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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

by Robert Heinlein

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

No matter how hard you try—and some folks have tried
awfully hard—you can’t attach a simple label to Robert
Heinlein’s sociopolitical views. After checking out
Stranger in
a Strange Land
, you might think he was a permanent resident
in a summer of love hippie commune. When you’ve finished
Starship Troopers, you will be certain that he is a
member of some reactionary militia in the backwoods. If you
knew about his involvement with the End Poverty in California
(EPIC) movement, you would surmise that he is a closet
socialist. Yet when you’re done with
The Moon is a Harsh
, you will confidently label him a laissez-faire

Of course, many readers get hot and
bothered by one or another of these
stances, and they try to turn Robert
Heinlein into a debating partner. But
the joke is on them. This author won’t
stand still long enough to let you
score debating points. It is worth
remembering that Heinlein won
medals in fencing as a young man,
and you don’t get those by staying in
the same place too long.

Take my advice: Don’t debate
Heinlein, just enjoy him. And this
book may be his most enjoyable.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
represents Robert Heinlein at his finest, giving him scope for
the armchair philosophizing that increasingly dominated his
mature work, but marrying his polemics to a smartly conceived
plot packed with considerable drama.

The story takes place on the moon starting in the year 2075,
where a colony is having its resources drained in order to
support consumption back on Mother Earth. Unless the
economic balance is tilted, the moon will experience famine
and inevitable collapse in a few years time. The Earth, like all
over-zealous colonizers, has turned into a parasite, but is
blinded by its own sense of entitlement.

Related Article:
Robert Heinlein at One Hundred

This scenario is red meat for Mr. Heinlein, who never needs
much of excuse to put on the mantle of sociologist or political
scientist. In fact, this book is the source of that famous
Heinlein quote (not invented by him, but well known through
his intervention): “There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”
—sometimes abbreviated to the vaguely Russian-sounding
TANSTAAFL. (Heinlein must have had the Soviet Union on his
mind while writing this book, since the prose is colored with
frequent Russian or pseudo-Russian phraseology.) There are
many fancy rhetorical flourishes in
The Moon is a Harsh
, even though Heinlein shares the observation, at one
point, that “oratory is a null program."

Yet don’t jump to the conclusion that this novel is just as a
space-age version of
Atlas Shrugged. Heinlein creates some of
the most fascinating characters of his career in these pages.
The narrator Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis (or Mannie for
short) is a down-to-earth computer technician, who talks in a
delightful pidgin English (again colored with bits of
speak) that is one of the great delights of this book. But Mannie’
s friend, the computer known as Mike, is equally endearing,
and would make any short list of the most memorable “virtual"
characters in sci-fi.

Mike is the digital brains behind the moon colony, but only
Mannie realizes that the computer has achieved self-
consciousness. By befriending Mike, Mannie is able to enlist
the computer in a scheme to break free to Earth’s tyrannical
hold on the lunar population (known as “Loonies” for short).
Other members of Heinlein’s cast of characters—Professor
Bernardo de la Paz, who plays the part of subversive know-it-
all (a recurring figure in this author’s fiction, and typically a
stand-in for Heinlein himself); Wyoming "Wyoh" Knott, a
beautiful lady with revolutionary intentions; Hazel Meade, the
preteen girl who organizes a kids auxiliary to help in the
struggle for lunar independence; and various other fellow
travelers—contribute both to the cause of freedom and to the
colorful progress of the book.

Heinlein never wrote with more panache than in this Hugo-
winning novel. In particular, he avoids the three pitfalls that
often compromise his books. First is his tendency to get on his
soapbox and stay there too long. Don’t get me wrong . . .
Heinlein often has smart things to say when he goes on a rant,
and even when I disagree with him, I am rarely bored. But the
storyline frequently gets lost in the shuffle. Not so in
The Moon
is a Harsh Mistress
. When the author lets loose with one of his
classic discourses—for example, a detailed description of how
to organize revolutionary cells so as to minimize the chances
that the movement leaders will be exposed—it is both
intelligent (you would think Heinlein had apprenticed in a
terrorist group) but also completely appropriate to the story.

A second, related problem is Heinlein’s tendency to let his
characters control him rather than the other way around. His
stories are full of oddball iconoclasts—Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus
Long, E.C. "Easy" Gordon, etc.—who entertain their author so
much, that he loses perspective on their role in the narrative.
They give monologues—on genetics, the money supply, the
superfluity of clothing, etc.—that sometimes seem
interchangeable between various Heinlein novels and make his
books flabby at times. But Mannie, Mike and the other main
players in
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are kept on a tight
leash by the author. They add color, but never forget their
respective roles in pushing the drama toward resolution.

Above all, Heinlein impresses me here through the sheer zany
beauty of his writing. Mannie has the most distinctive narrative
voice of any Heinlein protagonist. Perhaps for that reason,
Heinlein almost completely avoids the pulp fiction phraseology
and dialogue that often taints his writing. If you are a sci-fi
skeptic, and avoid novels such as this one because you think
that they are all poorly written, this is the very first Heinlein
book you should read. It might even be the first sci-fi book you
should tackle. Heinlein was always a clever writer, he almost
always was a readable writer, but in
The Moon is a Harsh
, he is also a very stylish writer.

All this would hardly count if Heinlein didn’t bring in the clever
plot twists and conceptual surprises that are the lifeblood of
the sci-fi genre. How could a vulnerable lunar colony even
think it might win in a confrontation with Mother Earth? Yet
this author pulls all of the pieces together in this marvelous
book. There may be stories of interplanetary conflict with
better special effects and more flamboyant battles, but you will
be hard pressed to find one half so smart as this scintillating
work from Mr. Heinlein.

This article originally appeared on Blogcritics.
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