For the past two years I have been, slowly but surely, attempting to read through the great science fiction classics. My journey has taken me through some of the most fascinating and compelling stories I have ever read, but one book that had disappointed me was Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Though it was certainly thought-provoking, I thought the story itself floundered around the halfway point. I thus approached The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress with a bit of trepidation and caution, lured in mainly by the fascinating title and the heaps of praise lavished upon the Hugo Award-winning novel by authors and critics alike, some crediting it for inspiring revolutionary attitudes birthed in the 1960’s. After I finished reading this monumental work, I realized I should not have worried: Heinlein’s last Hugo-winning novel is certainly a masterpiece of science fiction, a compelling libertarian tale of revolution and its consequences.
First published in 1966, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress could perhaps be best summed up as A Tale of Two Cities in space, with a far heavier emphasis on the political and revolutionary side of things. The story is narrated by the one-armed computer technician Manuel who lives on the former penal colony that exists on the Moon, now known as Luna. Manuel is developing a close friendship with the now sentient supercomputer that manages all the technology on Luna, whose name is Mike. The relationship between these two is often the most compelling aspect of the novel, just as fascinating as the ambitious plans for an uprising against Luna’s economically manipulative rulers Earth-side they concoct with the “rational anarchist” Professor de la Paz and the female political agitator Wyoming. Heinlein tells the story strictly from Manuel’s perspective, as if he is recording his memories and reflections on the revolution, with the bad grammar and crude colloquial phrases that one born and raised on a former prison planet would most likely use. The book follows the revolution from the ground up, as the inner circle declares their honorable and legitimate reasons for desiring autonomy that echo the motivations for both the American and French Revolutions.
Over the course of the novel, Heinlein wisely portrays how the lines between right and wrong, truth and falsehood are blurred in order to ensure the revolution’s success. Though the motley assortment of insurgents certainly has a noble end in mind, the means by which the end must be achieved cast doubt on the morality of the enterprise as a whole. Mike, as the supercomputer who joins the scheme simply because he finds the challenge of rebellion fascinating and humorous, grants the inner circle an immense amount of power and ability to manipulate events to suit their needs. Heinlein does a marvelous job of examining the costs and benefits of revolution on both a national and personal scale, posing the question that must be asked: “is this all worth it”? Heinlein, through the eyes of Manuel, provides no easy answer to the quandary, and when our protagonists manipulate the masses through lies and half-truths that echo the best-known words of our own American Revolution that we hold in such high esteem, it is enough to make the reader pause and contemplate what compromises are worth making for the cause of freedom. Heinlein never abandons the idealism of the goal, but rather muddies the waters when it comes to the cost of achieving that ideal.
The only complaint that could perhaps be leveled against the novel is that occasionally Heinlein’s fascinating cast of characters play second fiddle to the grander political maneuverings and schemes, leading to certain chapters reading more like a history text. But to those to whom The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress will appeal most, those fascinated by politics, systems of government, history and the philosophical and ethical implications of revolution, such minor lapses will mean little. Heinlein’s work is notable for its provocative juxtaposition of libertarian idealism and Machiavellian machinations in a compelling literary form. Though it may be a bit beyond those unfamiliar with science fiction (a passing acquaintance with the genre will help immensely with grasping some of the stranger and imaginative aspects of the futuristic but still believable world Heinlein creates) The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has much to offer those willing to wrestle with the deeper complexities of the fact that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”.