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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (SF) - Robert Heinlein ****

Revisiting this 1966 classic, which despite a few issues is Heinlein’s best novel, showed that it holds up surprisingly well. Amongst the big names of science fiction's ‘golden age’, Asimov may have had the edge on ideas, but Heinlein was a far better writer and this shows from the very beginning when the narrator comments of a self-aware computer ‘I had nicknamed him for Mycroft Holmes, in a story written by Dr Watson before he founded IBM.’ 

It might come as quite a surprise to those familiar with Heinlein’s politics, but in this study of colonial revolution, the author doesn’t shrink from including some communist ideas and terminology, while coming relatively soon after the McCarthy era, arguably Heinlein was brave in scattering speech with Russian terms and a tendency to drop the definite article. He was also critical of the US for institutional racism.

The story itself plays out the transformation of a prison colony on the Moon into a self-determining republic. The reluctant central character (as is often the case, pretty much Heinlein himself in thin disguise) Mannie is aided by the newly conscious central computer, Mike, whose abilities enable the conspirators to take on the might of Earth. Heinlein has clearly thought through the difficulties of life in the Moon tunnels and adds in impressive detail on the mechanism of rebellion and political machinations without ever losing the momentum of the plot.

To get the negative issues out of the way, three things conspire to limit the way the book now comes across. While the writing is still extremely lively and readable, modern readers coming to the book for the first time are liable to be held back by the computer technology, the politics and particularly the approach to women.

Most trivial, though the conscious computer is incredibly capable, Heinlein's prediction of future IT is fairly weak. (Incidentally, the story is sent in 2076, but the Moon has been colonised since before 2000). Mike seems to have very limited use of video, relying mostly on audio. His speech work is handled by the antiquated concept of a voder/vocoder, with separate physical circuits for each conversation. And, in a throwaway remark, Heinlein shows how computer memory has far exceeded expectations: at one point, Mike sets apart a large amount of memory. It’s 100 megabits.

The politics of the Moon reflects a viewpoint that became stronger in Heinlein’s later novels: it’s not far from that of Ayn Rand, which many will find uncomfortable. Having said that, the importance of self-sufficiency is arguably justified by the harsh lunar environment. Sadly, the treatment of women reflects that Heinlein was an author of the Mad Men era. While women are treated with respect on the Moon as there are twice as many men, women are literally referred to as a scarce commodity, and it's quite clear from the allocation of roles that a woman’s place is considered the home and the kitchen. At one point, Adam Selene, the fake public persona adopted by Mike, is asked if he can cook. He replies ‘Certainly. But I don’t; I’m married.’ Because of the shortage of women, the Moon has complex marriage forms, mostly featuring polyandry, and marriage is often at around age 14, which feels more than a little creepy.

If, however, you can see past this (bearing in mind both that the book was written in a different era and that Heinlein was setting up the culture of a frontier colony under extreme conditions), this is still a great book that deserves its place as a classic of the genre and should still be read.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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