BOOK REVIEW: “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert Heinlein (1966)

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It would be very hard to overstate the impact this book had on my life when I was a kid. Heinlein was, bar none, my favorite SF writer, and this was, bar non, my favorite story by him. It didn’t hurt at all that I discovered it during those lonely days of my adolescence when a kid hits that “Oh, I get it now” stage in your neurological development and his ability to amass new knowledge far outstrips his social skills. I very much identified with the character “Mike,“ consequently. And of course I had the kind of righteous indignation that only a teenager can really pull off at that period, as well. This book felt as if it had been written for me, personally, and as it happened, anyone I stumbled across who liked it invariably became a fast friend. The book shaped my dreams - continues to do so - a generation after I first read it, and I can only assume it continues to do so. It is an unquestioned classic of the genre.

It’s not a very good book, though.

Thing is: I don’t tend to re-read stuff very much. With a few exceptions (Mostly non-SF) I read something, put it on the shelf and that’s done with it. I’m blessed with a freakishly good memory, so there wasn’t much reason to, and there was sooooooooo much other stuff out there to read. Should I waste time re-reading “Night Probe” by Clive Cussler, and get nothing out of it that I didn’t already get the first time through, or should I move on to “Solaris” by Lem, with its vast, unexplored literary panoramas? Should I re-chew my cud, or amble over to the next virgin field for a new feast?

I still don’t tend to re-read much. My memory isn’t nearly as good as it used to be (Though it’s still impressive), but nowadays it’s more a bad habit than anything else. The downside, obviously, is that my first impression of a book is generally also my last impression, and my perspectives change over time while my memories don’t (Much). Thus I remember the way I felt about a book thirty years ago, but since I don’t feel the same about *anything* these days as I did way back when, even if they’re accurate, the relevance of my memories are way off. Cheeze Wiz, for instance: I used to adore Cheeze Wiz. Ate it twice a day. Can’t stand to be in a room with the stuff now, though. So: does the novel hold up in the face of my more sophis-ta-ma-kated tastes, or what? Well, no, it doesn’t. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. We’ll come back to technical problems in a bit.

Plot: This is one of those “American Revolution in Space” books, much like “The Island Worlds” or the second “Mars” book by Kim Stanley Robinson, or any number of others. It’s become something of a cliché, though as with all clichés there’s quite a bit you can do with it if you attack it just right. If Heinlein wasn’t the one to originate this cliché, he was certainly the first one to really nail it home and have a lot of success. Make no bones about it: those skillions of “Space colonies revolt against their masters” tales are all ripping this one novel off. It’s worth reading strictly for historical perspective alone, even if it’s not very good.

It’s divided into three sections: the first introduces what life is like on a moon with about three million people on it (The same number as lived in the American colonies on the eve of our revolution), explains their political impotence, shows their plucky rapscallion nature, and extrapolates their eventual plight. In essence, the moon is providing most of earth’s food, and hence depleting its resources so quickly that it won’t be able to support its own population in less than a decade. This section culminates in a revolution where the colonists overthrow the government. It’s easy and fun! “Coincidentally” this happens on July 4th, 2076. See the obvious direction the author is going with this?

The second section - weakest part of the book, and the longest one by far - involves two of the protagonists visiting earth attempting to gain legal recognition for the new Lunar Free State. Predictably this goes not at all well - if it did, you’d have a very short book.

The third section involves the moon bombing earth until the people down there come to their senses and recognize the moon, and everyone lives happily ever after, excepting all the people who died, but we’ll get to that coda later on. In many ways it’s the best part of the book.

All this sounds fairly straightforward and fun, and in truth it *is,* I’m not slamming the book, but it’s certainly not the sleek, brilliant tome I took it to be a lifetime ago. It’s a potboiler with delusions of grandeur. I expect I’ll take a lot of flack over this. So be it. I believe as a critic it’s my job to be critical. Nobody gets a free pass based on reputation, no matter how venerated. Yes, Shakespeare was a brilliant writer, and he deserves his accolades, but that doesn’t change the fact that Titus Andronicus sucks, and that a lot of his gags (“He is a grave man”) were considered groaningly un-funny back in the day. Pretending everything he did was brilliant doesn’t do anyone any good, and it actually does a disservice to people who decided to start reading his stuff at the beginning and get…well….Titus Andronicus. And hence are put off the guy forever.

