The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert A. Heinlein
Published by Blackstone Audio Books, Inc.
read by Lloyd James
This is the second time I have reviewed one of Heinlein’s classic works of science fiction. Last time I admitted that I have always blown hot and cold on his stories and that The Puppet Masters had never been one of my favorites. That one may have hit every available wrong button in my mind, but on the other side of the coin, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, is far and above my favorite.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is narrated by Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis, a computer techie and member of a long-term and prosperous line family (a form of marriage in which spouses are added to the line over time. I think Heinlein invented this concept, but I’m not sure). Manny begins his tale by introducing us to the HOLMES IV supercomputer, Mike (short for Mycroft Holmes) whose job it is to run most automated functions in the Earth colonies on Luna. Mike apparently became self-aware roughly a year earlier, a fact only Manny knows at the start of the book. Why is he the only one in the know? Well, Mike’s programmers do what all programmers do, they run their programs into the machine and expect it to work. Only Manny has had a chance to talk to Mike and Mike concludes in a child-like manner that the programmers are stupid so he refuses to talk to them. Only Manny, in Mike’s experience is a “not-stupid.”
Mike really is still a child in many ways at the start of the book and a practical joker to boot. The Reason Manny has been called in to “fix” Mike this time is that Mike has just issued a pay check to a worker that, if cashed, would be worth more than the sum total of worth of Luna and Earth together. Naturally, not realizing that the computer is alive, the Lunar Authority has hired Manny to find and fix the cause of this embarrassing glitch.
It’s a good introduction to the book. Over the course of Manny’s interview with Mike we learn that the Moon is a collection of penal colonies, collectively administered by a single Authority, to which convicts have been sentenced by the major powers on Earth. The situation is roughly analogous to colonial Australia. Exile is for life. Even if a sentence is only for, say, a year or three, Heinlein asserts that life in the lower lunar gravity would cause physiological changes in a person’s body, after an extended stay, that would make it impossible to safely return to Earth. Would it really? I don’t know and I dare say none of us really will until we have a long-term settlements on the Moon for real, but we can argue it back and forth until then.
So, along with the convicts, their families have also been exiled in transportation and a true colony is established, although at the time of writing the male to female ratio is still two to one, a situation that adds an interesting rich complexity to the Lunar culture Heinlein imagines. Another point that rings especially true to me is the almost preternatural politeness of the people on Luna.
Heinlein stats that in a situation in which an airlock is never far away, an unpleasant person is not going to last long. One could argue that Luna should, instead, be a thugocracy, being run by the roughest toughest and nastiest person on the “Rock,” but the situation reminds me most strongly of the crews on Merchant Marine ships and on fishing boats as well. I have met a fair number of the men and women who work on such ships and boats. They are a pretty rough and tough lot. They have to be; the work is hard with long hours. They earn every penny they make through their muscles as well as their brains and conditioned reflexes. However, I have rarely met a group of people who are as unfailingly polite. Reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I have to think that politeness and courtesy is a requirement in a situation when anyone could “accidentally” fall overboard.
Anyway, after Manny defuses the check incident by discussing the nature of humor, Mike asks Manny to attend a meeting that evening for him because while the computer has “ears” everywhere, someone has apparently shut them off in “Stilyagi Hall” in Luna City. Manny agrees and finds himself surrounded by revolutionaries trying to plan a coup against Luna Authority and it’s warden, “Mort the Wart.” When the assembly is raided by Authority troops and the whole fiasco turns into a riot, Manny rescues a visiting speaker, Wyoming Knott and whisks her off to safety. Once safely ensconced in a hotel room, they eventually make contact with another revolutionary and Manny’s one-time teacher Professor Bernardo de la Paz and together they gradually form the cell of a new revolution with the help of Mike.
This book has been described as the story of a Libertarian revolution and in a way it is, but it also is not. Yes there are a lot of libertarian ideals being passed about back and forth (personally I side with Professor de la Paz and his notion of a “Rational Anarchist.”) but the libertarians hold about as much sway in the eventual outcome as the real-life Libertarian Party does in American politics. This is not to say I would not like to see more of the Libertarian ideals take root in the collective consciousness of the United States, but, like the Prof, I realize that people are going to do what people do and as much as I personally might like to live without the bother of governmental interference, it isn’t going to disappear just because I find it inconvenient, since they are too many others who believe it is a necessity to a safe and prosperous life. Hey, maybe they are right… for them. Me, I would behave the way I do regardless because for me it is right to do so and to give others the same consideration and respect I want in return. So like the Prof, I will continue to live in a world with governments since others around me seem to need them.
And while, Manny’s, Wyoh’s, and the Prof’s revolution does start out on libertarian lines it soon turns out that defeating Lunar Authority’s Moon-based dragoons is the easiest part of the revolution and no matter how the Prof stacks the deck in the ensuing constitutional convention, the reader can see that Luna will not quite be a libertarian paradise for long. However, The Congress of Luna is almost a side note because the war will not be over until the nations of Earth herself recognize Luna as a sovereign nation, something not likely to happen so long as Earth’s leaders think they can bully the “Loonies” back into submission.
The battle for true freedom for Luna is a long and bloody one and even with Mike’s calculations the results are never certain.
The Audio Book
Lloyd James does an excellent job of reading this book. While the book is excellent, there are all sorts of way a reader might ruin it for the listener, but Mister James enhanced my enjoyment of the story instead.
The only possible weakness may have been his fondness for pronounced accents. From Manny’s speak mannerisms it is easy to figure out he speaks with a Russian accent, something that should not be surprising given the number of Russian transportees on Luna and the words that are sprinkled throughout the story. But should the accent be as strong as Mister James makes it? Perhaps, but then why does no one else have such a pronounced Russian accent and verbal mannerisms? And if anything, Professor de la Paz’s Latino accent is barely evident. Meanwhile the accent of Stuart Rene LaJoie is almost a parody of Maurice Chevalier. So minus a point or two for inconsistency and for hitting the listener over the head with a distinct lack of subtlety.
However, it was good to Manny speaking with a Russian accent even if it was a bit more pronounced than I imagined it and even though, inexplicably no one else seems to… (Then again no one else in the book appears to have Manny’s Russian speech patterns so it is fair to say that Mister James was just following what Heinlein wrote. Trying Manny’s voice in any other accent would not have worked as well.
All in all, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a “must-read” for any SF fan and Lloyd James does a reasonably fine job in the performance.