Book Review: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

Book Name: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
First Published: 1966
Hugo Award for Best Novel 1967
Prometheus Award Hall of Fame Award recipient 1983

Robert A. Heinlein was born in 1907 and was known as one of the “big three” masters of classic science fiction along with Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. He was one of the most influential and controversial authors of science fiction. People to this day argue about the ideas that Heinlein presented and this would have undoubtedly delighted the man.

Heinlein invented many of the tropes we now take for granted in the genre of science fiction. His stories addressed the importance of individual liberty and self-reliance, the obligation that individuals owe to their culture, the influence of organized religion on society and government and the tendency of people to repress nonconformist thought.

“Revolution is an art that I pursue rather than a goal I expect to achieve. Nor is this a source of dismay; a lost cause can be as spiritually satisfying as a victory.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress begins during the year 2075 in the underground colonies of the Moon. These three million inhabitants are criminals, political exiles and their descendants from all over the Earth, with men outnumbering women 2:1. This makes polyandry the norm in “Loonie” culture. The Lunar Authority’s master computer, HOLMES IV (High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV) has almost total control of Luna’s systems. When computer technician Manuel Garcia “Mannie” O’Kelly-Davis discovers that the AI computer has secretly become self aware, he names it “Mike” after Mycroft Holmes, the brother of Sherlock Holmes, and the two become friends.

Mike is curious about the inhabitants of the Moon and asks his friend Mannie to place a recorder in an anti-Authority meeting. When the cops come to raid the gathering, Mannie escapes with a blond agitator named Wyoming “Wyoh” Knott. Together, they join an elderly political activist, Professor Bernardo de la Paz who informs them that if Luna does not stop exporting hydroponic wheat to Earth, the imbalance caused by constant loss of bio-mass will result in food riots within seven years and cannibalism in nine. With nothing to replace what is loss, their ecosystem will collapse. Wyoh and the Professor want to start a revolution to solve this pressing problem and Mannie is persuaded to join them at Mike’s request.

The AI takes on a new persona named “Adam Selene” and becomes the leader of the revolution movement. Adam can only connect with humans via a phone, after all, he does not have a body, but by working with Mannie, Wyoh, and the Professor, he is able to be involved. At first, the covert cells, protected by the AI make little progress, but when Mannie saves the life of a rich, well-connected tourist, public opinion on Earth begins to look more favorably on the lunar colonists and their cause.

Earth does not release the Moon without a fight. Troops are sent to the Moon to quell the rebellion, but riots among the people erupt when a soldier rapes a female colonist. It is the last straw that provokes the Loonies to overthrow the Lunar Authority’s Protector and to create a defense system to protect the colonies from Earth. They modify an electromagnetic catapult that was once used to export wheat into a rock throwing weapon capable of much destruction on the planet.

The AI continues to control the communications and impersonates the “Warden” in messages to the Earth. This gives the revolutionists time to organize. The Professor sets up an “Ad-Hoc Congress” to distract any dissenters. Finally, Luna declares its independence on July 4, 2076, the 300th anniversary of the US Declaration of Independence.

Mannie and the Professor travel to Earth and are received by the Federated Nations. They begin a world tour to tout the benefits of a free Luna while urging the governments of Earth to build a catapult of their own to transfer bio supplies to Luna in exchange for grain. Their efforts are rejected and the two become imprisoned. Later, they are freed by the man they rescued at the beginning of the revolution and they travel with him back to the Moon. When they return, an election is held and Mannie, Wyoh, and the Professor are elected as leaders of Luna.

The Federated Nations of Earth once again send troops to destroy the Loonies, but the revolutionaries fight back against great odds and large loss of life. A rumor is heard that Adam Selene was among those killed, which frees the AI from having to appear in person. The AI uses the catapult to launch rocks at sparsely-populated locations on Earth, warning the inhabitants that the lunar “missiles” are coming, but the people of Earth don’t heed the warnings and many die. This causes the people of Earth to turn against the new lunar nation.

A second attack destroy’s the original catapult, but the ingenious Loonies build a secondary one in a secret location operated by Mannie. The former computer tech turned commander continues the attack on Earth until the planet concedes Luna’s independence.

Mannie takes control of the new government after their victory, but he and Wyoh gradually withdraw from Lunar politics as they discover that the new government falls short of their expectations. When Mannie attempts to speak to Mike, the AI’s replies indicate that the computer has lost its self-awareness and human-like qualities as a result of either the damage suffered in the war or of shock.

Probably one of the greatest influences I had as a science fiction writer is Robert A. Heinlein. I have read just about everything that he has written and a few of his novels rank among some of my favorites. Many of the tropes that are commonplace in science fiction today were invented by this man. There is an old adage that states: “Heinlein was there first.” For the most part, it is true! If you want to write science fiction or are interested in becoming more versed in the genre as a reader, this is one of the authors that you should read.

Heinlein remains a controversial figure to this day. If you are a feminist, you will have difficulty with Heinlein. Our views on culture, marriage and the roles of women have changed in the 50 years since this novel was written. In The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, there are women that marry at 14, women that endure whistles and catcalls because of their physical looks, and while there is racial diversity among the Loonies, many racist ideas of the time period still come through in the writing. Yet, during the time that Heinlein wrote his stories, he was considered ground-breaking for his forward thinking. The novel features Heinlein’s ideas about individualism, libertarianism, and free expression of physical and emotional love.

