The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Author: Robert Heinlein
Release Date: 1966
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” has been a tempting book to read for many years, because of both its fantastic title and author Robert A. Heinlein’s consistently excellent storytelling. However, I’ve equally shied away from this book due to its reputation of featuring a broken English futuristic moon dialect. There are few things I hate more in literature than reading dialects (well, not just in literature… I’m one of those people that send follow up text messages fixing any grammatical problems in the prior one). As a result, I’d read ten other Heinlein novels before eventually coming across this one in my reading challenge of reading all the Hugo and Nebula award winning books.
As it turns out, the dialect isn’t horribly distracting in this book. The main difference between standard and English dialect looks to be dropping a lot of articles (a, the), using the present tense for several verbs when another tense would be more accurate, and the use of slang words like “earthworms” (for people) or “dinkum,” which if you grok what I’m writing you’ll have no trouble figuring out. What ended up being more distracting was trying to retroactively figure out what sort of technology Heinlein was imagining in certain scenes, as reading this fifty year old book now (2016) that is set sixty years in the future provides several moments of forgetting that cell phones and pocket calculators were unimaginable when this was written. For example, when a computer is removed from the bank, and 200 employees simultaneously using abaci (the plural of abacus) is the only solution, the reader chuckles; when the loonies (people on the moon) are interrupting television broadcasts on Earth but are unable to leave an area greater than the distance of phone cord available one can only speculate how exactly characters are accomplishing their plans.
The story is a first person narrative by Emmanuel, the computer technician who works on the most powerful computer on the moon, Mike (not named for Microsoft, but for Mycroft Holmes). Emmanuel is aware of something that nobody else is: Mike is “alive” based on the level of cognition he has achieved. Emmanuel keeps this a secret, until he meets a woman named Wyoming Knott at a political rally and begins to be drafted into the Free Luna movement. Besides Emmanuel, Wyoming and Mike, there is also a character referred to as the Professor that is basically Heinlein himself, and could be lifted out of numerous other Heinlein novels (Lazarus Long in any of his appearances for example). Despite what I’ve come to realize is a somewhat formulaic trope in Heinlein’s writing, it’s certainly one of his strengths as a writer to put together fantastic settings with high stakes and use it to push forward common sense (to him) ideals that he obviously believed strongly in.
I mentioned the technology issues that date this book previously, but this is also a novel where two other issues may cause today’s reader to take issue. First is the treatment of female characters, who by and large aren’t given much to work with. Wyoming is constantly praised for knowing to keep silent, and not distracting men as much as other women would in a similar situation. Other characters like Hazel or Ludmilla are praised for stepping up like a man to do certain actions, but then quickly returned to their place (I recall one of them even being sent out for coffee while the men spoke). Even Mike’s feminine personality counterpart is established early on and then is basically forgotten about for the rest of the novel, implying that Wyoming was incorrect about him and he was just placating her by taking on that persona. Much like the technology, it’s not anything that should ruin the book for a reader today, as you expect some of the 1960’s attitudes to be present in the writing. As somebody who likes to picture the books in my mind while reading, the more shocking aspect was the switching of races through the use of makeup (both of the short and long term variety). To my recollection, many of the characters in the book were of lineages that featured multiple ethnicities, and not much was made about difference races between them. When Wyoming became a black woman for a few chapters there were often comments about whether she looked better or worse than she did as a white woman. As part of the science fiction landscape, it caught me off guard but didn’t detract from my overall impression of the book. If you have strong feelings about that issue, I could see where the flippancy of it here might upset you more.
By far the most interesting aspects of the book for me was the character of Mike. Nearly God like in his ability to see the future and manipulate events accordingly, I kept hoping for the book to take a “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Alphaville” turn as the Loonies depended on him so completely, for the most part unaware. At the same time, some recognition of the cost of life to Earth by comparison would have also been appreciated, but as it stood Mike was essentially willing to help his friends and look at the long term health of Luna, and that justified any consequences to the people of Earth. Once it became clear that I wasn’t getting the evil robot ending, the actual ending became more predictable but was still very poignant in how it was written. Overall the book falls below classic “Stranger in a Strange Land” and my other favorite “Tunnel in the Sky” but is comparable to “Time Enough for Love” or “Double Star” as enjoyable albeit imperfect Heinlein.