The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein is a classic of science fiction and has been deeply influential for generations. Many of its ideas and concepts were revolutionary for its time, such as intelligent AI and it is one of the first space colonisation novels on the Moon. It was even cited to me as a plausible example of libertarian political ideas put into practice. It starts well, introducing many intriguing ideas such as alternative forms of marriage, a society without laws, how to run a revolution and life on the moon. Unfortunately, Heinlein ruins this potential by cheating to make everything as easy as possible for the heroes. Also with sexism.
The amount of cheating Heinlein uses to rig the scales in favour of the main characters is incredible. This is a shame because there is potential for a great story. Launching a revolution is a complicated and difficult task filled with many challenges. But rather than facing these, Heinlein cheats and gives the protagonists a supercomputer that solves all of their problems for them. In fact, with Mike, it’s impossible for them to lose. He designs a perfect unbreakable secret organisation system, not that they need it as they know who all the spies are and can see their enemies’ communications. They know their opponents every move and can tamper with it. They can even print money! Everything goes exactly to plan and there’s not a single surprise or setback (which is why it is incomprehensible that the odds keep getting worse and worse).
The rebellion is like playing a game on super easy mode, everything is designed to make it as easy as possible. The Lunar Authority has little impact on people’s lives so there’s little reason to rebel. So, Heinlein cheats by forcing them to rebel or else they will face extinction. If they don’t rebel, there will be a famine in seven years and cannibalism two years after that. Heinlein further puts his thumb on the scale by making the Warden act provocatively for no reason. He sends just enough police to arrest everyone at a protest meeting to infuriate everyone, but not enough to succeed. There’s no reason for this other than to push Mannie to join with the rebels. It’s hard to convince people to revolt against an oppressive government in a society with no laws, so Heinlein makes the government at oppressively by introducing passport controls for no reason other than to advance the plot.
Revolutions involve many different people with different ideas working together and there is usually tension over the methods and principles of the revolution. Not in this book, because here literally everyone agrees about everything. Not a single person on Luna opposes the revolution, questions who should lead it or has a different opinion on the actions of the rebels. Heinlein treats revolution like a maths problem, there is only one correct answer, and everyone must recognise this fact. Not a single revolutionary abuses their power or uses it for personal enrichment and corruption, there is no need to enforce discipline because the rebels are too perfect to need it.
The people of Lunar are described as the most unpatriotic people in history, people who didn’t care in the slightest about politics, people who would never fight and die for any cause. Yet when a passport system is introduced, they kill over it and refuse to get passports on principle. The fake passports actually cost more, but these supposedly self-interested people think of their principles. It would make an interesting story to read how the rebels convinced a populace uninterested in politics that some things are worth dying for, but instead Heinlein cheats so it happens without explanation. Despite telling us that the Loonies are completely unpatriotic, literally everyone Mannie knows joins the party without any question or need for convincing. The party reaches 40,000 members without any effort, as if they just entered a cheat code. If they are really so self-interested, why would they risk their lives by joining an illegal organisation that offers no personal reward? If there’s no such thing as a free lunch shouldn’t they ask to be paid?
You would think that a penal colony with barely any police would be a violent and dangerous place, but again Heinlein cheats to make it almost a utopia. In prisons, people usually form gangs for protection, but there are no gangs on Luna, for reasons that might as well be magic. There was once a gangster once tried to take over Luna like he took over a prison. Conveniently, he died on the first day and his whole gang was dead in two weeks. This is so convenient that it’s frustrating.
Heinlein also cheats to make the invasion from Earth solve itself. Thousands of trained soldiers invading is a serious problem, but before the heroes are challenged or have to think of a solution, the population takes care of it for them. That’s right, without any training or instruction, the entire population unites to wipe out the soldiers with their bare hands. How convenient. Why would these self-interested unpolitical people sacrifice themselves for the greater good? I guess it was just a free lunch for the revolution.
The book is quite entertaining for the first half until about the point where the revolution overthrows the Warden. It’s intriguing and exciting, but this wears off as I realised how easy and effortless it was. It was only on my second read that I realised how much the tone shifts in the second half. There’s a lot less on-screen action and the writing becomes drier and more like an after-the-event report. The jokes with Mike disappear, in fact most of the conversations with Mike are gone. Wyoh is almost forgotten.
