Monday, 24 January 2011

Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein (1966)
Stress and nervous tension are now serious social problems in all parts of the galaxy and it is in order that this situation should not be in any way exacerbated that the following facts will now be revealed in advanced: The planet in question, is, in fact, Magrathea. The deadly nuclear missile attack shortly to be launched by an ancient automatic defence system will merely result in the bruising of somebody’s upper arm, and the untimely creation and sudden demise of a bowl of petunias and an innocent sperm whale. In order that some sense of mystery should still be preserved no revelation will yet be made concerning whose upper arm has been bruised. This fact may safely be made the subject of suspense since it is of no significance whatsoever.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Oddly enough, this quote from Douglas Adams is probably the best way of summing up Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I've often seen this 1966 novel referred to as Heinlein's best–an assessment that I can't agree with.  in fact, I regard it as one of his poorer efforts and one that certainly doesn't stand up to his earlier works.  I would even go so far as to say that it is only Heinlein's powers as a story teller that makes The Moon is a Harsh Mistress barely readable.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress isn't so much a novel as a political tract that Heinlein should have called "How I Would Run a Revolution" or rather, "How I Daydream I Would Run a Revolution".  Set in the year 2076, the Moon has been turned into a penal colony tasked with providing grain for Earth's starving billions.  The colonists are convicts, political prisoners, and their descendants who are trapped on the Moon due to living in low gravity making a return to Earth fatal.  The Earth Authority is oppressive and the colonists decide to revolt.  They work out a plan to make the Moon into an independent state, they implement their plan, it all goes off without a hitch, the end.

That is the entire plot.  Dramatically, it's as dead as dishwater with absolutely no twists or surprises.  For the first hundred or so pages we are locked in a hotel room with three of Heinlein's stock characters*,  the Heinlein Individual, the Old Man, and the vaguely sketched female who loves being pregnant.  All of them are, of course, Competent and all of them are mouthpieces for Heinlein as he ideally sees himself.  It doesn't help that our narrator is an utter cipher who speaks a "Loonie" jargon that comes across as a bad Russian dialect bit.  This is not only distracting, but it's pointless, inconsistent, irrelevant, does not conform to Russian grammar, distracts from the narrative, no one else talks that way, and it is made clear that it's an affectation that he an drop whenever he chooses.

Back at the hotel, there is an interminable conversation that goes on for so long that we also have to sit through three meals as they hammer out their plan for revolution.  Oh, and it doesn't hurt that they are best friends with a self-aware supercomputer that controls everything in the colony and is nearly omnipotent.  Of course, no one else knows about.  No, no one else ever does, the computer doesn't turn on them, and it isn't incapacitated unexpectedly.

Then they go from strength to strength, winning every battle whether military, economic or political, yet the computer keeps claiming that the odds against them are getting worse and worse.  Apparently projections aren't its metier.  Their victories aren't even surprising because The Moon is a Harsh Mistress exhibits one of Heinlein's great failings as an author; his utter disinterest in and inability to portray evil.  In Heinlein's universe, evil is synonymous with stupidity.  Far from getting the best lines, Heinlein's villains aren't even allowed on stage.  Worse, they are utterly incompetent.  The supposedly oppressed colony is a no-go area for the prison guards who literally cannot set foot in the place without being torn limb from limb by the unarmed inmates.  They never even suspect what is going on even after it is too late and they never show a spark of initiative or intelligence.  Winning a war against morons is hardly the stuff of epic heroism nor is a stacked deck the way to hold the reader's attention.

Of course, the heroes are always in a state of unanimity.  There are no rivals to them and the only opposition within the ranks are from straw men who pop up out of nowhere only to be slapped down and vanish to whence they came.  This must be the tidiest revolution in history.

The novel is also maddeningly flat.  Aside from the stock Heinlein characters, the others are mere props and sketches.  None grow, develop, or earn our emotional attachment, so we never give a toss about them.  Worse, one may be introduced as, for example, a colourful French Royalist, but soon recedes into the background as "Stu" and ends up sounding like everyone else.  There's also no sense of place or atmosphere.  Is the colony spacious or cramped?  Is it antiseptically neat or like living in an open sewer?  Is it lively?  Bleak?  Cheerful?  Ominous?  Who knows?  Who cares?  The only real thing we learn about the Moon is that, due to a shortage of women, the colonists have taken to polygamous/polyandrous marriages like a duck to water.  And, like the revolution, they all work out just fine without any problems.  This part of the book is annoying because a) it displays Heinlein's juvenile and usually unsuccessful desire to shock, b) it has nothing to do with the plot yet c) Heinlein keeps banging on about it and d) it never occurs to him that the shortage might have been addressed in more traditional ways, such as the women taking up with whatever men have the most money or status and the rest lose out. 

As to the colony inhabitants, Heinlein's attitude toward them is as contradictory and condescending as, in real life, was his attitude toward mankind in general.  On the one hand, the "Loonies" are all rugged individualists full of all the American virtues and none of their faults, but on the other they're a load of idiot children who must be pressured, duped, conned, cajoled, patronised, and generally blindly  lead by a secret elite "for their own good".  Oh, and they're also multi-ethnic and have mixed together like they've had a spin in a blender.  Apparently on the Moon it isn't possible for one group to dominate the rest or to divide along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, nationality, or other fault lines.  But then, once you get beyond the stratosphere human nature is suspended, I presume.

Science fiction regards itself as a literature of ideas.  This is certainly the case as a story constructed like a heap of driftwood can still be regarded as a classic if it has an "idea" and this I suspect is why The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has remained so popular. It certainly has "ideas".  As Painshin noted, this is not so much a novel as a dramatised lecture.  The entire purpose of the book is to put forward Heinlein's vision of a perfect Libertarian society where people get along quite happily without the accouterments of government–that includes contracts, courts, law, schools, police, and anything else.  Apparently all of this is provided by either street vendors acting as jurists or justice being a matter taken care of by a victim's family and friends. How this devil-take-the-hindmost society works without the friendless becoming easy prey, families descending into corrupt criminal enterprises, disputes becoming blood feuds, or power gravitating into the hands of the better organised isn't Heinlein's problem.  It's all, in Heinlein's words, a matter of TANSTAAFL (There Ain't (sic) No Such Thing As A Free Lunch).  Lord protect us from self-styled cracker barrel philosophers. 

My problem is (again) that none of this has anything to do with the plot.  There's no dispute over Heinlein's Über-Libertarianism in the story, it poses no dilemma, solves none either, and is just so much Utopian pontification.  Ideally, science fiction poses a "what if?" and then explores the dramatic possibilities. What if there were immortality?  What if a man was invisible?  What if the sun went out?  You take any of these and then work out what the logical consequences are and how these can be made into a story. Heinlein uses "What if?" and exploits it as a platform for presenting his political tract.  This is the the literature of lazy day dreaming.  Ideas are meaningless if they don't play out in a plausible way, which Heinlein rejected the moment he introduced a computer as a ludicrous deus ex machina on the first page. How this won a Hugo award is incomprehensible.

I was going to end by saying that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress gave me a headache. It did; thirty six years ago.  Re-reading it just freshened it up a bit.

*Now there's a nightmare situation that would make a good story.

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