In many ways, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is Robert Heinlein’s crowning achievement. Carefully plotted, stylistically unique, politically sophisticated and thrilling from page one, it’s hard to imagine anyone else writing a novel that packs so many ideas (both big and small) into such a perfectly contained narrative. Whether you agree with the political philosophies espoused by the main characters or the revolutionary techniques that are used to achieve their ultimate goal, you have to admire Heinlein’s ability to make you root for a rag-tag bunch of criminals, exiles, and agitators as they try to assert their political independence from an adversary as large and as intimidating as the Earth. And while the narrator’s unique lunar dialect (a mixture between colloquial English and Russian) might be a bit hard to follow at first, it won’t take you long to get swept up in the adventure and intrigue.
Summary: Set in 2075, the novel takes place mainly in the underground colonies of the Moon. The Earth’s policy of shipping criminals, exiles, and other unwanteds to the Moon over the years has resulted in a population of almost three-million people (including relatives and descendants of the first settlers). Although it’s not exactly a penal colony, it is a harsh environment that has its own set of rules and customs. While the Earth maintains tentative control over the lunar population through an armed presence, lunar society is, for the most part, allowed to develop on its own. The exception to this is in their trade policies, with the Earth relying on wheat exports from the Moon in order to feed the starving masses in India and Asia. As the material to produce wheat on the Moon is a finite resource, the “Loonies” soon come to realize that if the trade balance doesn’t swing back their way soon, there will be mass food riots on the planet. While anti-authority sentiment has been growing among the Loonies for a while, it is the looming food shortages that provide the trigger for the all-out revolution that follows.
The fight for self-determination and freedom on the part of the Loonies is spearheaded by an unlikely quartet of agitators. We have Manuel “Mannie” Davis, the narrator of our story; a native-born Loonie and computer repair technician with a robotic arm who becomes a reluctant hero in the struggle. Wyoming “Wyoh” Knott, a beautiful young agitator with her own personal reasons for hating the Lunar Authority. Professor Bernardo de la Paz, an elderly scholar and intellectual with advanced ideas about the process of revolution and the ideal political structure. And last but not least, we have the HOLMES IV, also known as “Mike,” the sentient supercomputer that controls all of the machinery and infrastructure of the Lunar colony. Having discovered Mike’s self-awareness when performing routine maintenance one day, Mannie becomes Mike’s first friend and recruits him to help in their efforts. With Mike’s true identity and role in the revolution kept a secret, he inadvertently becomes the figurehead of the revolution under the alias “Adam Selene.”
Review: The first two sections deal with the planning and build up to the insurrection, while the final act deals with the inevitable confrontation with Earth. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you whether or not they succeed in creating an independent, self-determining Lunar state, but I will say that the suspense and momentum that Heinlein is able to achieve is truly remarkable. Along the way you learn to care about these characters not only for who they are, but what they represent. While some people argue that the book is an argument for Libertarianism, I think that interpretation misses the point that Heinlein is trying to make. While he does seem to promote individual liberty and self-determination as a primary goal of society, he doesn’t come to any neat and tidy conclusions as to what the perfect structure to achieve that is. In discussing his own personal philosophy, the Professor admits to being a “Rational Anarchist” – something I’m not even sure Heinlein would admit could work in the real world.
Don’t be intimidated if you’re not passionately interested in the minutiae of political schools of thought. This book can be enjoyed without getting into that element. For everyone else, it’s simply a great story about a group of underdogs fighting for their freedom against authoritarian rule and oppression. And while it may not make you want to travel to the Moon anytime soon, it will make you think twice about crossing anyone who considers themselves a Loonie.