So: no sacred cows. Heinlein is a much-beloved SF author, and during his main-sequence period, he is on occasion very, very, very good. And though no one really wants to admit it, he is on occasion very, very, very bad. His last five or six novels, for instance, were all weird justifications of incest. His first novel, “For us, the living,” is an unreadable pile of crap (As he himself admitted) in which naked men with shaved scrotums sit around smoking pipes (That’s not a double entendre) and discuss arcane economic theory. (More or less specie-driven communism, which Heinlein thought was a good idea back in the thirties)

By 1966, Heinlein had grown out of that, and was in a full-on Libertarian/Ayn Rand kind of mode, so, of course, every page in this book fairly oozes his philosophy du jore. And to his credit, he handles this stuff with far greater aplomb than Ayn Rand does in Atlas Shrugged. As annoying as Heinlein’s didacticism frequently is, it must be said that he is an economical preacher. He recognizes that people come for the story, not the sermon, and if the preaching overtakes the plot, you’ve lost ’em. This is something Rand never fully grasped. Her ratio was about 3:1 in the sermon’s favor. Heinlein’s around 1:3 in the plot’s favor. And he’s not nearly so long-winded. This novel clocks in at about 300 pages - roughly a quarter the length of Atlas, and covers much of the same territory, albeit from a different angle. And even then, it feels like a good editor could have trimmed it down by another thirty or so, and not lost anything terribly important.

So why is this not a very good book?

Well, this book is on the trailing edge of his Main Sequence phase, so to speak, so it’s kind of a transitional stage between his genuinely engaging “Gee gosh wow” stuff and his later “24/7 orgy I-wanna’-sleep-with-my-mom-and-here’s-why-everone-other-than-me-is-an-idiot” phase. Thus about half the book is really, really cool, and the other half is kinda’ obsessed with deviant forms of marriage. (Men outnumber women 2:1 on the moon, so they have multigenerational group-marriages where a new person marries an entire family, and they all trade partners every night. It’s a lot like Creepy Sister Camille’s family/coven/terrorist cell in “Caprica,” which I can only assume was taken from here). Though none of the characters in the book act on it, there’s some pedophiliac leering in the book, such as talking about a girl getting shot ‘between her lovely teenaged breasts’, and the protagonist’s confusion about the whole ‘age of consent’ thing, since there isn’t one on the moon, and no one seems to think twice if someone wants to bang jailbait (Though, again, no one actually does in the book). There’s an extended sequence that’s supposed to be hilarious in which the book’s lead female character repeatedly jokes that the male protagonist raped her (he didn’t.) There’s a computer killing people who compares the experience to an orgasm.

None of this is presented in a pornographic, or even terribly sexy sense, it’s all intended to be homey and such, and a perfectly normal ‘slice of life’ for people on the moon a couple generations from now, but the fact of the matter is that it’s icky. And artificial. And oddly clinical. And distracting. And did I mention icky? It’s icky as hell.

I get that Heinlein is trying to show the different ways people can live and love and stuff, and I recognize that was a matter of paramount importance to him, given that he was a creepy swinger and pretty dang defensive about people who looked down on such things, but the fact is all the sex stuff just doesn’t fit the story, and the book grinds to a halt whenever it gets into the protagonist’s homelife (Which is, it must be told, deadly dull, despite all the deviance).

A second problem is the characterization in the book. Heinlein is unquestionably the best what I like to call “The Engineer Writers” from the golden age. People like Clarke and Asimov and DeCamp and George Smith, folks who were smart as heck, clearly in love with what they were doing, but, for the most part, couldn’t write for sour apples. Clarke could never quite wrap his brain around the idea that a book needs a plot (“Childhood’s End,” “Rendezvous with Rama,” etc) and Asimov, for all his unquestioned brilliance, cranked out books that read like an instruction manual for eating crackers. Really dry crackers. Heinlein wrote circles around these guys, he really did, but there’s a difference between being the best card in a low hand and being the low card in a good hand. Compare Mr. H to Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or Disch’s “Echo Round His Bones” or Ellison’s “Doomsman” or Ballards’ creepy/sexy/cool “The Crystal World,” or Dick’s wildly sacrilegious “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.” All these books were written about the same time as “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” and they show how real honest-to-God authors outstripped Heinlein in the same way he’d outstripped the other engineer-authors twenty years before.

