The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert Heinlein
I was both a little happy and a little bummed when my book club decided to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I was happy because it’s one of my favorite science fiction texts and I was sad because I feel, intensely, the pressure of the vast unread archive all around me and so am always a little hesitant to re-read books (especially ones I’ve read two or three times already). That said, I enjoyed the re-read immensely.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress tells the story of Luna colony’s revolt against the Earth, as seen through the eyes of one practical Renaissance computerman. Heinlein constructs a relatively lawless society in the moon colony, one with plural marriage (due to the shortage of women on planet) and a libertarian society. A couple quick thoughts:
- I love the way Heinlein imagined computer technology evolving: becoming more and more centralized. Interestingly, after a couple decades of decentralized computing, we’re moving toward networked centralization again (via “the cloud”).
- He takes a quick dig at the U.S., where the main character gets arrested for polygamy (mostly because the conservative people still rankle at the mix of skin colors in his family).
- The variations on plural marriage were very interesting, including the “Line marriage” which allows the family to maintain its resources collectively and reduce the fracturing that many estates experience.
- Heinlein mixes a really interesting set of political assumptions about revolution and space travel into this book, assumptions that keep it working long after the technology seems a bit dated.
Finally, as with his other master works (Starship Troopers and A Stranger in a Strange Land particularly), he experiments with the philosophical underpinnings of society and considers how it might work well. In this book, Heinlein paints a pretty nice picture of Libertarian society as it exists on the moon, but a close look reveals some major issues to contend with. The learning curve is steep, and lots of people who can’t get along with others well have accidents or find themselves on the wrong side of airlocks. It seems to me this could foster a viciousness that would not only weed out the unpleasant, but also the timid. Heinlein makes no apologies for this fact, but the supposed moral superiority of the society it gives birth to seems suspect, to me.
It also presumes that equality of skill and bearing should lead directly to success and survival. While this idea works well in theory, it also suggests that lack of skill (or intelligence) merit, well, death. In the limited resources and vicious world of the moon colony, that’s understandable (if awful). But in imagining a society where human life has value, it’s not a philosophy most people would profess. As a friend said to me once, the problem with Libertarianism (as with Communism) is that it ignores human nature in favor of idealized human nature. In libertarianism, the idealization expects perfect rational behavior and punishes anything else; in communism, the idealization expects completely socialized behavior and punishes anything else.
The more I think about these isms, the more I think it appropriate to use one as innoculation against the other. Socialist movements in government to insure infrastructure and basic needs work in contrast to Libertarian tendencies to let selfishness guide the economic engines of society. A balance between the two can protect the weak while enabling the innovation and personal progress that capitalism promotes. But I’ve moved outside the story of the book.
It’s a gripping read with an interesting philosophy, well worth a look if you’re an SF reader.