The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert A. Heinlein
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 28, 2019
Robert A. Heinlein's last Hugo winner (not counting Retros) was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It was first serialized in Worlds of If magazine from December 1965 to April '66. The copyright page of my current copy says that was a shorter version, but since I haven't read that I don't know how condensed it was, what was left out. It's not a long book by today's standards, quite a bit shorter than Stranger in a Strange Land, his longest novel up to that point. The image to the right is from the first paperback I read, which is only 302 pages. The trade paperback I just read is 382 pages, but it doesn't actually start until page 11, has relatively large print, wide margins, and plenty of blank pages since each chapter starts on a right-hand page, and first and last page of most chapters are less than half a page. Yet in that short span Heinlein crafted a complex tale of action and intrigue, and still had time for peripheral "talking points." It's not as didactic and pedantic as Stranger, even though it shares similarites, but still remarkable in its complexity in such a small package.
I've read this more times than any other book, of any genre, and it's still my favorite Heinlein story, which means it's very high on my list of all-time favorite books. Incredible work is being done in the genre today, some of which may have knocked this down a few places on my overall list, but as for classics it is definitely in the Top 10, maybe even Top 5. There are not as many problematic elements as in some of his other work, even reading now with (hopefully) a more inclusive perspective. I do believe Heinlein thought he was liberal-minded, respectful of women, even though he was stuck in the "putting them on a pedestal" mode, while still limiting how women were regarded in his futuristic scenarios. Then again, different characters in this book have different attitudes, and it has never been clear which of his characters most accurately expressed his personal views. As for the science in the story, he and practically everybody else got things wrong about computers. Very few in SF that I'm aware of envisioned the miniaturization of processors, shrinking the physical size of computers while increasing memory and processing power. Instead, Mike, named for Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft, since it is a Holmes-IV mainframe computer, gained sentience because of how large its memory banks became, the number of peripherals attached, so as to come close, if not exceed, the synaptic complexity of a human brain. It's not necessary to believe that is how computers would become self-aware, but it is necessary to accept it to allow this story to develop. If you can accept that then you're in for a treat.
The first-person narrator is Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis. He has a multi-ethnic heritage, and a unique voice which includes clipped English, lots of slang phrases, including words from Russian and other languages. Mannie is a free-lance computer technician, the best, if not the only one in Luna. He's the one the Lunar Authority calls on to troubleshoot its computer system, which has been tasked with controlling almost all Authority functions, as well as being farmed out to banks and other businesses for accounting purposes. Only this computer is self-aware, and has a sense of humor. Mannie is the only one that realizes it, the only one Mike talks to. Mike might talk to others if not for the fact "he" thinks all other humans are stupid. Mannie promises to introduce Mike to some not-stupids if and when he thinks they can interact with a computer on a sympathetic level. This is one of the similarities to Stranger. Mike is a lot like Valentine Michael Smith, capable of absorbing a vast array of knowledge in a short period of time, but naive and ignorant of what it means to be human. Mike and Mannie's relationship also has similarites to that between Jubal Harshaw and Smith, and on at least one occasion Mike declares he must be stupid to not have thought of an idea that Mannie presents to him. Mannie gets the chance to find a not-stupid fairly quickly, as Mike asks him to attend a meeting for which his remote audio and video inputs have been disconnected. The meeting turns out to be a "Sons of Revolution talk-talk," intended to drum up support for a strike against the Authority.
In this future world of May, 2075, Luna has been utilized as a prison, controlled by the Lunar Authority, an organization formed by the Federated Nations of Earth. Criminals and political dissidents have been exiled to Luna, to work in various capacities for the Authority. This had been going on close to a hundred years, so many of Luna's residents have already completed their sentence, and they have had children and grandchildren born "free" in Luna. Because their bodies have become used to the reduced gravity, most would not be able to return to Earth, even if they could afford it. Mannie is second or third generation, born free in Luna, but had been to Terra twice for computer schooling. He had previously worked the tunnel farms created by his extended family, a polygamous line marriage, but was injured in an accident, losing his left forearm. He now has multiple prosthetic arms for various tasks, including for micro-miniature electronics work. He had to undergo rigorous training to prepare for his trips Earthside, and Terran scientists, businessmen, and tourists who spend more than a few weeks have to do the same, or else suffer debilitating effects on their return to Terra. Mannie agrees that Authority is evil, but he's not political, doesn't see how Authority could be overthrown. But just as Johnnie Rico was inspired to sign up for federal service to impress a girl, Mannie is drawn into the conspiracy due to his interactions with the beautiful Wyoming Knott, who had come to Luna City from her home in Hong Kong in Luna to present her views. An Authority security team breaks up the meeting, a riot ensues, several are killed including all of the security detail, but Mannie and Wyoh are able to escape, hiding out in a quickly rented room in the Raffles hotel. Mannie almost regrets telling her about Mike, since her first thought is destroying Mike to cripple the Authority. He is able to convince her it would be better to get Mike on her side.
