Mark's Reviews > The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
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Dec 15, 08

Read in December, 2008

Ah, Heinlein: SF's great paradox artist. I am fairly certain that I have personally held every possible wrong viewpoint on the man. Namely, that he was:

1) A radically forward-thinking visionary of libertarianism
2) A raging fascist, homophobe, and misogynist
3) Any point on the sociopolitical spectrum in between.

It's not my fault. Over the course of his career, Heinlein seemed to espouse every possible viewpoint on religion, government, and gender relations (obviously, he liked to stick to small themes), showing little tolerance for moderate opinions. Without a blink of irony, he also placed a premium on pragmatism.

And the balance of pragmatism and idealism -- or, rather, the illusion that the two can coexist effortlessly -- is what The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is all about. It is the story of a lunar colony's revolt, in the same way that The Fountainhead is a book about architects (an insulting comparison; Heinlein's prose is significantly more readable than Ayn Rand's). You see, it's really about libertarianism -- or, as one of the book's heroes characterizes it, "rational anarchism."

So, a small group of revolutionaries attempts to liberate the moon from her Earthbound oppressors, and institute a perfect anarcho-syndicalist commune in their stead. They set about doing this, of course, with the help of a sentient supercomputer. They organize the people of Luna, and succeed in overthrowing the existing government, but in so doing upset the nations of Earth. After all, the moon has been shipping grain down to help feed Earth's starving masses, so they're a little cranky when the "Lunies" threaten to cut off the supply (you'd be cranky living on 1,800 calories a day too).

Coincidentally, the ruling philosophy on Luna is the maxim "TANSTAAFL" -- There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. I mentioned that Heinlein was subtle, right?

So they go to war, and then, in the novel's single biggest twist, the computer doesn't turn evil. I could hardly believe it.

Although the book is riddled with bizarre moments that nag one's attempts to suspend disbelief (the most persistent being Mike the Computer's regular updates as to the revolutionaries' "probability of success," which starts out at 1/7, and then -- as everything proceeds to go perfectly to plan -- drops to as low as 1/100, in unapologetic defiance of all mathematical logic), the plot's weaknesses don't matter. Heinlein is a gifted novelist, and a natural storyteller. Even when the characters decide to take 10 pages off and simply talk politics for a while, it's enthralling.

And talk politics they do. No one flinches at the notion of attempting to institute a perfect democracy run entirely by a handful of exceptional individuals, who themselves defer to the managerial expertise of a supercomputer (no tyrannic potential there, right?). Nor do they worry themselves with the philosophical contradiction of attempting to forge a pacifistic state by means of terrorism and interplanetary warfare (those who raise the issue, and thus violate Heinlein's worship at the Altar of Pragmatism, are conveniently Roslined out of the nearest airlock; it's okay, they're wormy enough that you won't miss 'em).

But all of this simply serves to illustrate Heinlein's mastery of the ideological paradox. He's more than smart enough to recognize the inconsistencies of his own personal politics, and to play with them to terrific effect. Notably, Heinlein did not self-dentify with the majority of his protagonists. Instead, his Mary Sues are characters like Stranger in a Strange Land's Jubal Harshaw and, in the case of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Professor Bernardo de la Harshaw--er, Paz. They are cynical old men who are, in novel after novel, infallible, brilliant, well-connected, and almost disturbingly capable.

Exit thought: why is it that the computer that makes the revolution possible just happens to share its name with the superhuman hero of Stranger In a Strange Land, both of whom disappear suddenly and inexplicably upon concluding their tasks?
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Elling Borgersrud You nailed it! Great review.


Spencer Whetstone Best review of MIAHM. I have ever read.


spikeINflorida Super cool review. I'm starting to read this classic NOW.


message 4: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy Dude, I am almost done with stranger in a strange land. I guess I should expect spoilers in book reviews.


Michael Great review, love the analysis. But Amy makes a good point - spoilers (about both books) should be tagged, please!


Levon Nice review, brings up some points and perspectives that I hadn't considered, so thanks!


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