Vox Day's Rebel Moon to the underlying philosophy of the society of the titular Freehold of Grainne in Michael Z. Williamson's Freehold and its various follow-ons.

Review posted December 10, 2011.

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