The moon is both extremely violent but extremely polite, this is a contradiction. Societies with extreme violence form gangs for mutual protection, they don’t become super polite because almost any activity could provoke someone. Heinlein can’t make up his mind if there are rules or not. So, if someone owes you money you can kill him no problem. But if you kill someone other than self-defence, you must pay his debts and support his kids or else people will boycott you. How do you enforce a boycott among 3 million people? Why would people do that for free against their self-interest? If someone is murdered either “everyone” knows why and accepts it or else his friends will avenge him. Mannie explains this as if it is a perfectly balanced system and no something that will lead to endless blood feuds.
We get one example of how an anarchist legal system works and it doesn’t make much sense. A man tries to kiss a girl (who is 14 and described as a “tart”, “slot machine”, “ditzy” etc) so some others decide to kill him, but for no particular reason they decide to stop and go to the time and expense of a trial. So much for self-interest. So, they stop a stranger and ask him to be judge (I can see the problem in getting randomers to be judge) but everyone needs to agree (what if someone refuses?). Both parties need to pay the same amount (why?) and then hire a jury (which is also whoever is standing around). So Manny fines everyone and they joyfully pay. The result is that Manny got rich for doing nothing. As a legal system this is utter nonsense and wide open to abuse.
There’s been a long debate for years over the views of Heinlein, which I won’t get into because they seem contradictory. Some say he is authoritarian in Starship Trooper and libertarian in Moon, but I can see an authoritarian thread. Mannie has absolutely no respect for democracy or the parliament on Luna, he considers it a complete waste of time. The Prof clearly states that committees are stupid and ineffective, there must be one strong man who rules. There is no respect shown for democray, which is depicted as place where idiots waste time with pointless speeches and stupid ideas, so when the vote is rigged, this is portrayed as a sensible reaction. The Media too is shown as nothing more than a tool to lie and deceive, so controlling it and using it to spread false information is treated as unremarkable.
Heinlein’s authoritarian and militaristic sentiments is also clear from how the military is depicted as honest, straight-talking and decisive, in contrast to the dishonest, deceitful and dithering civilians in their way. A good example is the Minister for Arts, Howard Wright, who represents the intelligentsia, and is a complete buffoon who talks about what he doesn’t understand, who should shut up and let the soldiers deal with it. He is a yammerhead who deserves no respect because he hasn’t been fighting. Consulting the cabinet or Congress is unnecessary bureaucracy. Wright was never seen again after he opposed the military, implication being he was murdered. The only civilian casualties are due to the civilians own stupidity, the military is blameless.
Another example is the treatment of language. The idea that language would evolve on the Moon into something new is an interesting idea. However, Heinlein only half-heartedly commits to this idea and the result is some broken English that mainly consists in dropping prepositions. However, it is never explained why Mannie is the only character who ever speaks like this, everyone else uses standard English. When Mannie and Wyoh first meet, they exchange slang, but once this example is given, the slang is ditched.
Some people argue that Moon is a progressive book or even a feminist book and perhaps it was for its time. The Lunar population is of mixed race and it is commendable that Heinlein depicted interracial marriages as positive at a time when they were still illegal in many parts of the USA. However, the depiction of women has not aged well and while Heinlein might have been trying to depict an egalitarian society, he didn’t succeed.
I have seen some describe Wyoh Knott as a strong female character and perhaps she was progressive for the times, but there’s no escaping the fact she doesn’t do anything except look pretty. Every time Wyoh walks into a room, the men gawk at her and whistle, sometimes even start clapping. She treats this as a compliment and is flattered by the attention (or I should say Heinlein uses her to show how wolf-whistling is a perfectly normal and acceptable activity). She is initially introduced as a main character, but she quickly becomes little more than a prop for the men to explain things to her.
Even though she is the only one with political experience, she is mostly ignored in the planning of the revolution and spoken in a condescending way. At one point, for no reason, Mannie informs us that Wyoh thinks an electron is the size of a small pea. At the first meeting of the revolution, the Prof explains what each of them contribute to the revolution, which gives an insight into how Heinlein designed each of the main characters. The Prof contributed wisdom, Mannie pragmatism and Wyoh . . . beauty. Despite being the only one with revolutionary experience and contacts, which would have been good reasons to make her the leader, after the initial meeting she doesn’t do anything useful in the revolution (except work with Congress, which Mannie makes clear is a waste of time). At a crucial cabinet meeting at the climax of the novel, every man gives his opinion, but Wyoh is ignored and Mannie favourably notes how she “kept pretty mouth shut.”
