A self-aware computer and a revolution on the moon: Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

This used to be a favourite book, then I went off it and I haven’t re-read it in a long time. I picked it up now because a discussion about trying to explain a joke to someone with autism reminded me of it.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1967) is a book with a lot in it. It’s about a revolution on the moon. It’s about a computer that has become self-aware and is slowly becoming a person. It’s got polyamory and half a ton of gender issues and lots of very odd politics. What I have always loved about it is the experimental style, and Mike, the computer who isn’t meant to be alive. My fifteen year old self and my present day self are united in thinking that Mike is the best character in the book. But on this re-read, I found something problematic even with him.

However, all problems aside, this is a significant book in the history of the genre, and even better it has the Heinlein magic readability. It’s amazingly engrossing from the first minute, and it drew me along as irresistably now as when I was a teenager. It’s a great story written in a great voice. I’m not saying it won’t drive you nuts in several ways, but it’s nevertheless important, fun, and good.

I’m assuming from this point that you’ve read the book or don’t care about spoilers.

First, Mike. I think Mike is a wonderfully done portrait of a self-aware computer. He’s convincingly alien, he’s convincingly young, he’s convincingly simultaneously naive and well informed. Heinlein really makes him work as a character—and that’s even more amazing when you consider the leaps in computer technology between 1967 and now mean that the actual descriptions of what he’s designed for and what he does mean that he has less processing power than a set of car keys. Manny is a hardware guy, he takes plates off to fix crashes, he finds (or pretends to find) literal bugs—a fly inside the case. He writes his own programs, you know, but he then prints them out. The admin people who work with him write their letters on typewriters. Mike’s simultaneously a mixture of very old fashioned and futuristically impossible—and I don’t care. I totally believe in him. I am completely convinced. This is exactly how a self-aware computer would be—like an autistic trying to logic his way through why people act the way they do.

Having said that, I have two problems with Mike. One is the figuring the odds for the revolution. I’d have bought it if he did it once. It’s the complex refiguring and odds changing and—no. People complain about the Dust hypothesis in Permutation City that you can’t calculate things out of order, and this is worse. You can’t work out odds of 7 to 1 against and then say they will keep getting worse until they get better. It makes no sense.

The second problem is that he dies in the end. My problem with that when I was fifteen was that it made me cry and I missed him. It still makes me cry—it’s a well-written and well-paced death—but this time I suddenly thought that he had to die. He had to die because otherwise, quis custodiet? It’s very convenient for the revolution to have this corrupt near-omnipotent computer on their side, rigging elections, controlling the phone system. And it’s incredibly convenient that he dies and thus doesn’t become a dictator—because how could it have gone but trust the computer, the computer is your friend? Mike doesn’t have morals or ideals, he’s doing the revolution for company and human attention. He has an orgasm when he bombs Earth. He couldn’t live without becoming a worse dictator than the Warden ever was. And Heinlein knew that, and killed him and furthermore made me cry for him.

(Don’t bother telling about the rescue attempt in Cat. Does not exist, does not fit. Not true. Have forgotten about. Don’t remind.)

During the discussions here and elsewhere about the Patterson biography, a friend pointed out that Heinlein was trying to imagine women’s liberation and getting it wrong. I think this is precisely it. We say “women’s lib” without really thinking of the implication—that before second wave feminism, women were not free. If you consider that all the women Heinlein had ever known were living in a system that had them pretty much enslaved, it’s excellent that he wanted to imagine how we would be if we were free, and not all that surprising that he couldn’t quite figure out what it would be like. I don’t think the situation as described on the moon would lead to the situation we see—but I don’t think any of it would. Also, surely the disproportionate lack of women transportees would disappear once people were having children—and they’re having lots of children. The division of labour in Luna is incredibly sexist (running a beauty shop, but never being a judge or an engineer…) and the Lysistrata corps is really annoying. There’s also the pervasive thing of women being manipulative—well, I guess we’d all be manipulative if it was the only way to get by.

Following on from that, Manny’s line marriage is described in detail. I’d never heard of anything like it when I was fifteen—and I still never have. There isn’t anything like it. This isn’t how people do polyamory. The thing that makes it squicky is the age difference. This is enhanced by Manny calling the oldest man Grandpaw and the oldest women Mum—ick. And I almost gagged at the description of Ludmilla’s death. She’s 14, and she’s married all these older people, and when she dies bravely in battle Manny describes her wound as “a bullet between her lovely little girl breasts.” This is probably the thing that bothers me the most in all of Heinlein.

As far as people of colour goes, the book does pretty well for now, or splendidly for the time when it was written. Manny is mixed race with dark skin. There are a huge number of other people described as being dark skinned, and Professor de la Paz is Hispanic. There’s one heroic African transportee who dies. The description of Chinese people as “Chinee” and the mention of Chinese babies being small is probably what was believed at the time. Hong Kong Luna is a thriving and free city. What we see is a colony where people of many origins are beginning to define their own ethnicity as Loonies. I think Heinlein really wanted to get this right and tried hard.

It’s also probably worth mentioning that our narrator and protagonist Manny has only one arm. His other arm is a set of prostheses that are in some ways better than the original, but there’s a memorable moment when he’s going to Earth and he’s been put in his pressure suit without an arm. This is exactly the kind of unthinking stupidity-intended-kindly that people do all the time. It really rings true. Of course, Heinlein spent a lot of time in and around hospitals. He’d have had plenty of chance to see this kind of thing.

Politics—the revolution is ostensibly anarchist-libertarian, but in fact it’s all being cynically manipulated. It’s quite clear that in the frame that apolitical Manny preferred Luna before it was free. The ideology of the revolution is that of freeing Luna, against the status quo but not really for anything. There’s so much waving of political sound bites that this almost gets obscured. And the sound bites are nifty—TANSTAFFL and so on. But this is really a coup. I’ve read people saying that this revolution is supposedly based on the American Revolution of the 1776, but the social and economic conditions don’t seem to me in any way parallel, nor was that engineered by cynical behind-the-scenes manipulators. Nor would the U.S. have been reduced to cannibalism in eight years—Canada still hasn’t been reduced to cannibalism! But the whole economic set-up of growing wheat on the moon to send to the starving people of India is nonsense anyway. The dice are so very loaded you can hear them rattling. Well, I couldn’t when I was fifteen, but at that point I was only listening to Mike.

The book is written in a very interesting futuristic style. A lot of the word choices are Australian rather than U.S. or U.K. English—this is explained within the novel by the large proportion of Aussies forcibly emigrating when China conquered Australia. Also, the general fractured style—no articles, a dearth of possessives—is reminiscent of Russian. Some Russian words are sprinkled in as well. Since the whole book is written in Manny’s first person, this works very well. I’m not in a very good position to evaluate it—it blew me away when I first read it. I don’t know what I’d think if I came across it for the first time now. But it flows, it genuinely feels like a possible future variant of English. Similarly the name selection feels like the way this works in an actual society.

I don’t know how to sum this one up. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me grit my teeth, it made me gag, I couldn’t put it down but I probably won’t read it again for a long time. So, that would be a mixed reaction then.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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