Friday, October 14, 2011

Book Review: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Robert A. Heinlein
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

Normally I can't stand Heinlein and his misogynistic Ayn Randian treatises. But this novel was one of his least bothersome (second only in least-bothersome-ness to Starship Troopers).

Basically, if you are able to ignore any references of any kind to women or economic theory, you’ll be able to enjoy the solid science fiction story that makes up the bulk of this book.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress takes place, naturally, on Earth’s moon. It is the 2070s and there are large settlements on the moon, or “Luna.” Luna is primarily a penal colony – like Australia was in the early 19th century – and most of Luna’s residents are either convicts or descendants of convicts who were exiled there. Many are serving out additional sentences working as indentured servants for the tyrannical Earth-based Authority corporation.

The moon’s population is an incredibly diverse mixture of races, cultures, and languages; the only thing that all “Loonies” all have in common is a fierce resentment of Authority and the Terran domination it represents. Mistress is about how the people of Luna find their legs and their voice, join together in solidarity to fight for their independence from Earth, and form a new society once they have their freedom - ta da!

The book’s main character, Manuel (“Manny”) O’Kelly Davis, is a multi-racial, multi-lingual, highly skilled technical fix-it freedman with one arm. The entire book is told from his point of view (and, entertainingly, in his strong Russian accent).

The story starts when Manny is called in to fix a glitch in one of Authority’s central computers. During the fix, he discovers that the computer is self-aware and the glitch was a joke, a product of the computer’s malicious sense of humor. Manny names the computer Mike (after Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother) and the two of them become fast friends.

Initially, Manny has no interest in organized rebellion and is caught up in the Free Luna movement almost by accident, by attending one little meeting that gets raided by police. But his technical abilities and the advantages he gets from his relationship with Mike, who controls the entire network of Authority computers on Luna, propel Manny rapidly right into the center of the struggle and, eventually, the war.

The war for independence puts our hero on an interesting ethical standing. It is, in some ways, an indigenous, grassroots rebellion, but mostly it is carefully orchestrated by Manny, Mike, and a small circle of their closest friends. They provoke Terra into attacking first so they can look like justified martyrs, they fix elections, and they use censorship, semi-truthful propaganda, and harassment (or terrorism) to accomplish their goal of a free Luna.

This book was a tricky one for me to evaluate. It has a large dose of the two elements I can’t stand – and I mean really can’t stand – about Heinlein.

One of these is his awful sexism. Heinlein’s occasional claims of “respect” for women only make him look worse; he is the classic example of a man who puts women up on a pedestal so he can look up their skirts.

The other is his inescapable, simplistic, and pompous Randian economic and social philosophizing. You can never get too far in a Heinlein book before some character goes off on a smug anti-taxation rant.

But, on the other hand, Manny Davis is one of Heinlein’s more appealing characters. He is pragmatic and practical and doesn’t have time for a lot of unrealistic idealism and messing around.

And the moon of Mistress is a darned gritty and satisfyingly realistic setting. Heinlein surrounds his characters with believable underground living quarters and work environments; sensible pressure suits and other equipment; rich family histories and appropriate social structures; and a rich Loonie pidgin. It is easy to picture it as a real, functioning lunar colony.

1 comment:

Lord John Whorfin said...

My favorite Heinlein novel! Though maybe also Magic, Inc. Though I suppose perhaps that one is more of a novella.

I remember being really sad as a kid when I read this and one of the main characters dies at the end. I won't spoil the book by saying which one.

Needless to say, I'm much more tolerant of Heinlein's political musings and misogyny than certain horrific bloggers currently domiciled in R'lyeh.

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