In fact, despite the lip service to the idea that women are really in charge and boss the men around, we don’t see a single example of this. All the positions of power and influence are held by men, the only role women have in lunar society is housewife, prostitute or working in a beauty salon. The book is riddled with cringe-worthy stereotypes about women, and bad jokes about how they take long time to get ready, are obsessed with their beauty and spend their day spreading gossip. At the Congress, it is noted the men far outnumber the women, but the women make up for it in silliness. There’s no pretence that men and women are equal about the home, Mannie does what he wants and his wives follow, all the while he says they’re really in charge. Mannie practically abandons his family for days or weeks at a time, and he has next to no contact with any of the children. I doubt the wives could up and leave, and Mannie would take their place without complaint. In fact, for all his talk about how the women boss him around, it’s impossible to imagine Mannie doing anything he didn’t want to because his wife told him.
As Luna has two men for every woman, Heinlein (I mean Mannie) gives a weird lecture on supply and demand as if women were just another commodity. Again, this might have been meant to be progressive, but it merely highlights that a woman’s only value is based on how attractive she is to a man. There have been many pioneer societies in history where men outnumbered women, but none of them ever turned into a matriarchy, instead they usually try harder to control women. The result is usually violent competition among men for the women, not lax divorce laws or the disappearance of sexual harassment (which is just wishful thinking). Despite the numerous times we are told women have all the power over men, we never see a single example of this, for example at the trial Mannie judges, despite being the victim, the girl was almost silent while the boys did all the talking.
There are several examples where Heinlein undercuts his feminist credentials by showing women whose only asset is the fact men want to have sex with them. It’s never explained why or to what purpose, but the women spontaneously decide to dress slutty and tease the guards during the early days of the revolt. Heinlein goes to pains to say the women did this themselves and enjoyed it and had no influence from men. It’s worth noting that dressing provocatively is the only thing women (including Wyoh) contributed to overthrowing the Warden. Later on, women are used as a commodity to keep men at work, with the creation of the Lysistrata Corps (Lysistrata is an Ancient Greek story about women who refused to have sex with men until they ended a war, Heinlein seems to have inversed the story). Mannie doesn’t care to ask what they do or what they are paid, but he is happy with a situation where the men fight the war and women keep them entertained.
In his later works, Heinlein became somewhat obsessed with incest and portrayed it in positive lights. Unfortunately, there are hints of this in Moon as well. The system of line marriage carries an uncomfortable implication of incest and blurs the lines between wife, mother and daughter. Mannie refers to one of his wives as “Mum” and despite the fact he treats her like a mother, they sleep together. In the novel, children get married at 13 and 14 and teenage prostitution is treated as unremarkable. The case of Ludmilla is particularly disturbing as she was raised as their daughter, before she begged to be allowed marry in (perverts usually claim the victim wanted it) and had sex with her own grandfather. Her death earns a brief mention and even that is enough space for creepy objectification, here is how Mannie reacts to the death of his daughter/wife:
An explosive bullet hit between her lovely, little-girl breasts.
The book is ultimately let down by its ending, or more accurately, how Heinlein cheats so he doesn’t have to write an ending. How to build a post-revolution society is an interesting question, but Heinlein dodges it. What would a libertarian society look like? What happens after the revolution? Is a society controlled by a computer free? Heinlein cheats by killing off Mike and the Prof, literally the moment their narrative plot ended, they dropped dead without explanation. This allows Mannie to end his narrative without having to deal with these tricky issues, but it ignores a glaring plot hole. As he was deputy Prime Minister, wouldn’t Mannie become the Prime Minister after the Prof’s death? He would be one of the only leaders the population could unite behind, so it doesn’t make sense for him to abandon all his duties.
What kind of book is Moon? It can’t quite be judged as a novel as its plot and characters are too simple. Conflict is a key element in most if not all narratives, yet Heinlein goes out of his way to avoid it and instead makes everything as easy as possible. But it can’t be judged either as a book of ideas either, they are too half-hearted and inconsistent. At one point it’s claimed that on the moon, people get their health insurance from bookies which is a completely ridiculous idea. The world doesn’t really make sense and neither do the economics of sending grain to Earth (why can’t Earth grow food underground?). Some fundamental questions are ignored like where does the air and water come from? So, despite the potential for an excellent story, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress never succeeds in delivering on it.