The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966)
Edited by: Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 382 (Trade Paperback)
Rating: 3 – Not My Cup of Tea
Why I Read It: I picked up this title years ago, along with Stranger in a Strange Land, with every intention of sitting down and reading these two books to see what I had, if anything, in common with Heinlein in terms of writing (themes, particularly). This never happened, so both titles have languished in the TBR pile, with Heinlein being one of those greats of the genre that I knew I should read but just couldn’t seem to get around to reading. To be honest, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress would still be languishing if not for its selection for the April Book Club, so now, I can finally say I’ve read Heinlein! But the verdict? Now that’s interesting . . .
The premise: ganked from BN.com: Robert A. Heinlein was the most influential science fiction writer of his era, an influence so large that, as Samuel R. Delany notes, “modern critics attempting to wrestle with that influence find themselves dealing with an object rather like the sky or an ocean.” He won the Hugo Award for best novel four times, a record that still stands. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was the last of these Hugo-winning novels, and it is widely considered his finest work.
It 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.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of the high points of modern science fiction, a novel bursting with politics, humanity, passion, innovative technical speculation, and a firm belief in the pursuit of human freedom.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: YAY. Since this is a book club selection, we’ll be discussing all elements of this book. If you haven’t read it and want to remain spoiler free, I suggest skipping down to “My Rating.” Everyone else, onward! There’s also two major questions (in bold!) for book clubbers, so don’t miss out!
Discussion: Okay, so I’m going to be up front with all of you: if this book hadn’t been a a book club selection, this would’ve been a DNF for me. I’ll explain why, then I’ll talk about why fans of this book shouldn’t immediately get up in arms, and we’ll go from there.
The #1 culprit in what made me wish I could put this book down and move on to something more entertaining was the prose. Seriously, Mannie’s killed me. Little to no articles (the, a, etc) for starters, and the syntax at times made my eyes hurt. I did notice while reading that not everyone spoke with the same dialect, which made Mannie’s voice distinct (normally a good thing), and I learned later that Mannie’s dialect was strongly influenced by Russian grammar, which also lacks articles. So that’s cool (but don’t get me started on the actual use of what I think was Russian during part one, notably on page 40 of my copy. That ground on my nerves, it did, because it reads like gibberish and isn’t set off in italics to reinforce the foreign language quality. Not that all foreign language should HAVE to be set off in italics, but I prefer it, as it’s a visual head’s up I hope be able to pronounce what’s coming). It’s just not enjoyable to read, and I really never did get into the rhythm of it.
So that was the biggest thing. But part one, “That Dinkum Thinkum” started boring me to tears after the first couple of chapters. Once they hole up in the hotel room and start yammering about politics and then revolution and the why’s and how’s of it, I really wanted to throw the book aside and say I didn’t care. Because I didn’t. Part of this was because it bored me (true) but the other part is the expectation going into reading Heinlein for the first time: I heard he’s one of the greats in the genre, that he’s a fantastic writer, that he’s inspired many, etc. But from where I’m sitting, this part especially (and some others later) were a hard lesson in how NOT to write fiction: writers are told not to info-dump, but if they must, do so gracefully. Writers are told “show, don’t tell,” but if you must tell, you do so gracefully or have such a kick-ass narrative voice you don’t care.
I was reading this book and wondering if the writing rules we have today are a reaction against Heinlein’s style. Seriously, I wondered that. But how can that be if Heinlein’s one of the greats?
I have some ideas: this may not be the best book for a Heinlein virgin, such as myself. I’m hoping (especially since it’s on my shelf), that Stranger in a Strange Land has a more compelling narrative rhythm, so that I can admire the skill and craft taken with each book to make it unique. I hope I can do that, I really can. Because if I can, I’ll shout from the rooftops that this probably isn’t the best place to start with Heinlein. If I can’t, oy. I simply won’t understand why people consider him a great writer, in terms of technical skill.
Another thing to consider is that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is totally and unapologetically a HARD science fiction book. Especially at the time it was written/published. Hard SF, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, is science fiction whose concepts are based on provable, existing science. Nothing theoretical (time travel, wormholes), nothing wishful (intelligent aliens from another planet, telepathy), but straight up hard science that exists today. The idea is that it could REALLY happen given the constants of real science. And one of the complaints, one of the weaknesses (or strengths, depending on what kind of reader you are) of the hard SF genre is the need and desire to explain how EVERYTHING WORKS and why. Because it’s not just enough to use hard science and say it could really happen. You have to prove it, all against your fictional backdrop. That’s not my cup of tea, personally, because it leads into all the things writers are told not to do (no info-dump, no telling). But honestly, how else can one write a hard SF novel without resorting to those very things? I’m no expert in hard SF, so maybe there’s a better example, a more subtle example, but The Moon is a Harsh Mistress pretty much vindicates the stereotype of hard SF.