This wasn’t a problem when I read this book the first time as I hadn’t discovered these other guys yet. All I knew was that Heinlein was a better read than Wells. I was a child. But now that I am a man, and have put off childish things, well, he just doesn’t hold up that well, you know?

So stylistically the book is in a weird place: a hard SF writer who’s trying to fit into the new wave, which he has no real affinity for. (Think Bruce Springstein trying to do a disco album) Add to which Heinlein was always a Mary Sue writer of the most blatant sort: all his protagonists are him, just with different names. Sometimes that’s good: John Wayne got an oscar for playing John Stryker in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” and he played Genghis Khan the same way. But good or bad, at the end of the day, John Wayne only played one character: John Wayne. If you liked John Wayne, that’s a plus. If you don’t like John Wayne, then, well…

If you find Heinlein’s aw shucks condescension appealing, if you don’t mind his self-righteous immoral superiority to conventional morality, if you don’t mind characters who blather on endlessly about love, sex, technology, economics, and government as if they were all engineering problems, then you’ll like his stuff: all his characters are exactly the same. When I first read this thing, I was in my adolescent “I’m smarter than everyone around me and the world would be a utopia if only the student council would listen to me” phase, and my family is full of engineers, so that really appealed to me. Nowadays? Not so much.

This time out, Heinlein breaks himself into three characters: Manny, Prof, and Wyoh, the body, brains, and heart of the revolution, respectively. Wyoh never really fulfils her promise, however - Heinlein was never good with female characters because, obviously, all his characters were him, and he was a dude - so she disappears into the background at the conclusion of part one, and is relegated to bringing coffee and stuff later on. So much for women’s lib.

Despite Manny being the protagonist, the real star here is Mike, a self-aware computer. Reading the book as a kid, I massively identified with Mike, who was innocent and wise, brilliant and ignorant, capable of so much, yet so terribly limited by circumstance, and so terribly, terribly, terribly lonely. That really appealed to me. Now, as an adult (with dozens of friends, the fun never ends, at least as long as I’m buying) I see Mike for what he really is: A deus ex machina, more or less literally.

Nothing in this book could have happened without Mike. In fact, Mike literally *does* everything in the book. All the stuff that’s successful is entirely driven by him, with advice from our protagonal triumvirate. Things that go wrong are somewhat artificially put beyond his ken (“I’m blind on farside” or when “Little David’s Sling” loses contact with Mike). It is simply too easy, too convenient. Imagine if Major Anthony Nelson decided to take over the world. If he did it on his own, it’d be impressive. If he did it with Jeanie’s help, well, it’d be kind of unimpressive, don’t you think?

Mike is Jeanie: He does whatever the plot requires with no limitations, and on such rare instances as limitations do indeed appear, they’re so patently there for plot reasons that they sort of draw attention to the patent artificiality of the novel as a whole.

Which is really my biggest beef here: the American Revolution is played out in dance remix form, which is already too obvious by half. The moon is already a utopia (Heinlein style) that doesn’t really need anything apart from the blinkered philistine pig-ignorant folks on earth to leave ‘em alone. The government they overthrow is a straw man. The opposition they face is largely intellectual, and as with all didactic arguments, they resistance is also basically straw man. The conflict is forced since simply explaining the resource depletion problem to earth would obviously cause earth to want to resolve it - it’s in their own best interests - but they don’t bother. Later on, when Earth is clearly willing to cave to 90% of their demands, they pick a fight rather than negotiate. None of this feels real, nor even particularly dramatic: Earth is bad only because it needs to be bad for the dictates of the story, and the moon is heaven only because it needs to be in order to get across the author’s views of how life should be lived.

