The Moon is a Harsh Mistress


Rereading Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress reminds me of just how well he executed that novel. There are probably some false notes in it, but very few.
The action takes place about sixty years from now when Earth’s Moon has been sparsely settled mostly by convicts expelled by various countries on Earth: a much larger Devil’s Island, and even more difficult to escape from.
Most of these convicts, ex-convicts, and descendants of convicts don’t waste time on impossibilities. They have enough to do to survive. They don’t like the Authority that makes sure they send agricultural produce to Earth (part of their survival strategy has included agriculture grown underground), and there are various movements to win independence, but none of them very effective. Part of the reason is because Authority isn’t interested in much besides sending produce to Earth. They let the Loonies (inhabitants of the Moon, and Luna City, where most of the action takes place) do pretty much what they want, as long as they don’t upset too many apple carts.
The narrator happens to attend a revolutionary rally within the first few pages, and while he doesn’t disagree with the sentiments, doesn’t feel the speakers have thought of an effective way to rebel. While he doesn’t like the Authority (personified by the Warden), his family is pretty comfortably fixed, cheats the Authority as often as they can get away with it, and otherwise doesn’t worry about it much.
But the rally is broken up by police/soldiers of the Authority quite violently, and all those attending scatter. The narrator rescues a beautiful woman, they find a place to hide together, bring another friend into their hiding place, and embark on political discussions.
At the time of the action the population of the moon is relatively small: about three million, compared to about 11 billion for Earth. Of course they have few if any personal weapons more effective than knives. Authority wouldn’t allow them guns, and guns are more dangerous in a pressurized environment in which a stray bullet could let vacuum in and air out. If the government of Earth is willing to make the investment, they can easily dispose of the rebellion: simply drop a few atomic bombs on the various cities (there are two others besides Luna City) and start over again. That would probably be prohibitively expensive, though.
That expense is one advantage the Loonies have. There are two others: they live at the top of a gravity well, and can throw stones at the Earth, which is at the bottom. This means they can fight without having to build bombs (technologically and financially beyond them), they can get by without a Navy (financially impossible), and relatively few soldiers can be landed to fight on the Moon. Immense expense again, exacerbated by soldiers from this planet being unused to the tremendously difficult environment. Loonies are used to it, Earth people aren’t.
The other advantage they have is a huge computer to which much memory, much data, and many functions have been added. The computer has become self-aware, and is friends with the narrator, whose business is fixing computers. The computer, named by the narrator Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock Holmes’ highly intelligent brother), or Mike, takes over the leadership of a movement to conduct a successful revolution, along with the narrator and his two friends.
It turns out there’s an urgent reason to have a revolution–an ecological one. The Loonies make most of their money through agriculture. One of the necessities of agriculture is water. Water can be found on the Moon in the form of ice, but ice is getting more scarce. Loonies recycle water, but also ship a lot of it to earth, in the form of the crops the Authority demands. Mike, the computer, forecasts ecological catastrophe seven years from the beginning of the story. The problem is one that no one even recognizes, let alone will be willing to do anything about it in time. Revolution is thus necessary.
This novel echoes many current problems and past revolutions. The ecological problem described is much simpler than the ones facing us, though not especially more tractable. Water shortage is already a problem in much of the world, and doesn’t promise to get better soon. But Loonies don’t have to deal with pollution from a multitude of sources as we do. Other than the Authority, they also don’t have to deal with a lot of institutions with vested interests, as we on Earth do.
There is no law as we know it. Authority doesn’t care what Loonies do, as long as they supply the crops, so violent crime is dealt with by private citizens, some of whom are willing to serve as judges (for example) to try to make sure too much violence doesn’t occur.
One crime that occurs very rarely is rape. This is because there are many fewer women than men, so anyone who rapes or kills a woman is eliminated as quickly as possible by other men. You might suppose that in such a situation all men might turn into rapists, but no one would survive too long that way in such a hostile environment. I must remind anyone who doesn’t know, or may have forgotten, that the Moon has no atmosphere, so humans can only survive in cities or houses which are pressurized so air will stay in, and vacuum will stay out. In such a place one doesn’t survive by being sloppy or antisocial.
So Authority provides few services. Loonies therefore provide them for themselves, like schools, all of which are private, and all of which are in relatively easy reach of most citizens, as few are really rich. One of the few real institutions mentioned is a bank. All other forms of activity are relatively fluid.
Heinlein describes alternative versions of marriages, not in much detail, but many seem to be different types of extended families. That would seem to suit a frontier society, which the Moon is, though about three generations removed from being a totally raw frontier. A frontier society also makes Heinlein’s libertarian notions work. People disagree, but know what it takes to survive, too. Harder to see with a society grown rich and institutionalized.