That’s not to say there’s no social commentary or “soft SF” as one might say, though I prefer the term “social SF” because “soft” tends to mean all those things that can’t be proven (time travel, worm holes, telepathy, intelligent aliens), whereas social SF relies on political and sociological themes and motivators (say, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed). And trust me, this book is definitely also social SF, because it’s essentially a how-to guide on how to start and win a revolution.
But it bored me. The prose was so dense that I couldn’t see past the clunky rhythm and really appreciate the message, even though I got it on a subconscious level. But I didn’t care. Sure, there were things I appreciated, like little details like how Heinlein uses gravity to weaken and strengthen various characters on different settings (how Earthers are at a disadvantage on the Moon, and how Lunies are at a disadvantage on Earth). But I’ll be honest: for me to really get any kind of mileage out of this book, I would’ve been better off reading it for a political science class.
Think about it (and if any of you ever DID read this book for political science class, do discuss): how cool would it be to read this book, which is essentially how to build a new nation via revolution (which some, depending on what side of the fence you’re on, would consider terrorism), in the context of a classroom, where you have all kinds of resources at your fingertips, including a professor who could tie in the events of THIS novel into present day tension or historical revolutions? And what about the very apt comparison of Luna to the penal colony that Australia used to be? I’d learn so much more, and I suspect that while I’d still have issue with the writing style, I’d walk away from the experience all glowy-eyed and with a serious appreciation for Heinlein and this book.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate it, but not on a level I could’ve if I’d been in the above-mentioned scenario. I get that this was a BIG THING, especially when it came out in the sixties, because not only is it talk of revolution and nation-building (talk about putting the book in historical context of the Vietnam War — that’d be an interesting rabbit to chase!), but also Heinlein, perhaps influenced by the whole hippie movement/free love vibe of the period, explores the confines of marriage and family and looks for new ways to define marriage and family, which is fascinating. This book was a BIG THING when it came out. I get that, especially on an intellectual level. But I was never, ever hit on an emotional level.
Except once, when Mannie and Professor arrived on Earth and started campaigning for their home. That got my interest and attention, and I was fascinated by the interplay between the different factors: who’s motivated by what and why, how fair will the results be? Of the whole book, that was the most interesting part for me, simply because I could engage with it on a deeper level.
So if Heinlein fans don’t want to kill me yet, let’s talk about some of the social issues that come up in this book, because I’m trying to wrap my head around something. I’ll admit: maybe what I’ve heard isn’t about this book, but rather a different one, but I’d still like to break things down a bit and find out if anyone was offended by certain things in this book and whether or not they SHOULD have been?
The position of women in this Loonie culture is particularly fascinating. At first, I was put off a bit, because it seemed like that by merely being a woman, you were a constant piece of performance art, and when you were introduced or in any means on display, you had to “perform” (the way Heinlein describes women undulating while walking or whatever was particularly awkward to visualize), and men would clap, holler, and whatever, to show their appreciation for the female on display. At first, I thought those claims of sexism in Heinlein’s work might be valid, until I kept reading and really started getting into the culture and learning that touching a woman without her consent (touching, mind you!), is an execution-able offense (says Stu from Earth: I just have trouble grasping that your local laws permit a man to be put to death . . . so casually . . . and for so trivial an offense page 163). Suddenly our culture and mindset of guys grabbing girls no matter what (and not just grabbing–this can apply to even the touching of hair) is put into an ugly light. Because while there are obvious situations where men touching women without her consent is WRONG, there are also gray areas, and then there are situations that are so commonplace that no one thinks of them as unwelcome.
On Luna, women have every ounce of power: if she’d invited Stu to her hotel room, her male friends would have done nothing. Shrugged and pretended not to see. Because choice is hers. Not yours. Not theirs. Exclusively hers (page 164). What then follows is an interesting discussion about why a girl might choose to “bundle” with Stu, the age of consent for women to be sexually active, and then a very stark picture of how DIFFERENT life is on Luna for women and families.
And I’ll be honest, I’m still trying to figure out how line marriages work in comparison to group marriages; however, after looking on Wikipedia (because we all know Wikipedia is the be-all and end-all of accurate information), I get the impression that in a line marriage, you’re only able to “bundle” with a few people, no matter how big the family is. Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s a fascinating concept and one worthy of exploration, especially in the safe context of fiction.
So the question is this: based on this book alone, what are the arguments, if any, that Heinlein is sexist, or that he gave us a sexist culture? And do you think that some of the wolfish appreciation of Loonie men of Loonie women would fly in today’s day and age in terms of a newbie writer presenting it in his or her fiction?
