The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Posted by : atcampbell | On : March 3, 2008

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Fourteen people attended this meeting at the North Village library, and two submitted comments by email. Four were first-time attendees. Our topic was A Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein’s classic novel of a revolutionary war between a lunar colony and the Earth. Nine of us had read Heinlein before. Ten of us started the book, and all finished. Four of us had read the book years earlier, including two who read it serialized in a magazine in the 1960s.

One reader said that Heinlein is one of his all-time favorite authors, and he’d read this book at least four times. He remarked that Heinlein did an exceptional job predicting technological developments, and that even forty years after its publication, the technology holds up pretty well. He praised the wonderful AI character, Mycroft (also known as Mike), who develops out of “emergent behavior”. And he praised this book’s Luna colony as a rational world you could imagine.

We liked Heinlein’s wonderful, clear writing. He does so many things well and does not have to explain them. He developed an artificial dialect for the lunar society, but he did it so well that he made it work. Several people commented that the slang gives the book a charming and cozy feel. One person even said he started thinking in this dialect which reading the book.

A reader who’d read this book on initial publication remarked on its innovations. The idea of an intelligent computer was relatively new, but having one that would deliberately lie for a higher purpose was previously unthinkable. The idea of surrogate mothers was shocking at the time.

The depiction of relationships between men and women was a subject of much discussion. Line marriages, which involve many people and have new members periodically voted in, are a new idea (particularly in the 60s) but make sense within the world of the book. . Several in our group found the men on this planet to be unnaturally well-behaved in their treatment of women who are such a minority of the colony’s population. One person commented that Heinlein is old-fashioned in that even in his 60s novel s that counterculture embraced, most sex is within marriage and usually for the purpose of procreation.

Several of us feel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of the most successful political sf novels. The consensus-building in the Luna colony makes sense. Many found the depiction of the revolution to be the most interesting part of the book. The emphasis on public relations and manipulation of media was amazingly forward-thinking. The cell-based organization of the revolution has become standard. Some think this would be a good handbook for a real-world revolution.

A heavily libertarian viewpoint permeates the story. A few people mentioned how the ideas in this book influenced their personal politics. One person found the ideas off-putting and unworkable, since they depend heavily on everyone having a family to take care of them.

We talked about some of this novel’s innovations that are now standard tropes. These include throwing rocks as an effective space weapons system, the phrase “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” (TANSTAAFL), and many of the political ideas.

One person was pleasantly surprised that the AI character was entirely a good influence and did not turn bad at the end. She found it refreshing that a computer would only inherit the best qualities of people. She felt that Mike was truly one of the heroes of the revolution. Another attendee commented on how pleased he was that in a later novel, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Heinlein sent people to rescue Mike from an unpleasant fate.

We did have some problems with the book. A couple of people complained about antiquated technology, a stitched-together social structure on Luna designed to make a point, and non-rigorous science. One person felt that some characters were rather simple, designed as cardboard cutouts for political discussions. She further commented that the “anarchist paradise” of Luna colony was unconvincing. A couple of us found these issues too distracting to find any value in the book. The rest of the group could see and even agree with these concerns, but found plenty to like otherwise.

We two notable exceptions, we loved The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. At the end, we had a brief discussion to pick our favorite Heinlein book. Most of us had read at least 10 of his books. Our choices were the following:

1) The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

2) Citizen of the Galaxy/Stranger in a Strange Land (tie)

4) The Door into Summer/Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (tie)

After the meeting, we had a nice dinner at Waterloo Ice House.

— A. T. Campbell, III