A strange group of plotters are brewing up a revolution: an engaging jack-of-all-trades, his luscious blonde girlfriend, and a lonely talking computer. Their aim is the overthrow of the hated Authority and real freedom for the freebooting individualists who make up the moon’s population.
Set in a strangely familiar yet utterly alien human civilization of the future, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of the most imaginative science fiction novels ever written.
Reading Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and writing this review filled me with trepidation. Hodderscape had impeccable timing with the selection of this title as March’s Review Project Title as there was a discussion (to put it in the kindest terms) over whether one could be a “real SF fan” without having read and enjoyed Heinlein. I’d read Starship Troopers in days long past and thought it was okay. But after this debate and also because I’ve become a more critical and socially-aware reader since that time, I really was a little apprehensive starting The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. And with reason, because oh boy, I had issues with this book.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress contains a lot of problematic content. There is rampant sexism, copious male gaze, a lot of women without agency and bad gender politics. One of the things that are repeated throughout the book is the fact that the population of Luna has over two times as many men as women and that due to this, women are sacrosanct and they are the one in charge relationship-wise. A fact which nicely reduces women to no more than sexual beings meant to entice men and breed. All of the elements were women are supposedly the ones in charge are domestic. One could point to Wyoming Knott as a defence, but the truth is that she is the exception to the rule and she is still very much defined by her sex. In addition, there are some really problematic elements to the marriage forms Heinlein depicts in the book. While there is nothing wrong with polyandry, polygamy, or line marriages in principle, what I did find problematic was the fact that many of these brides were just entering puberty. For example, the youngest wife in Man’s line marriage is not only fifteen, but related by blood to the eldest spouses in the marriage and raised as a child in their household. No matter how you spin it, this is incestuous in any way that matters. In addition, the way she is described is disgusting: “An explosive bullet hit between her lovely, little-girl breasts.” (p. 252) I’m sorry, but that just made me want to hurl, both my lunch and the book. There is also subconscious and overt racism in the book. I find it hard to put a finger on most of it, but it’s in the use of language that it struck me strongest, such as Nips for Japanese people and Chinee for Chinese and phrases such as “We Red-Indianed around edge and looked, using helmet binox.” (p. 242) that struck me as just being wrong.
The politics of the book are impossible to parse as well. There is a lot of libertarianism in it, but communism and capitalism seem to be equally evil and I just couldn’t make heads nor tail of what system would be best. The only character who takes a clear position on it is Stu who is a constitutional monarchist. He seems to have a clear idea of what he wants. The only other character who seems to know what he wants is Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who as a rational anarchist seems to want no government, or at least as little as possible, but thinks each individual should live by their own conscience. The rest of the revolutionaries only seem to have an idea of what they don’t want, which didn’t seem like a very smart way to go about it.
One character I did enjoy a lot was Mike, whose development from dumb computer to sentient and self-aware AI was quite interesting. However, I hated the way he left the story. Or rather, it made me sad that there wasn’t a happy-ever-after for him in it. He is quite child-like in some aspects, especially in how literal he takes things when we first meet him – illustrated by his attempts at humour – which makes his later deviousness and complex intriguing even more striking. At first I was a little confused by the narrator’s name; Mike addresses him as Man, which I thought he meant literally, so when he is addressed in the same manner by a friend of his, it took me a little while to realise Man was short for Manuel. Wyoming Knott was an okay character, but also left me conflicted. She’s supposed to be one of the figure heads of the Free Luna movement, yet she is defined by how beautiful she is, by her reproductive status and by the fact that she’s borne a boat-load of children and still has a great body. And consequently, most of her impact is by how she affects the men around her, through her looks not her brains.
The book’s plot meanders somewhat, especially in the middle part when they go to Earth, and while the main goal is quite clear – a free Luna – there is a lot of sitting around and talking while the final months of the revolution are quite action-packed. This made the pacing feel off as well. The writing is somewhat odd; Man speaks in what seems to be a Lunar dialect, however Prof and Wyoming speak in a normal pattern. I found the dialect a little jarring and it made Man seem less smart than he actually was and since the entire book is told from Man’s perspective, it means that the entire novel is written in Man’s dialect. After a while I didn’t notice it anymore, but any time I had to stop reading and then pick the book back up it took me a little to get used to it again.
I didn’t hate this story, though I did have lots of issues with it. There are just too much problematic elements to ignore, which make appreciating the story Heinlein wanted to tell almost impossible, to me at least. And while I know he is a pillar in the history of the field, to be honest, I don’t think I’ll be rereading this or picking up any of Heinlein’s other novels going by my experience with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. There are plenty of other Golden Age SF writers left for me to discover anyway.