One of the aspects that I enjoy most about this book was the development of the AI computer. Remember, at the time the novel was written, a computer that filled a room could barely do what a one dollar throw away calculator does today. AI Mike doesn’t go crazy and attempt to destroy humanity as many tropes might have him do now, instead he wants to learn what is funny and what it is to be human. With more robots being built and AI becoming a reality, this is an idea that we as a people are going to need to explore.

The idea of life on the moon and the weaponization of space is a concept who’s time has come with the advent of privatized space programs popping up all over the world. There will be many people in space able to “throw rocks” at the Earth as nations and corporations begin to develop the resources in the asteroids, and the Moon.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress Book CoverHeinlein wrote in the voice of his era. He is imaginative and smart, but he still retains many of the ideas and limitations of the world that he lived in. How many writers can overcome this overwhelming thing called “their lives”? Even so, he manages to see into the future and his best guesses were not all that far off the mark. Give The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress a read with an open mind. Yes, it is a little dated, but you will find many of the ideas that have shaped science fiction as we know it today inside its pages.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”

  1. Hi Wend,

    This is the first book review of yours I have read and all I can say is, “well done!”

    I have 3 questions: 🙂

    1) If you had to recommend ONE Heinlein book, which would it be?

    2) Where do you think Philip K. Dick stands in the SF genre?

    3) Have you read, “Dhalgren,” by Samuel R. Delany?

    I meant this to facilitate responding with the least amount of time and effort and not to be impersonal. 🙂

    Cheers ~ Jack

    1. I have several favorite Heinlein books. I reviewed one of them last year: Starship Troopers.

      Heinlein went through a few phases in his writing. His early years were more conservative. These years encompass his “juveniles” and his short stories. Most of the stories feature a young man or woman in fantastic science fiction settings, growing up with technology that is more familiar to us in present day than it was in the 1950s when the stories were written. It is often thought that science followed art, that our engineers used his stories as a basis of what they would develop. So Heinlein has influenced far more than a writing genre, he has influenced scientific invention as well.

      Then the author broke away from his publisher who was “hampering” him (his concept) and started to write more political and sexual works. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is one of these books.

      In his later years, Heinlein went through a long period of illness that effective his cognitive abilities and during this time he wrote several novels that are simply not up to his standards. Toward the very end, he regained his writing style and produced several quality works, including: Friday.

      I would recommend that you read at least one book from his two general style types. My personal favorites are his “juveniles” (which are not just for children!)

      Select among his “juveniles”: Red Planet, Citizen of the Galaxy, Have Space Suit – Will Travel, Space Cadet, Starship Troopers.

      Of his more mature style select among: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Time Enough For Love, Stranger in a Strange Land or his one fantasy novel: Glory Road.

      Philip K. Dick is not one of the “big three”, but he certain shines as one of the more influential writers in science fiction. You will see many of his stories made into movies, include classics: Bladerunner, Total Recall, and Minority Report…just to name a few.

      I have not read “Dhalgren”, but then I have not read much Delany. Perhaps that is something I should look into one day. 🙂

      I hope that covers it, Jack. Thanks for stopping by the blog and leaving a comment. 🙂

  2. I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as a teenager, and the ideals of it have stayed with me ever since, lurking in my subconscious mind. I suspect the book actually influenced my view of politics and government very heavily.

    Despite the signs of ‘dating’ that all scifi inevitably evidences, this book will always be a timeless novel to me.


    1. Thanks for stopping by the blog, Travis. Heinlein books have had the same effect on me, to a certain degree. I tend to be a self-reliant woman who questions religion and government. I’m not sure if I’d be comfortable in a Heinlein style “line marriage” though! One husband is plenty for me! I agree that TMIAHM is a novel that will be with us a long time.

  3. While I’ve read most of the titles mentioned above, my personal favorites of Heinlein’s is I WILL FEAR NO EVIL and his short story collection THE PAST THROUGH TOMORROW. TMISAHM I read a long time ago; I feel you did justice to RH with your review.
    I look forward to more.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kat. I’m not sure if I would put I WILL FEAR NO EVIL on my favorite short list, but it was certainly an interesting Heinlein novel! I love his short stories. My favorite of those is “By His Bootstraps”. 🙂

  4. Heinlein is my favorite of the three Grand Masters of science fiction. Like you, I’ve read virtually everything he’s written. As far as his juveniles, “Citizen of the Galaxy” was easily my favorite, although as an engineer, “The Door Into Summer” was a close second.

    Many high schools in the sixties and early seventies went through a progressive period and mine was no exception. Much to my delight, Both “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” were required reading in my contemporary literature class.

    I think my absolute favorite Heinlein novel was “Time Enough for Love.” I keep a copy of the “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” on my desk bookshelf and have a framed copy of Lazarus Long’s “A human being should be able to…” passage hanging on the wall in my office. I make every new engineer that I hire memorize that quote.

    You’re correct that some of his later efforts fell short of the standard that he had set. “Friday” and “To Sail Beyond the Sunset” were my favorites from that period, but they were overshadowed by “I Will Fear No Evil” and “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.”

    No writer is perfect and, as with all authors, Heinlein had his ups and downs. But, beginning to end, he helped shape the science fiction genre in ways that we still feel today. Thanks for the great review Wendy. I think I’m going to make a trip to the bookshelf to say hi to Mannie and Wyoh again. I haven’t seen them for quite a while.

  5. I love that list of quotes that you put on your wall, JF. They are unique, yet they hit home on our humanity in a great sweet spot. I’ve been heartened by all the Heinlein fans that have stopped by the blog for my reviews. Perhaps I will put another Heinlein favorite novel on the review list for next year. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It is much appreciated. 🙂

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