Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
Published: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (1966)
Awards won: Hugo Award
Nominations: Nebula Award

The Book:
“[This] is a tale of revolution, of the rebellion of the former Lunar penal colony against the Lunar Authority that controls it from Earth. It is the tale of the disparate people—a computer technician, a vigorous young female agitator, and an elderly academic—who become the rebel movement's leaders. And it is the story of Mike, the supercomputer whose sentience is known only to this inner circle, and who for reasons of his own is committed to the revolution's ultimate success.” ~from
I’m reading this as a part of the Alphabet Soup Challenge over at Calico Reaction.  I’ve read a few Heinlein novels and short stories, as I suspect most science fiction fans have, but I have never been particularly amazed by his work.  I respect the influence he’s had on the genre, though, and I typically find his stories entertaining.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is pretty representative of what I expect when I hear the words ‘Heinlein novel’.
My Thoughts:
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an exciting story of the fight for independence of a Lunar penal colony.  The Lunar revolution can be traced back to four characters.  While there are a number of side characters, the bulk of the story is focused on this ‘inner circle’. The ‘computer technician’ mentioned in the blurb is actually the narrator of the story, an apolitical Luna-born man named Manuel Garcia O’Kelly, who has a prosthetic arm.  He has an interesting style of speech that seems designed to be a kind of future Russian accent. It’s a little hard to get used to, but it provides an interesting rhythm to the narration.
The ‘elderly academic’, rational anarchist Professor Bernardo de la Paz, is the group’s philosophical heart.  He gives many lectures on how to properly run a revolution and what an ideal post-revolutionary society ought to be like. The ‘vigorous young female agitator’, pretty Wyoming Knott, brings her passion to the group.  The fourth member of the group, and arguably the most significant character, is Mike, an endearingly naïve, near-omniscient and near-omnipotent sentient supercomputer.
The AI, Mike, was my favorite character.  His personality is an interesting mix of social incompetence and technical brilliance, and it was fun to watch him develop into more of a ‘person’ throughout the story.  Despite my interest in his personality, I found his functional role in the story a little irritating.  He joins the revolution out of loyalty to his best friend, Manuel, and he uses his superior knowledge to completely plan the entire struggle for independence. Whenever they run into a problem with their scheme, it seems like the solution is almost always ‘Have Mike Fix It’.  It seemed that the Lunar revolution would never have gotten off the ground without a genius supercomputer to make nearly all the plans and solve nearly all the problems. 
Partially as a result of the convenient existence of Mike, it seemed that the revolution went unrealistically smoothly. While they certainly hit a number of minor setbacks, there aren't really any major unexpected disasters. It seemed that the deck was stacked in favor of our heroes, and not only through having Mike as an ally.  For instance, most of the major revolutionaries are polite, intelligent, and possess infallible powers of logic.  On the other hand, their enemies tend to be incompetent and unintelligent.  For instance, some of their early subversive activity could be pretty clearly traced back to the main Lunar computer.  Even the heroes seemed surprised that their opponents never made this fairly simple connection. I would have found the revolution more interesting if the two sides were more evenly matched in cleverness, and the Lunar revolutionaries faced more unexpected responses from those in power.
As for the gender and societal structure of the penal colony, I found it both interesting and unrealistic. The society is sort of a matriarchy, which Heinlein describes as rising from a low ratio of females to males.  Since there is a very low supply of heterosexual sex for men, they treat women with a lot of deference.  They also developed various polygamous marriage structures, in order to maximize male access to females.  For instance, a marriage with two men and one woman is one of the most common structures.
This respectful and highly logical response to the situation seems somewhat unlikely to me.  Human beings en masse rarely tend to act in a peaceful and logical manner when they are all trying to obtain the same limited resource.  Given human history, I would have expected for Luna to go in the other direction, with men killing each other and hoarding as many women as possible.  I find it curious that Heinlein seems to think human beings are naturally rational and nonviolent.
I referred to their society as ‘sort of a matriarchy’, because all female power in this society seems to derive from their ability to provide men with sex.  While women are highly respected for their feminine charms, they don't seem to actually hold many positions of power.  Most women are either housewives or work at traditionally female support occupations.  A few women contribute to fighting in the revolution, but they do so in special women-only squadrons.  Wyoming has the least traditional female role in the story, but even she has a whole subplot tied up with how her (possible) inability to bear children affects her worth as a woman.  I feel like the Lunar society was intended to be an example of a society of empowered women, but it seems to me that it missed its mark.
My Rating: 3.5/5
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an entertaining story of revolution that also provides many discussions about the art of revolution and the ideal structure of a society.  I may not have agreed with the views espoused, but I still found the discussions interesting. While it seemed that Heinlein was trying to create a Lunar society where women were empowered, he ended up creating a society where women derive power from their ability to provide sex to men. I was also a bit disappointed by the way the deck was stacked in favor of our heroes, through the near-unstoppable abilities of Mike and the incompetent opposition to the revolutionaries.   It’s certainly an exciting story, but I would have liked to see our heroes overcome a few more of the obstacles to freedom through their own human ingenuity.     


  1. Great review, and I particularly agree here:

    Given human history, I would have expected for Luna to go in the other direction, with men killing each other and hoarding as many women as possible. I find it curious that Heinlein seems to think human beings are naturally rational and nonviolent.

  2. Thanks! In that sense, their society seemed a little overly optimistic to me. And, by the way, I'm really enjoying your 2011 Book Club! Your reviews are always fun to read, and there's so much interesting discussion going on.