What I’m Reading: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

I’ve actually reviewed Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress before, but I read it again for a book club at my work, so I’ll give it a fresh review. I thought it might be interesting to write this new review without reading what I wrote before, and then go back and compare.

TMIAHM is narrated by Manny, an inhabitant of Luna City on the moon, in 2075. The moon was first settled as a penal colony, and Manny is descended from some of the original penal transportees. Even after decades, despite now having four million citizens spread across several cities, the moon is still run by an Earth-based Lunar Authority that operates the place as a colony. The Lunar Authority requires the Loonies (as the moon’s citizens call themselves) to provide wheat for an overpopulated Earth–using their own precious and limited water resources (melted from lunar polar ice)–at unfair prices the Authority sets, and ruthlessly quashes any hint of agitation for self-government among the Loonies. It even charges Loonies a monthly fee for the air they breathe under the domes of each city.

Manny is an expert in computers, and works for the Lunar Authority on contract to fix their computer systems. He’s discovered that the mainframe computer that runs most automated systems on the moon has woken up–gained consciousness. The computer’s name is Mike and he’s a bit child-like. He loves jokes and talking to Manny, his only friend.

One night, a (non-computer) friend invites Manny to a meeting of an underground group that plans to rebel against the Lunar Authority. Manny’s old friend Professor de la Paz is there, and Manny also makes the acquaintance of the beautiful Wyoming Knox, visiting from New Hong Kong, one of the leaders of the movement and a firebrand speaker. The meeting is broken up by armed Authority guards, with people killed on both sides. Manny leads Wyoming to safety, fleeing through Luna City’s winding corridors, and they check into a cheap hotel under assumed names to hide out.

While there, Manny tells Wyoming about Mike, and introduces her (they talk via the phone system). Mike is delighted to have a new human friend, and wants to help their struggle against the Lunar Authority. They locate Professor de la Paz and bring him in, and in the hotel room the three decide to create a new resistance movement to win the Luna colony’s freedom, using Mike to assist them.

What I really noticed in this reading is the importance of Mike to their plotting–relevant to today’s military planning, as it shows the advantage of having artificial intelligence on your side. (Pretty far-sighted for a book written in 1966!) Since Mike controls the moon’s phone system, Manny, Wyoming, and the Professor are able to communicate without their calls being monitored by the Authority. Mike controls the colony’s personnel files, so they are able to discover who in the movement is a spy for the Authority. Mike can make complex calculations on the fly, he navigates ship landings on the lunar surface, and he controls all communications with Earth, all things that eventually prove critical to the rebellion. Eventually, he even creates a leader for the rebellion, Adam Selene, who appears on video or talks on the phone, but never in person. Only Mannie, Wyoming, and the Professor know that Adam Selene is completely made up and controlled by Mike.

Another thing I noticed–indeed, my guess is this what most readers notice–are the unusual family arrangements among the Loonies. Due to men outnumbering women by two to one, marriages among one woman and multiple men are common. Wyoming had been in such a marriage with two men. Manny lives in a chain or line marriage–a marriage that dates back a century to the first settlers, in which a new husband or wife is brought in every few years. This arrangement keeps their tunneled warren where they farm in one family for perpetuity. It also means that if one spouse dies, there are several left to raise children and farm. It actually makes a lot of sense for a family that owns a business. The scenes of Manny with his family show genuine warmth and affection among the family members.

It’s worth noting that some of the depictions of women are outdated. For instance, Loonies show their appreciation for an attractive female by whistling and snapping their fingers when she passes by, and women are expected to be graceful and even enjoy the attention. Still, Heinlein was considered a fairly woman-friendly writer back in the 1960s. In a genre that at the time rarely had female protagonists at all, or relied on the damsels in distress trope, Heinlein’s women were independent and powerful characters in their own right. In this book, Wyoming is an important leader in the rebellion, and also Mimi, the oldest woman in Mannie’s chain marriage, is a formidable and insightful matriarch who appears in several scenes.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a true science fiction classic, one of the foundational texts of the genre, and is packed with ideas that still resonate today. But it’s more than an idea novel, it also has well-rounded characters and interesting social observations. Anybody who likes science fiction would find it well worth reading.

Note after reading my 2015 review: It’s comforting that the two reviews are fairly similar–I haven’t changed much in the last six years, I guess. I did make more of the book’s libertarianism in the earlier review–as the moon is run by a distant Authority that takes little interest in providing normal government functions, the Loonies have found their own free-wheeling way to deal with such things. For a slightly different perspective, go back and see what I had to say then.

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