August 04, 2012

Book Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress


I don't claim to be a genius. Robert A. Heinlein, on the other hand, is one of the most brilliant writers the United States of America has ever produced. He starts with a kaleidoscope of colorful characters, posits a world no one living has ever experienced, then uses science to bring them together in a multilayered study of human existence. And he achieved this in every single book he wrote.

Consider Mike, the supercomputer who becomes sentient and helps free the former prison colony of Luna from the tyrannical and oppressive "Authority" based on Earth. The name and character allude to "Michael", an archangel, the only archangel in the Bible clearly identified as a warrior angel. Thus it is not the least bit surprising that Mike the supercomputer comes up with and executes the strategy that helps Luna's revolution succeed. Nevertheless, the two personality traits that give his character such charm are a childlike naivete and a love of practical jokes. His naivete is so overwhelming that when he realizes the destruction brought by his strategy it renders him catatonic.

Consider also Hazel Stone. She first appears in a book published almost ten years before this book (The Rolling Stones) as the grandmother of that book's two charming halfwit brothers. Ten years after the publication of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress she reappears as a tertiary, yet critical character in The Number of the Beast, then a few years later as the central character in The Cat Who Walks through Walls, and finally in 1988 as a pivotal character in To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Hazel Stone starts out as a minor character in a book published in 1955, and becomes one of the most important members of the Long family in the four "Boondock" books where Heinlein finally brings together and reveals how his works are all bound together in a literary examination of the philosophical concept of "the world as myth". Most importantly, despite evolving over four books and three decades Hazel Stone never once violates the key elements of her wildly independent, doggedly determined personality. That kind of career-long internal consistency is extremely challenging for a writer to pull off successfully.

Some critics disparage Heinlein's female characters because they do not think and act like men. Somehow these same critics never notice that when push comes to shove, it is always the women in a Heinlein book that have the most initiative, the most common sense, and the greatest ability to change the course of human history. No matter how the male characters stumble through the plot, the women always provide the missing piece of the puzzle or the critical decision that eventually wins the day. Heinlein's female characters, like Hazel Stone and Wyoming Knott, are always the focal point of the events that move a Heinlein novel forward and bring it to its conclusion.

The main character of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Manuel Garcia "Mannie" O'Kelly-Davis, meets Wyoming Knott at a subversive meeting he has no interest in attending. The only reason he goes is because his "thinkum dinkum" friend Mike the Supercomputer cannot observe the meeting directly and asks Manuel to attend for him and tell him about it. The meeting is interrupted by a police raid and in the course of the raid Manuel is charged with protecting Wyoming Knott, a keynote speaker invited from the Hong Kong colony. On the strength of Wyoming's kiss, ready sense of humor, and ability to win the trust of Mike, the next twenty-four hours finds Manuel drafted into leading a revolution against the Warden and the Authority that oppress Luna.

One of the most brilliant strokes of genius is how through this providential meeting the reader learns that Luna is a libertarian society with no written laws while the Authority is a Soviet-style collectivist big government attempting to dictate every aspect of life in Luna. The subversives use Soviet style revolutionary titles and hierarchy, but are fighting for an American style free market economy. This reversal of roles is a literary device that keeps the reader questioning their assumptions about labels versus the genuine truths those labels are applied to. What becomes apparent only after reading the Boondock books is how The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is really a key lesson in understanding the difference between a label and the thing itself. The continuity of Hazel Stone's character is one of the powerful literary tools Heinlein uses to teach this lesson not once, but repeatedly over a period of three decades!

As I said at the beginning, I am not a genius and I do not claim to be. Nonetheless, when I read some of the negative and disparaging reviews of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress at Amazon.com, it strikes me that none of the people who rated this book with one or two stars actually understood the book and several of them probably did not even bother reading beyond the first chapter or two. Just as in every book Heinlein wrote, there is far more going on here than meets the eye. On the surface, it is a rollicking space opera of revolution and freedom. Peel back the layers and you find a critical assessment of everything that is wrong with American culture in the post war years as well as a dire warning about the civil unrest that tore through our society in the decade after this book was published.

Some science fiction writers claim to be prophetic. Robert A. Heinlein actually was.



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