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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: SF Masterworks VII
by Robert A Heinlein
(Gollancz, £14.99, 382 pages, hardback; this edition published 25 October 2001; first published 1966.)

Another handsomely produced reissue in the Gollancz 'Masterworks' series brings this Heinlein title back into print in Britain cover scan(in the USA, Heinlein has never been out of print). Difficult to say why Heinlein's stock has dropped so severely in Britain in the last decade or two; when I was a lad bookshops were stuffed with his titles, and everybody grew up reading him. It may be that his libertarian right-wing ideological leanings worked eventually to alienate the more politically moderate brits; in which case the unapologetically ideological The Moon is a Harsh Mistress makes an especially interesting case.

It is really quite hard to respond to this masterful book except by engaging with its political content; and yet we need to make the effort to see past the ideological to the formal and thematic if we are fully to appreciate the splendour of Heinlein's achievement here. This involves, in the first instance, challenging the orthodoxies of Heinlein criticism. 'The fact,' say David Pringle and John Clute 'that Heinlein's politics are a prime concern in discussions of his later novels points to the sad decline in the quality of dramatization in his sf.' Pringle and Clute quote Alexei Panshin to the effect that early Heinlein dealt in 'facts' and later Heinlein in 'opinions-as-facts', turning his novels into 'exercises in solipsism', ventriloquist-dummies for the ideological content of the author [Clute and Nicholls, 556]. According to Daniel Dickinson, Heinlein's novels in the 1960s grew 'longer and longer-winded. Political and social criticism came to dominate the stories, while Heinlein's fictional worlds increasingly came to serve as papier-maché backdrops for lectures concerning the author's controversial views' [Dickinson, 128]. If so, then The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the most marvellous wrought papier-maché in literature.

The story is in three parts. In the first, 'That Dinkum Thinkum' the narrator, a computer repairman with a bionic arm called Manuel Garcia O'Kelly, describes the society in which he lives: a lunar penal colony in which the population occupy tunnels underneath the moon's barren vacuum, farming wheat using lunar ice reserves. He also describes how he befriends the first computer to achieve self-awareness, the 'dinkum thinkum' of the title. The lunar population are oppressed by the Earth-oriented Lunar Authority, and become persuaded that they cannot keep exporting grain to Earth unless the water contained in that grain is replaced. Indeed, the self-aware computer (called Mike) calculates that starvation will follow for the lunar population in a matter of years.

In the second part 'A Rabble in Arms', the committee execute the revolution that they have carefully planned. The narrator and Professor La Paz, a revolutionary hero and leader, travel to Earth to negotiate independence for Luna, but are rebuffed. They return to the moon, and utilise its position at the top of the Earth's gravity well to drop masses of rock onto targets on all the main land-masses below them.

The third section is called 'TANSTAAFL', Heinlein's irritating and much-repeated acronym for one of his key belief-values: 'there aint no such thing as a free lunch'. Earth retaliates with bombardment and invasion, but is rebuffed by the united population of the moon. The novel ends with Luna free and the future looking bright, although several important characters including the Professor and the Computer 'Mike', have died in the struggle, martyrs to the cause. The sense is that the self-reliant, hard-working, common-sensical Lunas are in the process of creating a much better society than any in existence on the Earth below them.

It is perfectly possible to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as Libertarian utopia: much of the book is taken up first with descriptions of the individualistic family-based social anarchy of Heinlein's lunar community, and then (when the Revolution is underway) with lengthy discussions between characters as to how 'government' ought to manage itself. The moral of the tale is that 'like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master' [The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 300], and that it needs to be severely limited. 'Under what circumstances may the State justly place its welfare above that of a citizen?' asks one character, to receive the resounding narratorial reply that there are 'no circumstances under which the State is justified in placing its welfare ahead of mine' [The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 82]. No amount of anti-social behaviour, of rape, murder, child-abuse, justifies societal response. It is not that his imagined society is soft on crime: punishment is swift and capital on Heinlein's Luna, but it is meted out by friends and family of victims rather than by the State. If a rapist and murderer can find himself a friendless, family-less victim, he can do what he likes.

