Retro Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a hard book to review. Like so many others from Heinlein’s later period, there are bits of it I enjoyed immensely and bits that made me want to throw the book across the room (and out the airlock). It is both a story of revolution – both bloody and bloodless – and a description of a very different society, forged by conditions that cannot be found on Earth. In short, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is several different things at once and they don’t always go together.

The background of the story is relatively simple. Luna – a society formed by convicts exiled from Earth – is being oppressed by the Warden and his Dragoons. The Moon is Earth’s main source of grain at this point (quite how that works isn’t clear) and the homeworld is unable or unwilling to realise that the Loonies have excellent reasons to be discontented, let alone make any concessions. Luna is ripe for revolution and just about everyone believes it is only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

The story is told by Mannie, a computer technician who has discovered an awesome secret – the main computer on Luna has become self-aware. Mannie names the computer Mycroft Holmes (rapidly shortened to Mike) as they become friends. When Mannie is accidentally dragged into the growing underground movement, after rescuing Wyoming Knott, a political agitator (and surrogate mother), Mike joins up too. Forging an alliance with Professor Bernardo de la Paz, Mannie, Mike and Wyoming take control of the underground movement and start organising for rebellion. When it blows up, their underground (controlled by Adam Selene, a fake identity created by Mike) rapidly secures control of Luna.

This is not, of course, the end of the war. Mannie and the Professor attempt to convince Earth to accept Luna independence, but Earth refuses to budge and launches a counterattack, trying to invade Luna. Luna responds by bombarding Earth with rocks, battering planetside nations into submission. Eventually, Luna gains its formal independence, but at a cost. To their dismay, Mike dies in the last few seconds of the war … and, over the years, the moon slowly becomes something all-too-similar to Earth.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a story that really should have been told in third-person, with multiple POVs. Instead, Heinlein chose to tell the whole story from Mannie’s POV, with all the limitations that implies. Worse, from the point of view of my somewhere-on-the-spectrum brain, the whole story is written in a mock-Russian dialect that annoyed hell out of me until I managed to get used to it. This sometimes leads to the sense that Mannie is being dramatic, rather than talking too much about what actually happened. (Heinlein’s flourishing language lends credence to that observation.) It also means that Mannie tells us about things in hindsight, rather than as they unfold. It’s sometimes a little hard to follow.

In many ways, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has not aged well. Heinlein pioneered a number of SF staples (bombarding Earth with rocks, for example) that are now so trite that everyone does them. (This is actually a common problem with Heinlein’s works, although it should not be forgotten that Heinlein invented the staples in the first place.) His description of Mike-the-computer is both astonishingly advanced and surprisingly primitive; his Luna settlement is a variation on the Wild West that doesn’t step too far from the familiar tropes of such stories. And I find it hard to believe that Luna really is supplying vast amounts of grain and suchlike to Earth. The economics make little sense. I tend to think that the authorities are flat-out lying to the Loonies, choosing to invent a justification to keep Luna under their control than actually being dependent on Luna.

At the same time, Heinlein does present a very good picture of a society on the verge of revolt – and what it takes, for better or worse, for such a revolt to be successful. The grievances of the colonists are properly outlined, ensuring that we understand why the situation has become intolerable. He also portrays some of the differences between our modern-day society and the Loonies, although there are limitations to his worldview (see below) and they seem a little odd today.

On the other hand, he also portrays the authorities as irredeemably stupid. There is more than a little realism here – granting concessions to American colonials before the revolution might have headed the war off at the pass, just as standing up to Hitler in 1938 might have stopped WW2 – but it is the kind of dunderheadedness that gives authors a bad name. (Of course, as we see the bad guys solely through Mannie’s POV, it may be a case of POV-centred characterisation.) And yet, it never seems to occur to them that ‘Adam Selene’ is nothing more than CGI and, given that the rebels do seem to have some skill with computers, that Mannie is the most logical suspect. (He’s apparently the only computer-repair guy on the moon.)

And, given that anyone who spends more than a few months on the moon is apparently stuck permanently (I don’t think this is actual biological reality), refusing to supply comforts and suchlike for their Dragoons is a case of ‘penny wise, pound foolish.’ But one could also argue that this is a case of distance breeding disinterest. The Warden might understand the danger, but his superiors on Earth do not.

