Throwback Thursday: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

By Oliver Johnson

Posted on May 26, 2016 in Books, Throwback Thursday with tags Robert A. Heinlein, Science Fiction

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of one of the last, seminal works of the Golden Age of Science Fiction: Robert A Heinlein’s 1966 Hugo Award-winning masterpiece. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an account of the Lunar Colony revolt against Terran overlords. As in much of Heinlein’s work, the science in this novel is a portal for debate about society and man’s place in it, his ethical responsibilities as a citizen and whether a perfect society can be created from human imperfection.

In but 60 scant years from now, Heinlein envisaged the Moon will be a penal colony rafted with political dissidents and convicts. With failing water supplies the colonists will soon fall prey to starvation and have to resort to cannibalism. To prevent this, the prisoners decide the Moon’s hydroponically produced wheat must no longer be exported to Earth. Their civilisation is run by a supercomputer, HOLMES IV. Unlike other legendary, malicious AIs such as HAL, HOLMES, once he unexpectedly achieves a level of human empathy and consciousness proves sympathetic to the cause, takes over the colony’s communications, allowing the rebels to plot without Earth’s knowledge.

A secret society is formed and a charter debated, the nub of which is a radical libertarianism, embracing polyandry, line marriages and total racial integration. The voice piece of this anti-government sentiment is Professor Bernardo de la Paz. He believes in a form of Rational Anarchism, the denial of state and government but also the need for some governance for people attempting ‘to live perfectly in an imperfect world.’

War with Earth is inevitable, the outcome, according to HOLMES, 7 to 1 against the revolutionaries. Luna declares its Independence on July 4th 2076, 300 years to the day after the First American Declaration, a giant space catapult is used to bombard Earth, horrendous reprisals ensue for the revolutionaries, independence is achieved but the outcome of victory is strange and unexpected for the Loonies and AI alike.

In addition to the political message, the novel is notable for its language. Heinlein is responsible for creating or popularising many of the enduring phrases and neologisms of the Twentieth Century, including, ‘speculative fiction’ itself and, in this work alone, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’, ‘Grok’, ‘Moonbat’ and ‘Loonies’. He even has the writer’s phrase ‘heinleining’ named after him; it being an ability to seed information seamlessly into narrative (‘show’ not ‘tell’).

The novel has been hailed as one of the masterpieces of libertarian fiction and is currently in development as a movie with Twentieth Century Fox, with Brian (X-Men) Singer producing.

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