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Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress Goes Dismayingly Easy On Its Characters

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With 1967's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, we bid a fond adieu to Robert A. Heinlein's Hugo winners. And there's just no getting out of it: We're not that sorry to see him go.

Much as I love Heinlein — I think I've made that abundantly (possibly overabundantly) clear in my previous posts — I'm not terribly sorry to be done with him. Heinlein gets painted as a love-him-or-hate-him writer, but for me at least, it's more like love-him-and-hate-him, especially after four books in five months. What I mean to say is, there's a particular challenge involved in discussing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and I want to be up-front about it:

Heinlein's primary genius — the quality that more than anything else, I think, earned him fame in his lifetime and thereafter — lay in his ability to examine an idea outside of its real-life social constraints. I mean, yeah, a lot of science fiction does that (and so do other genres), but his brilliance was that he could explain how there ought to be no moral objection to, say, polyamory, or sex with a teenager, or sex with a teenage clone of yourself, and still manage to sound like someone's grumpy old grandpa, rather than a radical drugged-out beatnik, while doing it.


This was a very important quality, and I'll say more about why shortly. But it's also a problematic quality, because it paints rather a false picture of how things are. The truth is, in real life, it's often impossible to separate your analysis of something from the social constraints and other particularities surrounding it; it's often impossible to even clearly delineate where the "something" stops and the particularities surrounding it begin. For example, the challenge I'm facing with Harsh Mistress: I can't think about the book right now without considering the other three Heinlein books I've recently read for this series. And even if I held off for a year or a decade before writing about it, I'd still remember something about how I felt now, and I'd certainly have plenty of other thoughts about the author in general.

So, if a big chunk of my experience reading this book boiled down to me thinking, For crying out loud, I am so, so tired of the one and only one voice Robert A. Heinlein is capable of writing in* — well, is that really fair? I can't really indict the whole novel simply because I'm past my saturation point with the author. And yet, isn't it also fair to say that gosh, this book would have impressed me more if the tone and characters and plot points had been a little more evolved than the writer's previous works?


OK, that's not entirely fair; let me give credit where it's due: From the opening paragraph, it's apparent Heinlein is trying something different. Harsh Mistress, which is the story of the lunar prison colony's revolt against Earth's government, aided by a super-powerful sentient computer, is narrated in the first person by Manuel Garcia O'Kelly, a computer repairman who speaks Ensign Chekov–esque English with an accent so thick it comes through in print. ("I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect — and tax — public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure. I see also is to be mass meeting tonight to organize 'Sons of Revolution' talk-talk" goes that first graf.) Ironically, Mannie's voice does just about nothing to mask Heinlein's typical one, and actually calls attention to the author's lack of tonal range by trying to be different and failing.**

Which also calls attention to the author's other handicaps, the biggest of which is an expanded version of the problem I had with Starship Troopers: Heinlein is an unrepentant deck-stacker. First, the circumstances are such that Luna City and the rest of the moon have to revolt, or else they're doomed. And sure, the characters may be planning this dangerous revolution while barely protected from a lethally severe lunar environment — but not to worry, none of them will die (at least, not until circumstances are such that the death is poignant rather than tragic). In fact, the characters will never have to overcome a single serious obstacle — just a handful of minor road bumps that enable them to demonstrate how capable they are. Enemies and opponents will always be thoroughly incompetent and frequently thoroughly reprehensible (so that when they die, no one has to feel bad). And whenever a question arises, every single good guy will arrive at exactly the same answer as the other good guys, because they all use logic to get there — and logically, there is of course always only one right answer to any question.


None of these complaints are to say that Harsh Mistress is a straight-up bad book. As with any Heinlein book, it offers a lot of food for thought and fodder for argument. Mannie uses a computer-circuit diagram to build a model for a foolproof revolution, which is pretty cool. His line marriage — a family in which a chronological series of spouses coexist, raising kids together and occasionally bringing new ones into the fold — is a neat idea, a group that mixes the benefits of a typical genealogy (older members who can pass wisdom on to younger members) with those of deliberately forged relationships (not having to put up with Grandpa's drinking just because he's your mom's dad). And the story delivers its share of "Mmmm, yeah" moments, where Heinlein takes what's inside your head, without your even realizing it, and shows you why it's wrong. For example, a tourist from Earth gets in trouble for coming on too strong to a young woman, at which point he's taken by a group of street toughs to Mannie, who acts as judge in an impromptu trial, to decide whether the man deserves to die for his crime. Afterward, the bemused tourist says:

"Believe me, sir, I do not think [the trial] was a joke. I just have trouble grasping that your local laws permit a man to be put to casually...and for so trivial an offense."


"Stu," I said, "...wasn't done casually, or boys would have dragged you to nearest lock to zero pressure, shoved you in, and cycled. Instead were most formal."


And naturally, the Token Robert Heinlein Stand-In Character (see also: Mr. Dubois, Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus Long), revolution mastermind Professor Bernardo de la Paz, has plenty of smart theories to espouse, and provocative but often accurate statements to make about human nature. And all of the counterintuitive rationality and tire-kicking of our reflexive cultural biases really is, as I said earlier, important. I firmly believe there are thousands of people whom Heinlein inspired to think more rigorously, who learned how and why to question social norms from his books.


My big issue — and hey, maybe this is a straw man, I don't know — is that I'm afraid some of those thousands tend to take his work as some kind of gospel itself. And the truth is, if you apply a little Heinleinian skepticism to those works, they very obviously are imperfect, as evinced by the reasons above. Heinlein was great at outlining political theories, but he more or less ignored the problems of applying those theories in the real world. His violence is always justifiable and nearly bloodless; his characters' logic is always presented as infallible; and as in Stranger in a Strange Land, in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, he has a nearly omnipotent character named Mike to deal with the lion's share of otherwise insurmountable challenges.***


I guess in a time when groups railing against supposed government injustice are all over the news, and talk of violent revolution is too, it seems extra important to remember that most political issues are not as cut-and-dried as many books make them out to be — they're not easily removed from the particular real-world social constraints they're bound up in. I suspect Heinlein knew that and just had trouble communicating it, because ideas were so much more his strong suit than characterization (and Harsh Mistress is indisputably rich with ideas). Nevertheless, given his inability to communicate it, and in spite of my admiration for him, I'm ready to move on from his books to what I'm hoping will be some more complex fare.

"Blogging the Hugos" usually appears every other weekend, but will appear next weekend to make up for not appearing last weekend. In the next installment: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny, from 1968.


Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.

*Yes, the same voice I was gushing about reencountering back in November.


**Not to mention the curious fact that no one else in the entire book speaks the same way as Mannie.

***Sorry to not say more about Mike, the computer. What can you say, though? He's essential to the story, but he's so essential that he almost makes the story unnecessary. What do we learn about the challenges of revolution? Pretty much just that there aren't very many, as long as you have the only AI in existence on your side! There's a more mature book in here, which gets hinted at when the professor says his biggest concern about post-revolution Luna is Mike — what are the dangers of making a supremely powerful, inhuman entity your ally? — but then Heinlein ends up ducking the issue entirely.