Atop this: Manny narrates the whole book in a kind of argot a’la newspeak from “1984” or nadsat from “A Clockwork Orange.” This is a clever device that, alas, Heinlein has no affinity for, and it’s mostly just annoying and dripping with artifice. This is made worse because no one else in the entire novel ever speaks even remotely like Manny does. Ordinarily, if you’re just reading it yourself your mind kind of glosses over this, and fills in the missing words or interpolates the bad grammar, but if you’re reading it aloud - like, say, to your daughter as a bedtime story (while skipping over all the dirty bits) - it’s really, really, really tedious. It don’t flow, man, it don’t flow. The author didn’t exactly have a poets’ ear for dialog.

Atop this: there are pages upon pages upon pages of discussion of how various electronic and computer functions work. I get that Heinlein was at root an engineer (Trust me, it’s hard to miss that), and I get that he really wanted to stress the stuff that happens in this book are matters of plausible technology, not magic or doubletalk. I cut slack here: people didn’t know as much about computers and whatnot forty two years ago as we do now. Exposition was needed. Particularly in theoretical areas that Heinlein more-or-less invented for this book (Computer graphics simulations people’s faces, for instance). But in others? I mean, talking computers had been a staple in SF for twenty or thirty years already, and were commonly used plot devices on TV. Do we really need a full page explaining how the speakers work?

It’s not a complete wash, but it’s a mixed bag at best. To be fair, Heinlein manages to put forth his version of Plato’s Republic much better here than he does in his other openly didactic social engineering novel, “Starship Troopers” (1959). This book has a plot, Troopers really kind of went out of its way to avoid having one. That said, Troopers is kind of a more fun book, you know? The society it details is more believable, or at least less self-righteously ookey than the one here.

The obvious hope was that by grafting his weird (even for the day) concepts of sexual liberation and libertarianism on to our butch American heroic fantasies, he could make us accept polygamy and lawlessness and the occasional statutory rape as fundamental American values that we’d be foolish to oppose.

Yeah, good luck with that, Bob.

Bleedingheartbot - who reviews Max Headroom for us - once said that he didn’t care so much about the context in which a TV show was made. The bottom line is whether or not it’s a good story here and now. I take a more moderate position - a good story is a good story, but sometimes I can enjoy it more if I understood the spirit of the times in which it was made - but his point is valid. Is this a good story?


That’s the most frustrating thing about it: there’s a really good story in here, swamped by an out-of-place flood of late-period Heinlein himself. He can’t get out of the way of his story, and kinda’ trashes it in the process. It’s a good annoyingly told. It’s worth a read, but more as a historical benchmark than for anything else.

The best part of the book, the part that redeems it somewhat from simple “If I ran the world” wankery for me, is the minor thread that all is for not. No sooner is the revolution won, then well-meaning civic-minded liberals attempt to usurp it in the cause of the greater good. The angriest scene in the book is when a lunar Congressman starts blathering the kind of appeasement crap that was common in the ‘60s and the presidential cabinet threatens a walkout rather than deal with his idiocy.

In the book’s surprisingly bittersweet coda, about thirty years later, we find one beloved character missing, presumed dead, an admission that Prof’s grand plans for a humane enlightened libertarian government were perhaps too arcane to be practical, an implication that Manny and Wyoh’s romance didn’t really work out, and a sort of grudging admission that this end for which they had all fought kinda’ sucked. Manny, not quite a hundred, decides to leave and make a new life for himself in the asteroids, on the frontier, where civilization hasn’t yet become burdensome.

That’s an uncharacteristic admission from Mr. H: That the problem isn’t in society, but in ourselves, and it takes much of the curse off the book.


God, no! Absolutely not! No matter what kind of Conservative you are, from what country or religion or time, you’ll not like this book.

Presently I'm reading "Destroyer of Worlds," and after that I think I'll re-read "The Past Through Tomorrow," also by Heinlein. He felt himself a better short-story writer than a novelist, and after "Moon," I want to find out if he was right. I loved "Past" as a kid, we'll see if it holds up. After that, I think I'll read "Ice Age 5," the book Ellison recommended to me back in March. I also want to re-read "After Things Fell Apart" by Ron Goulart, which I remember as being really funny, though the ending was unsatisfying.

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