What comes across most clearly is just how difficult it is to pull off a revolution and really make it work as intended. There are all kinds of issues to consider, and with a complex society, especially one with at least one extremely powerful neighbor, it just about TAKES a self-aware computer to keep track of them all. It only begins with organizing a secure structure to prevent information leaks. There are many ingredients to the revolutionary cake, some of them specific to location, some not. What do you work towards, what do you leave out? In the Moon’s specific case, Heinlein posits (through Mike, the computer) that it’s necessary to have war. Otherwise the Loonies will accept the first offer that sounds good, and the root problem won’t be addressed. They get war, trying to keep it as limited as possible, and do so successfully. But the narrator at least implies that later on society has gotten fat and lost track of its roots.
This is a problem with any revolution. How do you prevent it from turning into a replica of the thing you were rebelling against? You could argue that you mostly don’t. A recent article says the USA would have done better to stay with Great Britain, mostly because minorities would have been treated marginally better, and because the legislative process is less of a strait-jacket. Arguably, we might have become less ideological about race, for instance.
France was inspired by the USA to have a revolution of its own, and had a more extreme one (though ours was more extreme than usually realized).
Haiti was inspired by both, but was handicapped by being in the backyard of three great powers; four, if you count the United States. Haiti succeeded, but then got punished when they didn’t maintain their military, and has been a mess ever since the first half of the 19th century.
Russia emulated the Czars, and made an even worse tyranny. China emulated Russia.
Thomas Jefferson recommended that the tree of liberty be periodically watered with blood. Trotsky had much the same idea with perpetual revolution. But how does perpetual revolution work? Consider Russia, where change was catastrophic for at least 30 years. People got tired of it. The same in China, for even longer. Does human nature even permit substantive change?
That’s a question we need to ask ourselves. Heinlein was prescient in at least one respect: many of our most basic problems are ecological, and few people are interested in doing anything about them. What will it take to modify our behavior so we can survive? I’m afraid it will take a great deal of death and destruction, to begin with. Heinlein provided a happy ending to his novel, but doesn’t seem to have been totally optimistic. In order to survive, we will probably have to develop an entirely different orientation, and that won’t come easy. An acquaintance suggested that we need better people. How do we get them? It’s clear that “Revolution from above” tyrannizes without making people more virtuous. People don’t get virtuous unless they really see the advantages, and there are plenty of distractions to keep them from seeing.
But Heinlein’s characters saw a problem (or group of problems) and tried to do something about it (them). We can choose to do so too.


Robert Heinlein


Robert Heinlein was an interesting author, and one of my favorites. He was very talented, selling the first story he ever wrote, and then going from there. I doubt he ever had many (if any) stories rejected.
He began his career in 1939 after bad health forced him out of the military. During his first decade of writing professionally (with some time out to make scientific contributions to the Second World War) he was experimenting, trying both fantasy and science fiction, and many of the plots and scenarios established by others. Probably his most famous work in that decade was his Future History series of linked stories, which he never entirely finished, but some of the characters of which would turn up again later.He was pretty successful at just about everything he tried, but changed as he went along.
In his second decade of writing most of his work was for juveniles, mainly boys. That’s what’s known as the bildungsroman, in which a boy becomes a man. He wrote more than a dozen of these. Some, but not all, had simple plots, but the main attraction of them was the simplicity and clarity of the writing, which painted a picture of the story’s situation in simple words. The morality of the stories was usually easy to understand too.
One of the more complicated plots in these books (and one of the later ones) was Citizen of the Galaxy, in which the main character begins life as a slave, and is bought by a beggar on a world with a much different civilization than ours–apparently, at least. The boy (by now a young man) has to escape the world, and enters a different one: that of the Free Traders, a complicated and stratified society, each family based on its own spaceship.
The young man eventually has to leave this society too, and joins the military of the government centered on Earth. During his stay there it becomes necessary to ascertain his identity. He turns out to be the son of a rich man who had been lost in space decades ago. He was too young to be able to remember much about the trip or his capture, let alone his parents. Most of his memories are about the beggar who bought him, who turns out to have been an intelligence operative with a great loathing for slavery. He is disappointed to discover that some of the companies he now owns are or were complicit in the slave trade.
The beggar who raised him is the character who appears often in Heinlein, especially in his later work: The Wise Old Man. This is a way for Heinlein to express some of his own opinions, but is also an archetypal character.
I’m not sure what slavery symbolized for Heinlein. The institution, of course, was long gone by his day, and I don’t recall reading any comments of his on the novel. But he makes you feel the disgust for slavery he obviously feels. Morality is something important to Heinlein, and he expresses it clearly. You may disagree with his positions, but not that morality is a passion to him. This is certainly true of his juvenile novels to greater or lesser extent, becoming perhaps more important and certainly more complex in his later work in those genres. Citizen of the Galaxy wasn’t necessarily better than the others. They were all more or less good. But at that point, in the late 1950s, juvenile novels had become too confining for him. One thing about them that I’ve been curious about is that Heinlein never had any children. I don’t know if it was infertility or some other reason, but considering he wrote so many juveniles I wonder if he didn’t want to have children himself, was unable, and used this particular form to compensate by teaching other people’s children instead of his own.
His new writing phase probably began with Starship Troopers, in which a boy graduating from high school enlists in the military and grows up there. A bildungsroman again, but with more of a political component than before.