I’m inclined to say that while I started to see it, I don’t now. I reserve the right to change my mind, but it’s hard to stay too mad when the women on Luna formed a Home Defense Guard nicknames “Ladies from Hades,” which is totally awesome.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying there are NOT any questionable moments. Sometimes Wyoh is presented as just not being as smart as her counterparts, and seeing some of her interactions with Mannie and the Prof were awkward to my eyes. I will say I found her to be somewhat a two-dimensional character, though I did find her likable.
I did wonder, however, about racism in this book. There were a lot of terms used (Prof even calls Mannie out on such use during their stay on Earth) that had me raising my eyebrows and wondering. This really made me wonder (and this after constant use of “Chinee,” which I was sure if it was supposed to be derogatory or simply a result of Mannie’s lazy syntax): Even p-suits used to be fetched up from Terra–until a smart Chinee before I was born figured how to make “monkey copies” better and simpler. (Could dump two Chinee down in one of our maria and they would get rich selling rocks to each other while raising twelve kids. Then a Hindu would sell retail stuff he got from them wholesale–below cost at fat profit. We got along (page 84).
Am I reading too much into that? Admittedly, just because a character in a book is racist (or homophobic or sexist or whatever-ist), doesn’t mean the author is as well, and to assume so is a grave mistake. But it’s always worth discussing, because one character is one thing, but if it happens in different books and is expressed by two completed different and unrelated characters, it may be another thing.
I’m not sure, to be honest: Heinlein covers his ass on page 253 when Mannie says I never liked North America . . . . they care about skin color–by making point of how they don’t care. First trip I was always too light or too dark, and somehow blamed either way, or was always being expected to take stand on things I have no opinions on. A little later, when Mannie’s arrested for polygamy in Kentucky, it wasn’t the line marriage itself that infuriated the judge, but rather the fact it was clearly an interracial marriage.
So next question: is there a case for racism in this book? Why or why not (Wyoh’d be so ticked by that question!)? Whether or not we can deduce Heinlein’s racism or lack thereof in this book alone, what do you think he’s saying about skin color and racism in America?
A few other things before I wrap up: Mike was entertaining enough, but flat, and a little too convenient. I saw one review that complained that all the major problems were essentially solved via Mike, who’s essentially way too powerful. It’s a fair point, but not one I cared about. I’m too cynical to buy into an AI who wants to help humanity (forgive me, but my formative years were spent watching Terminator and Matrix, yo), and also, while Mike is at times amusing, he wasn’t amusing enough to make me want to turn the pages, nor was he my favorite character. However, I was fascinated by his self-imposed exile at the end: we never really learn what happened: if Mike was truly damaged or if Mike was just plain scared by the consequences of his actions. It’s a fascinating question, and not one I’ve seen raised very often: Can a machine be so frightened and hurt that it will go into catatonia and refuse to respond? While ego crouches inside, aware but never willing to risk it? No, can’t be that; Mike was unafraid–as gaily unafraid as Prof . . . But he can’t really be dead; nothing was hurt–he’s just lost (page 381-382).
A couple more things that caught my eye:
1) THE HAPPY HANGOVER–ALL PORTIONS EXTRA LARGE and what exactly that breakfast special entails (page 70). I was chuckling.
I would be satisfied to have the Golden Rule be the only law; I see no need for any other, nor for any method of enforcing it. But if you really believe that your neighbors must have laws for their own good, why shouldn’t you pay for it? (page 302)
And doesn’t that just make you think?
My Rating: 3 – Not My Cup of Tea
Don’t get me wrong: I can appreciate this book for what it is (a classic) and how revolutionary it was at the time of its publication. But honestly, I would’ve been just as satisfied reading a detailed summary of this book over reading the book itself, that’s how much Mannie’s voice and syntax turned me off. I swear, if it hadn’t been a book club pick, I wouldn’t have finished, and I don’t feel any particular pride in forcing myself to finish either. Sure, there’s moments I like, but ideally, I wish I could’ve read this in a more academic setting in order to REALLY sink my teeth into historical comparisons and sociological issues. I’m glad I’ve finally read Heinlein, but I’m really scared of sinking my teeth into Stranger in a Strange Land now. I’m hoping it’ll be wildly different in terms of voice and style, and I hope that it, unlike pretty much every OTHER SF classic I’ve read, that I’ll be able to engage with it instead of just crossing it off a list of classics.
Cover Commentary: My cover is really, really spiffy. Simple and elegant. I like the use of color and grayscale (the coloration is very subtle), and the font choice works nicely. But the design is what really makes this book stand out. Classy cover for a classic book!
And as you already know, the May Book Club selection is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Some of you may have started it already, but if need additional details on the title, just click here.
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