But murder is very far from the worst thing in Heinlein's fictional universe; that honour is reserved for taxation. 'Comrades,' pleads the Professor before the committee designing the new lunar constitution, 'I beg you -- do not resort to compulsory taxation. There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him' [The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 302-3]. Such thinking only makes sense within a libertarian context, of course. A social democrat might argue that there are many worse things you can do to a human being than tax him or her: for example, you can torture and execute them (by way of positive oppression), and you can allowing them to starve, fall sick without treatment or grow old without support (by way of political sins of omission). But in Heinlein's universe the weak are tended by members of their family, and if they have no family then -- frankly -- it's better for them to die. By the same token, oppression by one individual (a murderer), by a group (a criminal gang) or by a government (a tyranny) is best avoided by arming everybody -- again, those strong enough to defend themselves will defend themselves, and those too weak to do so are better off dead. Paying taxes in return to police protection, heathcare and education seems to me, for instance, a perfectly good bargain; but this is to respond to the text as a transparent political tract, which it is not. It is utopian satire, and a much more sophisticated text than most readers give it credit.

This last point needs stressing, because the alleged simple-mindedness of Heinlein's political theorising has received much criticism. 'Complex matters,' says Brain Aldiss, 'are presented with a stark simplicity don't listen to all these experts with their jargons and explanations, Heinlein seems to be saying, it's as simple as this -- and we are given a cartoon, and old folk-saying' [Aldiss, 388]. Certainly Heinlein has simplified some of the parameters of his fictional revolution. Most notably, the fact that every aspect of Lunar life is connected to a super-fast, highly intelligent Computer that is also friendly to the revolutionary cause facilitates the overthrow of Authority and the establishment of a better society to a degree that strains credibility.

Heinlein's rebellion avoids over-long struggle and pain, and more importantly for its own ideological consistency, the revolutionaries are able to avoid coercing any of their fellow-citizens in the cause, because 'Mike' (or 'Adam Selene' as the computer becomes when the rebellion is underway) can short-cut so many pathways. 'Mike' is able to finance the revolution by computer trickery and subtle theft; he is able to co-ordinate and organise, to spy on all the spies of the Authority, to advise and guide, and at no time is he capable of becoming corrupted by the power he wields. He is, in terms of practical politics, too good to be true.

There are other simplifications in Heinlein's portraiture. He posits a male-female imbalance in Luna society with twice as many men as women, which is perfectly plausible in a penal colony. But from this he extrapolates a society with an exaggerated respect for women: 'two million males, less than one million females add idea of tanstaafl. When thing is scarce, price goes up. Women are scarce and call tune and you are surrounded by two million men who dance to that tune' [The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 164]. It seems, perhaps, implausible that this is the situation that obtains, rather than that (for instance) men compete for women violently with other men, the most violent accumulating harems in which women are coercively objectified and possessed. In effect Heinlein is saying 'when a commodity is scarce, people compete to share that commodity out as fairly as possible', when experience might suggest that 'when a commodity is scarce, the rich hoard it and the poor do without'. Above all, it is hard to swallow his ubiquitous assumption that a society based on the primacy of the family and a disregard of conventional laws and rules will end up like an idealised American small-town from the fifties, rather than ending up like -- say -- the Mafia.

But to say all this is merely to rehearse the arguments between the Libertarian and Social Democratic ideological perspectives. We can posit that Heinlein would have been interested in such an argument, and some of his books, such as 1980's Expanded Universe express such interest at length. But, despite surface appearances, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is not really interested in such debates. The very simplicity and self-evidently idealised nature of political portraiture in the book makes that plain. Concepts of 'freedom' are core to the book, but 'Libertarian political freedom' is actually the least important of several resonances of that term. People on Luna are indeed socially free to do what they like, provided they're prepared to pay for it, TANSTAAFL and all that. But their freedom is more fundamental than this. In particular they enjoy two freedoms that the earth-bound do not, and their enjoyment is effectively without price, despite Heinlein's repetition of the TANSTAAFL mantra. One is freedom from the pressure of over-population, a pressure vividly evoked during the visit to Earth by O'Kelley's clipped preposition-thin narratorial voice:

Bombay was bee-swarms of people. Are over a million (was told) who have no home but some piece of pavement. A family might claim right (and hand down by will, generation after generation) to sleep on a piece two metres long and one wide at a described location in front of a shop. Entire family sleeps on that space at dawn in Bombay roadways, side pavements, even bridges are covered with tight carpet of human bodies. What do they do? Where do they work? How do they eat?
[The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 226-7]

In fact the 'Loonies' enjoy unlimited free space only because mining technology means that burrowing new tunnels is a cheap and easy procedure (we may wonder why the technology has not created new living space under the Earth's surface, but perhaps this is beside the point). But the pressure of population, and the demand for food, weigh down Earth's possibilities, and freedom from that pressure liberates Luna.