Many of the scenes are from a required high school class which has obviously greatly influenced the narrator. The teacher (another Wise Old Man) is explaining the way the current society is structured. It seems that there had been a devastating war, and the previous government had fallen apart. Veterans had put a government together and had withheld the vote from anyone who didn’t serve in the military. Those citizens were allowed to do anything else, but not to vote. The rationale is that military people have more sense of responsibility than people who didn’t serve.
Heinlein later said that when he said veterans he didn’t mean just military people, but he didn’t make that clear in the novel. I was too young to pick up on the controversy when I read it uncritically. Only later, on reading commentary on it by other people, did I even think about it. By that time I had already been disappointed by Heinlein’s support for the Vietnam war, so his viewpoint wasn’t entirely surprising. He had wanted to make the military his career, and had been frustrated by his health. So he must have idealized it, though he must also have known the history of the military around the world shows it can be as corrupt as any other part of society.
He did some of his best and most famous work in this latter phase of his career, but it was also less even in quality than previously. Stranger in a Strange Land is probably his most famous novel, and I found it thrilling when I first read it, partly because of Heinlein’s view of sexuality, partly because his Man from Mars had perspectives I’d never encountered before. The problem with that now is that Heinlein’s view of sex was very idealized. His main character did note how sad it was that people hurt each other that way, but didn’t really acknowledge just how badly people can hurt each other. Nice that Heinlein’s characters are sexy, frequently fall into bed with each other, and also manage never to hurt each other. Most of us aren’t so lucky or able.
Heinlein also had his Man from Mars “disappear” people who had bad intentions towards his friends. The first few times are described in detail, and the reader is most inclined to sympathize, but that kind of thing can become a habit, and near the end of the book the Man from Mars is getting rid of a lot of “criminal types”. Of course he “groks” who they are, so he’s unable to make mistakes, again unlike most people. Another Wise Old Man, Jubal Harshaw, is as important a character in Stranger as the Man from Mars himself. He explains a lot of the “Martian’s” perspectives to less sophisticated characters, as well as the reader. Since Harshaw is also a writer, it’s extremely obvious for whom he is a spokesman.
Three novels intervened between “Stranger” and Heinlein’s next great novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress;/. None of the three were terrible, but none was a masterpiece either. Podkayne of Mars may have been an attempt at a bildungsroman with a female lead character, but Podkayne didn’t really change much through the book. Glory Road could be read as the importance of being ready for adventure any time, but it wasn’t Heinlein’s best either. Farnham’s Freehold was a rather strange effort, in which a family is transported into the future in which blacks are the dominant race, and we discover they can be just as nasty as whites. I don’t recall that Heinlein acknowledges very clearly just how toxic American society has been to blacks, his effort being implicit more than explicit.
His next great novel (and possibly his best overall) was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which he does what he does about the best that he ever does it. The novel is set on Earth’s moon and is about a rebellion against Earth’s government led by self-aware computer. The situation is clearly parallel to the American Revolution, and the plot turns on the Earth’s single government as being too busy with other things, as well as the Moon’s advantage in being at the top of the gravity well. It enables them to throw stones.
Later Heinlein novels include one about a brain transplant I Shall Fear No Evil, and Time Enough for Love, which is built around a character from a previous novel who is now over a thousand years old (yet another Wise Old Man, and this one the main character), and includes a lot of stories from his life. One of the most curious aspects of the latter novel is that the main character goes back in time and has sex with his own mother. This is a measure of Heinlein’s idealism of sex, and this is one area in which I think he was mistaken. Perhaps some people can have incestuous relationships without damaging anyone, but the preponderance of evidence seems to say that incest is taboo for a reason: it may be almost universally tempting, and it does seem to be damaging for most participants. This particular theme makes you wonder if Heinlein felt sexually deprived, or whether he was merely recounting some things he had done, or wanted to do.
The novel that sets the blueprint for most of Heinlein’s later work, though, isThe Number of the Beast in which one of his characters invents a device that can take you to parallel worlds; a world where Germany and/or Japan won World War II, for instance. But Heinlein takes his characters to fictional worlds like Oz, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars, and eventually his own novels. There are villains in this one, though we’re never sure just who and what they are, but they clearly resent anyone else being able to travel in the way Heinlein’s characters do, trying to destroy anyone who does. This provides the basis for several other novels, and the feeling of them is curious.
Heinlein was in poor health for much of the time between the late sixties and 1987, when he died. These novels read like a fear of death, and desire for immortality, as when, in Time Enough for Love, the main character gets rescued at the point of death by friends in a time machine. The last line of the novel is, “Oh, you can never die.”
One wonders too about the confluence of Heinlein characters at the end of The Number of the Beast. Is this just in praise of a good party? Or is it a sort of celebration of Heinlein’s real-life friends? Did he feel closer at this point to his own characters than to very many actual friends? Or was he feeling lonely, instead? I don’t have any definitive answer.
Like any author, he had his blind spots, but in my opinion he created a lasting array of well-crafted high-quality stories, even in the latter part of his career, when his work got more peculiar. I hope people are still reading them. I think they’re missing something if they don’t.