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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: Adventure, Social Commentary or Revolutionary Handbook?

Updated on March 17, 2014

A harsh school mistress

Photo by Jon Sullivan.
Photo by Jon Sullivan. | Source

Multi leveled story

Robert A. Heinlein often wrote on several levels. Social commentary and science were often presented side by side with adventure. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was no exception. Published in serialized format in 1965 and as a novel in 1966, just a few years before the Apollo moon landings, “Mistress” holds up fairly well under subsequent scientific advances and discoveries. Although astronauts didn't find enough evidence of water on the moon to support an agricultural colony as depicted in the book and the overpopulation fears are a bit dated the bulk of the story still holds up today.

Considered a masterwork

The moon as a prison that needs no walls

Heinlein presents the moon as a giant prison
Heinlein presents the moon as a giant prison | Source

Examining Society

Set in a Lunar penal colony in the year 2075 Mistress has a culture that may seem even more exotic that the setting suggests. As a result of sending hardened criminals to the moon the colony has a skewed sex ratio with many more men than women. Since muscle and bone atrophy make return to Earth impossible for the prisoners once their sentences were up they were forced to make lives and families on their new home. Consequently Mistress explores how familial structures and sexual mores might adapt to fit such circumstances. While male colonists adopting homosexuality to cope with the situation is briefly mentioned it is also stated that most men prefer women if any are available. So the colonists adapt their behavior to their environment. Marriages are shown as usually being polygamist with a woman having more than one husband although more complex family structures are mentioned. One structure that is explored in detail is the “line marriage” a polygamist structure where a group of men share multiple wives each of whom is in turn married to all of the men. It is toured as a highly stable family structure because as older spouses die off younger people join the line permitting the family to go on caring for children and owning property despite the losses. In spite of the prevalence of unusual marital relationships Heinlein predicted women would not be objectified. Indeed social pressures make women dominant in sexual relationships. This dominance is so extensive that at one point in the story a group of youths considers throwing a tourist out an airlock for attempting to kiss an unwilling girl. Later in the story the rape and murder of a prostitute becomes the spark that turns a revolutionary plan into an active battle.

Primed for revolt

Although most of the colonists or Loonies as they refer to themselves are either released prisoners or their descendants, they are in no way free. Indeed to the Loonies T.A.N.S.T.A.A.F.L. “Their ain't no such thing as a free lunch,” is a way of life. For them, even the air they breathe is purchased from the government. They are also forced to do all import and export through the wardens office. On top of that they are expected to export a quota of grain to feed the people of Earth even though they are supposedly free people. Naturally this veritable slave status among the so called free Loonies breeds resentment and revolution.

The friends that upset the system

At the core of the story are the characters of Mike a spontaneous A.I. in the central computers of the Lunar penal colony government and Manny the one armed colonist charged with Mikes maintenance. Manny is a member of the Davis line marriage and is initially the only human who knows that Mike exists. Others know that the supercomputer Mike occupies exist but they do not realize that it has become home to a self aware creative mind. Having his existence known to a single friend leaves Mike lonely and prone to “practical jokes” to give Manny reason to visit. Manny realizes that as the colonies communications hub Mike can set up a phone number at which Manny or other friends might call the A.I.. Before he can begin searching for people that could be trusted as Mike's new friends the computer asks Manny to investigate a meeting where all the cameras have been disabled. That meeting turned out to be a revolutionary rally plotting to overthrow the warden. Although he is skeptical about plans to upset the established order, when the meeting is raided Manny ends up helping one of the revolutionaries Wyoming Knott escape. On getting to know her Manny decides to trust Wyoming with the truth about Mike and after discussing the potential horrific consequences to the status quot with the supercomputer and the chances of success Manny is persuaded to the revolutionaries cause. Together with an old teacher of Manny's, Bernardo de la Paz they become the core of a new revolution.

Moon Colony

Unlike this illustration Heinlein predicted the Loonies would live primarily underground.
Unlike this illustration Heinlein predicted the Loonies would live primarily underground. | Source

Conspiracy, theory and practice

Much of the story is spent on the growth of the conspiracy to overthrow the warden and declare independence from Earth. The discussion of the how the movement is organized and secured could almost serve as a basic instruction manual on revolutionary conspiracy. Of course the revolutionary loonies have a distinct advantage over other other similar movements. Mike was the colonies communications hub and their enemies main computer. As a consequence they were kept appraised of any of the wardens actions that were entrusted to the computer. A chance encounter between Manny and a tourist from Earth even helps the revolution begin building ground-side support. Eventually the aforementioned spark ignites the conspiracy into active revolt. With some help from Mike's controlling of the environment in the wardens quarters to eliminate the last resistance the revolution is successful.

Diplomatic efforts

Just overthrowing the warden is only the first step in gaining Lunar independence however. There are two important steps that must be taken first. The governments of Earth needed to acknowledge the Loonies as independent and they needed their own government to run necessary civic functions. Manny and de la Paz endure the physical strain of a meteoric trip to Earth via the colonies magnetic catapult that was normally used to ship food earthward and was also their only means of travel. Unfortunately, the governments of Earth aren't receptive to the overtures of two men who are crippled by Earths gravity during their stay. The pair are smuggled off Earth by their terrestrial allies after their failed negotiations.

Freedom! Tanstaafl

The Loonies finally forced Earth to acknowledge their independence by using a magnetic catapult in what may be the first example of kinetic orbital bombardment in science fiction. Not that the conflict was one sided. Ships from Earth landed troops that killed many and nuclear warheads killed more. Tragically Mike is among the casualties and de la Paz, elder statesman of the revolution, dies of a heart attack as victory is declared.

A masterwork worth reading and rereading

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is deservedly considered one of Heinlein’s masterworks. It contains so much more commentary on society, government and revolution than any single review can express. Even for someone who has already read the book once a reread is well worth the time. Even if you disagree with Heinlein's expression of libertarian ideas there is much food for thought to be found in these pages. If you haven't read this book yet go get a copy, though this review has spoilers there is far more depth to plumb. If you've read it and still want more The Rolling Stones while aimed at a more juvenile audience features a return of the minor character Hazel Mead and she and Manny also reappear in the more adult work the Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

The return of Hazel Mead


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