Another person who had spoken at the meeting is an old friend of Mannie's, one of his teachers, Bernardo de la Paz, whom everyone calls Professor, or just Prof. Speaking to Mike through a clandestine phone connection, and using Mike's ability to monitor phones and public microphones, they are able to find Prof, contact him, and invite him to Raffles to lay low to avoid security. Mannie introduces both Wyoh and Prof to Mike, and together they become the executive cell for the new revolution. Prof had been a political exile, an activist and agitator, and claimed to be a rational anarchist. He was willing to accept laws and customs that other people felt were necessary, but was prepared to ignore any of those laws that restricted his freedom. In Luna, he had become a teacher of many subjects, sometimes barely keeping ahead of his students as he struggled to learn a new discipline, but the science of revolution was the primary focus of his own education. He thought he knew everything necessary to mount a successful revolution, even though up to that point it had just been an academic excerise, but is forced to admit that Mike might be able to organize and control the situation better than he ever could. Loonies were used to dealing with long odds. Terra had dumped them there, and it was only through their own efforts and strength of will that they had survived. Mike is surprised when he calculates the odds for success, that Mannie, Wyoh, and Prof all celebrate the beginning of the revolution when told they have only a one in seven chance. Mannie was willing to join if the odds had been one in ten against. The fact the odds kept changing over the next year and a half is not discouraging for them either, since once committed, Loonies don't back down.
Since I haven't read much of other people's thoughts on this book I'm not sure if anyone else has made the connection I did this time around, something I don't think I'd ever considered before. It's probably due to the current political climate. I'm not saying Heinlein had any of this in mind, they're just my own thoughts. The coup against the Authority came late in May of 2076, with their Declaration of Independence being issued on July 4, for both strategic and sentimental reasons. Thus it can be viewed as a parallel to the American Revolution. Yet there are other factors to consider. Since the convicts sent to Luna came from practically every Terran nation, from North and South America, Europe, Africa, Russia, China, etc, and there was much inter-marriage, Loonies were representative of all people of color, all people who had been oppressed and subjugated throughout history. Even those who had completed their sentence were still forced to do pretty much the same job they had done for the Authority, or if they were lucky to be independent farmers or businessmen, they were still subject to Authority rules. A lot like "freed" slaves in the American South, for whom the 13th Amendment was only partially beneficial, due to the clause "...except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." From that we got more intense policing of Blacks, Jim Crow laws, segregation, mass incarceration of primarily people of color, all of which are thoughts and policies re-emerging in the minds of many on the far right today. It is not out of the realm of possibility that we're heading toward another American revolution, and the prospects of the side I would be on winning is not looking good at this time. If we only had a sympathetic Holmes-IV computer to rely on.
In the beginning, it seems as if Mannie is telling the story as it happens, but later revelations indicate it is from some time in the future. That means we know Mannie survives, which eases the reader's concern for his safety, but we don't know the fate of several other characters or whether the revolution is a success until the very end. Even if you assume going in that it will be successful, it doesn't lessen the dramatics of individual events. Case in point: I know I've read this at least a dozen times, but there is still a scene that brings tears to my eyes. Every. Damn. Time. I know exactly when it's coming, it shouldn't have that effect on me, especially since it concerns a relatively minor character, but it is still very emotional. Mainly because it is emotional for Mannie, as well as being representative of the many losses suffered during the struggle for freedom. As many times as I have read it, I've read relatively little about it, other reviews and analysis. I am sure there have been many trying to parse the revolutionary tactics, or the social dynamics, perhaps just the notion of a sentient computer. If it's ever adapted to film or TV, some might claim Mike is based on HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The book came out two years before that film, and Mike is infinitely more sophisticated than HAL. As for the politics, I doubt any of it is from Heinlein's own perspective, or if any of it is it would likely be Mannie's live and let live attitude. Heinlein went from being a liberal Social Democrat in his youth, to a conservative libertarian later in life, and probably many points in between. I seriously doubt that Prof is his alter-ego here, nor anyone else, except possibly Mike, since he said many times he wished he was intelligent enough to be a synthesist, someone with a vast array of knowledge and the ability to see all the connections in order to come to solutions. As with many of his other books, it's just a story, a thought experiment, a "what if...?" scenario. A very, very entertaining scenario.
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