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.


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