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Conceptual Fiction: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

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Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.

No matter how hard you try — and some folks have tried awfully hard — you can’t attach a simple label to Robert Heinlein’s sociopolitical views. After checking out Stranger in a Strange Land, you might think he was a permanent resident in a summer of love hippie commune. When you’ve finished reading Starship Troopers, you will be certain that he is a member of some reactionary militia in the backwoods. If you knew about his involvement with the End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement, you would surmise that he is a closet socialist. Yet when you’re done with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, you will confidently label him a laissez-faire libertarian.

Of course, many readers get hot and bothered by one or another of these stances, and they try to turn Robert Heinlein into a debating partner. But the joke is on them. This author won’t stand still long enough to let you score debating points. It is worth remembering that Heinlein won medals in fencing as a young man, and you don’t get those by staying in the same place too long.

Take my advice: Don’t debate Heinlein, just enjoy him. And this book may be his most enjoyable. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress represents Robert Heinlein at his finest, giving him scope for the armchair philosophizing that increasingly dominated his mature work, but marrying his polemics to a smartly conceived plot packed with considerable drama.

The story takes place on the moon starting in the year 2075, where a colony is having its resources drained in order to support consumption back on Mother Earth. Unless the economic balance is tilted, the moon will experience famine and inevitable collapse in a few years time. The Earth, like all over-zealous colonizers, has turned into a parasite, but is blinded by its own sense of entitlement.

This scenario is red meat for Mr. Heinlein, who never needs much of excuse to put on the mantle of sociologist or political scientist. In fact, this book is the source of that famous Heinlein quote (not invented by him, but well known through his intervention): “There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” – sometimes abbreviated to the vaguely Russian-sounding TANSTAAFL. (Heinlein must have had the Soviet Union on his mind while writing this book, since the prose is colored with frequent Russian or pseudo-Russian phraseology.) There are many fancy rhetorical flourishes in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, even though Heinlein shares the observation, at one point, that “oratory is a null program."

Yet don’t jump to the conclusion that this novel is just as a space-age version of Atlas Shrugged. Heinlein creates some of the most fascinating characters of his career in these pages. The narrator Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis (or Mannie for short) is a down-to-earth computer technician, who talks in a delightful pidgin English (again colored with bits of Pravda-speak) that is one of the great delights of this book. But Mannie’s friend, the computer known as Mike, is equally endearing, and would make any short list of the most memorable “virtual" characters in sci-fi.

Mike is the digital brains behind the moon colony, but only Mannie realizes that the computer has achieved self-consciousness. By befriending Mike, Mannie is able to enlist the computer in a scheme to break free to Earth’s tyrannical hold on the lunar population (known as “Loonies” for short). Other members of Heinlein’s cast of characters — Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who plays the part of subversive know-it-all (a recurring figure in this author’s fiction, and typically a stand-in for Heinlein himself); Wyoming "Wyoh" Knott, a beautiful lady with revolutionary intentions; Hazel Meade, the preteen girl who organizes a kids auxiliary to help in the struggle for lunar independence; and various other fellow travelers — contribute both to the cause of freedom and to the colorful progress of the book.

Heinlein never wrote with more panache than in this Hugo-winning novel. In particular, he avoids the three pitfalls that often compromise his books. First is his tendency to get on his soapbox and stay there too long. Don’t get me wrong… Heinlein often has smart things to say when he goes on a rant, and even when I disagree with him, I am rarely bored. But the storyline frequently gets lost in the shuffle. Not so in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. When the author lets loose with one of his classic discourses—for example, a detailed description of how to organize revolutionary cells so as to minimize the chances that the movement leaders will be exposed—it is both intelligent (you would think Heinlein had apprenticed in a terrorist group) but also completely appropriate to the story.

A second, related problem is Heinlein’s tendency to let his characters control him rather than the other way around. His stories are full of oddball iconoclasts — Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus Long, E.C. "Easy" Gordon, etc. — who entertain their author so much, that he loses perspective on their role in the narrative. They give monologues — on genetics, the money supply, the superfluity of clothing, etc. — that sometimes seem interchangeable between various Heinlein novels and make his books flabby at times. But Mannie, Mike and the other main players in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are kept on a tight leash by the author. They add color, but never forget their respective roles in pushing the drama toward resolution.

Above all, Heinlein impresses me here through the sheer zany beauty of his writing. Mannie has the most distinctive narrative voice of any Heinlein protagonist. Perhaps for that reason, Heinlein almost completely avoids the pulp fiction phraseology and dialogue that often taints his writing. If you are a sci-fi skeptic, and avoid novels such as this one because you think that they are all poorly written, this is the very first Heinlein book you should read. It might even be the first sci-fi book you should tackle. Heinlein was always a clever writer, he almost always was a readable writer, but in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he is also a very stylish writer.

All this would hardly count if Heinlein didn’t bring in the clever plot twists and conceptual surprises that are the lifeblood of the sci-fi genre. How could a vulnerable lunar colony even think it might win in a confrontation with Mother Earth? Yet this author pulls all of the pieces together in this marvelous book. There may be stories of interplanetary conflict with better special effects and more flamboyant battles, but you will be hard pressed to find one half so smart as this scintillating work from Mr. Heinlein.

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  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    I’ll have to find this book (at a remainder table or used bookstore…).

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