Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress tells of a popular revolt against the incompetent and oppressive authority of a lunar colony. Political themes are central to the book, but it also explores a revolutionary space launch technology: the mass driver. A mass driver is sometimes called an electromagnetic catapult because it would use electricity to accelerate a vehicle along an inclined track, such that the vehicle would gain enough momentum to be cast into orbit. The story considers the possibility of building such a superstructure up the west side of a mountain—so as to take advantage of Earth's rotation. Heinlein is at his best with this kind of vision.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein bookRead more reviews on AmazonThe novel also explores polygamous family structures—the author's main point being that a variety of relationships based on free association can be mutually beneficial. It is a good point, but it's one that's more idealogical than practical.

Given the book's chatter on libertarian ideology, I expected Heinlein to get his economics straighter. The whole viability of the colony relies on a net export of wheat. Worse, this wheat is grown artificially in tunnels excavated in the lunar surface. I can imagine a space colony building wealth by exporting something valuable to Earth, but that something is not food.

Other problems with the plot include Mike, a superintelligent computer. Mike has a completely human psychology and Heinlein does not attempt to explain how. The workings of Heinlein's utopia are also worth scrutinizing—the lunar colonists eventually establish a justice system that is enforced not through laws, but through local mobs which must be hired. This society seems more anarchist than libertarian.

Heinlein tells the story using a hybrid Russo-English grammar that omits articles like "the". This literary device—perhaps used to evoke sentiments of the Bolshevik Revoltion and the Cold War—seems innovative for the first few pages, annoying for the next hundred, and tolerable for the rest of the novel. It becomes more acceptable when characters are actually speaking and less so during, say, aesthetic descriptions of the landscape, which are, incidentally, in short supply. Still, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is an example of science fiction that genuinely strives to take itself seriously.


  1. When was the first time you read this book? I was in my mid-teens, about 30 years ago, and for me it had a lot of charm, presenting what was a new perspective on so many things. It sounds like you'd only give it about 2/5, but I struggle to think of another book of that era that I found as enthralling, probably because it at least tried to tackle those wider social issues.

    Andrew W

  2. I read this a year ago, at the budding age of 24. I wouldn't necessarily give it only 2/5. Often times it's more interesting to talk about the faults of a book rather than its strengths. Some of Heinlein's shortcomings in this work are more forgivable than others. For instance it would be hard to predict the world's boredom with space following Apollo. Likewise, the future of computer technology was certainly difficult to gauge. The economy of Heinlein's Luna, though, wouldn't make any more sense by in the 60s than it does today.