Monday, September 8, 2008

Book Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Just finished reading the 1966 Robert A. Heinlein masterpiece, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, considered by many to be one of the finest sci-fi novels of all time. It won the Hugo award in 1967, and has been in many a top-10 sci-fi lists of must-reads almost ever since. And now it's easy for me to see why.

I'm disappointed that I did not read this book sooner. Or maybe it's a good thing I waited until I was older. Thinking back on it now, I don't think I was mature enough in high school to appreciate the social and political themes that the novel uses to great, if often heavy-handed, effect. And in fact, I put off reading the novel since purchasing it earlier this year, due to some divided opinions from other reviews I had read. Most of the novel's detractors mention that the story is convoluted and drags on for too long without much action. Others point to its obvious liberal overtones and broad political brushstrokes that leaves little room for subtle interpretation. The bad guys are bad, and the good guys unflinchingly good.

This is mostly hogwash, I'm happy to say. If anything, TMIAHM is at times embarrassingly straight-forward. It's a testament to Heinlein's supreme mastery of his craft that the narrative--taken from the first-person POV of the main protagonist--is charmingly succinct and to the point. The reader must put up with a disconcerting local pidgin as we listen in on the protagonist's thoughts, but I found myself quickly getting over this oddity after the first two pages. The plot sucked me in from the beginning, you see, so that I hardly had the time to nitpick the odd grammar and broken English of the main character.

And, surprises of surprises, when the novel jumps directly into a heated debate on lunar socio-economic platforms, I found myself thoroughly engaged. Who'd a thunk it? I guess sometime between high school political science class and my recently cultivated appetite for all things historical, this type of stuff must have become interesting for me.

The basic premise is a simple one: a caged-in society is fed up with the dictatorship rule of the local authority. On the moon, this takes on extra significance since there is literally nowhere for the lunar colonists to go. Due to a gravity pull one-sixth that of Earth, the long-term inhabitants of the moon are trapped forever in its rocky embrace, forced to eke out a harsh existence either mining ice or lending a hand at hydroponics farming. Most of the harvests of both ice and wheat are earmarked for catapult shipments down the gravity well towards Earth, where the reduced effort amounts to huge savings for the mother planet and the Lunar Authority which runs its monopoly.

The protagonist is one Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis, or "Mannie" as his friends and family call him. He's a one-armed technician employed by the Warden's office to, among other duties, check in on the Authority's main supercomputer, a self-aware AI called HOLMES IV (or, High Optional Logical Multi-Evaluating Supervisor). At the start of the novel, Mannie is sent to investigate a recent slew of practical jokes on the Authority's accounts payable department by the bored machine, only to discover that the AI has a severely underdeveloped sense of humor, but an eagerness to learn. In exchange for its good behavior, Mannie promises to teach the machine how to tell good jokes from bad ones. He also names the computer "Mike," short for Mycroft, the brother of fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Mike allows Mannie to have access to him remotely and at all times for the purpose of discussing these jokes, as well as various other topics. Mike deems Mannie "man my only friend."

Shortly after, Mannie attends a secret political rally where he runs into an old professor friend of his, Bernardo de la Paz ("Prof"), and meets a tall, beautiful blond named Wyoming Knott ("Wyoh"). The rally is a boiling point of many differing opinions by disgruntled "Loonies," but all agree on one fact: the Authority must be overthrown if the moon is to be free from tyrannical rule. Wyoh speaks before the crowd and espouses her views on how they should take control of the grain shipments and bargain with Earth for better market rates and import goods. Prof takes the podium after her and discusses his concerns that they must instead cease dependence on Earth completely, if Luna is to survive and prosper. Before the argument between these opposing schools of thought can come to a head, the Authority's police squad breaks into the meeting and clashes with the organizers, killing several men and women. A riot spills out into the causeways of the underground Luna City, during which time Mannie and Wyoh barely escape with their lives.

Together with Prof, the trio convinces Mike to join their rebellion. In fact, it is Mike who puts the idea into their heads. With his superior computing powers and genuine eagerness to help, and backed by Prof's informed knowledge of political systems and history, the group form the beginnings of a resistance. They slowly recruit others into their organization, and before long the moon has a well-organized and highly secretive revolutionary force.

What follows next is a grand libertarian revolution like something out of Tolstoy, with perhaps an added pinch of Randian Objectivism thrown in for good measure. After the Warden is overthrown and control given to the people of the moon, the novel starts to read like a historical primer for developing nations, taking major cues from the American revolution itself. Although the colonists have forgotten much of North American history, Prof has not, and he uses it to great--sometimes hilarious--ends, borrowing liberally from the Founding Fathers in drawing up Luna's first congress.

This is perhaps where TMIAHM drags the most, as what follows is endless chapters of political talk and deliberation, followed by more talk. The plot picks up again briefly when a delegation is sent to Earth to talk terms with the Authority's leaders headquartered in Agra, India. Prof and Mannie are sent, although the the heightened gravity on the home planet poses dangerous health consequences for the men, particularly Prof.

Eventually the loonies win their freedom, and in the meantime the reader comes away with a ground-up view of how revolutions can be fought and won. The last third of the book is a real page turner, with nail-biting action as the loonies defend their home against a last ditch effort by the Earthside Authority to wrest control away by force. But thanks to the quick thinking of Mannie and Mike, the moon is saved.

TMIAHM is significant not just for the deep political insight it weaves through a delightful and colorful narrative, but also by introducing a rather outré social evolution in lunar society born out of necessity. Much like Australia in its early days, the moon is a former penal colony. At one point men outnumbered women 10-to-1. But by the start of the novel, thanks to increased immigration waves from an overpopulated, underfed Earth, the ratio has widened to almost 2-to-1 odds. This still leaves far more men than women on the moon, a fact which has allowed for the development of a type of "communal" marriage, where co-ops are formed between several individuals (men and women both) for the sake of pooling labor, financial, and emotional resources together in order to raise large, closer-knit families. These co-opt marriages consists of several husbands and several wives, all living in harmony thanks to an egalitarian "airing of grievances" style of discourse that minimizes infighting, and distributes the wealth of the family (both monetary and genetic) evenly among the participants.

This is something one finds in the far-future, cutting edge sci-fi of today, and it's a testament to Heinlein's importance and foresight in the field that he was writing such progressive ideas into his fiction back in the 50s and 60s.

Ultimately, although unwieldy and long-winded at times, TMIAHM is the type of novel that is just too good to dislike. It's quite possibly one of the best, and most important, sci-fi novels I've ever read. It's a novel I can see being taught to undergrads majoring in poly-sci or history, let alone am. lit. I wish I had read this sooner!

Rating: A+

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