Mycroft Holmes is both the greatest aspect of the book and its greatest burden. Heinlein does a very good job of presenting an alien mentality, one learning about humanity through books and records rather than direct experience. (James P. Hogan does something similar in The Two Faces of Tomorrow.) However, Mike is also a cheap way to overcome problems facing the revolutionaries; he has complete access to the enemy’s records (allowing the revolutionaries to identify spies within their ranks), he can pass messages through the telephone network, he can monitor the enemy’s positions and coordinate the revolutionaries, he can even help rig an election to ensure the ‘right’ candidates win office. He’s well on the way to becoming a dictator before he dies – and Heinlein makes you cry for him. On one hand, I wish Heinlein had explored this aspect more closely; on the other hand, I’m glad he didn’t. There’s a reason With Folded Hands is a horror story.

Heinlein’s quiet diversity – as I mentioned in my reviews of Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land – becomes more of an issue here, as Mannie is part of a multiracial line marriage. For once in Heinlein – perhaps for the first time – a post-racism society has a minor clash with a racist society, after Mannie shows off his family to a reporter and gets arrested for polygamy. (Apparently, the Earthers were more offended by the mixed races than the polygamy.) There’s no suggestion by any of the good guys that there is anything wrong with such an arrangement; again, something that would have been radical in Heinlein’s era. At the same time, however, some characters in the book have a somewhat disturbing attitude towards immigrants who don’t conform and it’s hard not to see it as a sign that the Loonies have flaws of their own.


Luna society itself is somewhat weird. Mannie goes out of his way to make it clear that fools do not last long on the moon. Yet, at the same time, there are still plenty of fools around. (I suppose it isn’t impossible to combine practical skill with political stupidity, but it still grates a little.) The Loonies ask, openly, why one needs contracts – a man’s word is supposed to be his bond. Which is all well and good, I suppose, until someone decides to cheat. It’s possible that cheating will eventually catch up with you – someone who you cheat will have every incentive to spread the word – but it’s also possible that there will be no business with anyone who doesn’t know you. The Rule of Law allows us to form groups larger than family units, based on contract law.

Furthermore, in many ways, the Loonies are Americans … on the moon. Even the Professor is American in thought, if not in name; he never cites anyone from outside the western tradition of political thought. This may be good or bad – cultures that are not capable of adapting would die on the moon – but it reads a little oddly. For all the diversity of names, there is little diversity of thought. I don’t know if this is realistic or not. On one hand, a culture that doesn’t prize basic maintenance is in deep trouble if it has to live in an environment that requires constant technological support. But, on the other hand, very few cultures are that foolish. John Ringo touches on this in The Hot Gate.

The gender politics are also odd. (As I noted before, Heinlein tried to imagine a world where women didn’t wear society’s chains, but he wasn’t very good at it.) Luna apparently has two men for every woman, spurring the creation of line-marriages and other arrangements. It is also intensely protective of women, to the point where a woman can hit a man without fear of retaliation (because every other man will leap to her defence.) At the same time, women on Luna are not free; the vast majority of women are mothers, daughters, wives and (when they work) they work in the purely female sphere. This may be governed by the cruel necessities of survival, but it is still a little grating. Worse, whistling at women is considered a sign of appreciation (the men are often condescending when talking to women) and the age of consent is apparently low. There is something more than a little disturbing about how Luna treats women and it overshadows much of the book. This may be Mannie’s POV, rather than Luna in general – one could also see Mannie as a lonely nerd – but the novel rarely (if ever) calls him on it.

Heinlein, as always, got a lot of things right. Mannie has a prosthetic arm that is very similar to those we have today, although a little more advanced. Wyoming is a surrogate mother, something that would have been practically unknown in Heinlein’s time. And while Heinlein did not predict the internet, he did predict the results of combining thousands of databases together … for better or worse.

As a piece of literature, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is very definitely a classic of the genre and well worth a read. But it is a piece of literature, not a MIL-SF book or a more general thriller. Heinlein picked up ideas and tossed them at us, instead of following the war or anything my young mind found exciting, the first time I read the book. It deserved its awards, but – at the same time – its limits have to be noted.

PS – I showed this review to a friend and she pointed me to this piece of fan fiction. It’s an interesting take on Luna society and women.

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  1. As Spider has pointed out, the “Loonie-speak” was created when Heinlein was told to cut a certain number of words from the manuscript. He found that the best way to do so without cutting the story was to cut articles and the like from everyday speech.
    It was not a deliberate attempt to create a pseudo-Russian dialect. (You want one that’s harder to read? How about Nadsat, from Burgess’s “Clockwork Orange”?)

    Heinlein’s views on sex, line- and multiple-marriages and the like are definitely a product of his trying to overcome his Midwest upbringing in the early part of the 20th century. He was a man of his times, yet he struggled to overcome early conditioning. There was a totally different kind of “political correctness” that an American male was supposed to show when he was growing up; we can see it in the actions of such asshats as Harvey Weinstein and the like. Heinlein tried not to play into that, but in the end was betrayed by his own upbringing, I think.

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