The second 'freedom' is more fundamental even than this; on the Moon people weigh only one-sixth what they do on Earth. Heinlein's narrator makes this point over and again. On the Earth-visit the two Loonies cannot get out of their invalid chairs because they are so weakened by the oppressive gravity; but on the Moon, we are told, the reduced gravity means that people stay younger-looking for longer and die much older, living perhaps for ever. 'Nobody knows how long a person will live on Luna,' says O'Kelly, 'we haven't been there long enough so far, no one born on Luna died of old age' [The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 242]. People older than 120 are commonplace. Moreover, the weaker gravity wrong-foots the invading Earth soldiers and enables the unarmed mass of Loonies to defeat them as they attempt to come down the ramps, the invaders on the ramp 'had all they could do to stay upright, hang on to weapons, try to reach level below' [The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 314].

In other words, the freedom from gravity becomes the locus for a series of late-Heinlein fascinations: immortality, as in Time Enough for Love, defence against invasion, as in the various military novels. Similarly the male-female imbalance leads to unconventional polyandrous and polygamous marriage arrangements, as in Farnham's Freehold and Stranger in a Strange Land. Because the moon in this novel is realised with such material exactness we can miss how central these thematic obsessions are.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a thought-experiment as well as an adventure-narrative, a fictional space in which political issues are interrogated. But the simplification of the parameters of that thought-experiment undercut its ostensible political purpose. Another example: Heinlein's Loonies derive from a range of national and ethnic provenances, and there is a strong Soviet Russian element to their culture. So, they all read Lunaya Pravda, address one another as 'tovarishch' (which is to say 'comrade') and the whole book is narrated in O'Kelly's pseudo-Russian idiom, largely stripped of prepositions like 'the' 'an' or 'a'. Yet very few of Heinlein's characters compare their on-going rebellion with the 1917 Russian Revolution. Instead comparison is frequently made with the American Revolution of 1776: the conspirators look for a modern equivalent to the Boston Tea Party to accelerate events, their main beef is a taxation one, they declare independence on the fourth of July exactly three hundred years after 1776 and so on.

Nevertheless, Heinlein is not simply retelling the story of American independence. He is relocating the political dynamic to the twenty-first century, and by doing this he shears through 'Americanocentric' political assumptions. In this novel, it is America who is the main aggressor: the 'F.N.' or Federated Nations have superseded the USA as the dominant world power, but 'N.A. is the toughest part of F.N. Hit American cities and we can call off the rest' [The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 353]. Independence and freedom for Luna is not code for 'independence and freedom for America', but rather 'independence and freedom from America'. Again, Heinlein's smoothly mechanical surface effects in the novel, his expert control of pace, narrative, description and effect, tend to distract us from the reality of the book's third section: as the newly independent Moon prosecutes its war against earth, and rock-missiles hurtle down with enormous destructive force upon American targets.

The narrator, we might remember, is a one-armed man of diverse ethnic background -- a man 'of colour' as the phrase goes, a man who practises polygamy with women both black and white (a fact that gets him arrested when he the visits race-sensitive USA). To have such a character, a disabled coloured man of unconventional sexual appetite, pushing the button to destroy wide swathes of America, represents a deeply subversive piece of fictionalising for the 1960s. It is the gusto with which Heinlein represents this climax as much as anything that really bites.

We might take this further, a note the many parallels between the 'Loonies' and the Viet-Cong. Heinlein may have been a pro-war signatory on the famous Galaxy double-page Vietnam advertisement, but his sympathetically portrayed, anti-American Loonies, who are essentially farmers, and who live in elaborate tunnel-systems that prove impossible for invading troops to infiltrate, have much in common with the South-Eastern enemy. More to the point, the whole scenario of a war between Earth (a large, populous, technologically-advanced world) and the Moon (a small, technologically-backward nation of farmer struggling for independence) presents a penetrating commentary upon the international events of 1966. Viewed this way, the book becomes strikingly prescient. The Loonies never doubt that Earth, enormously richer and more capable, can beat them in the war, provided that Earthers are prepared to pay the price; but they calculate that the price will be too high. Using their advantages -- their distance from Earth with the consequent expense to Earth of fighting them -- and primitive weapons (literally throwing rocks) Luna emerges victorious. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress works much better as a primer of how a small nation of farmers can militarily defeat a large nation of technocrats than it does as a book about Libertarian ideology.

Aldiss, Brian, with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: the History of Science Fiction (London: Gollancz 1986)

Clute, John and Peter Nicholls, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2nd ed., London: Orbit 1993)

Dickinson, Daniel, 'What is One to Make of Robert A. Heinlein?', Modern Fiction Studies 32 (1986) 1:127-31

Review by Adam Roberts.

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© Adam Roberts 13 July 2002