The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

349.jpgThis was sent to me by a Galactic Suburbia listener, when I mentioned that I had finished my first Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land) only recently. Isn’t that awesome??

… apparently I should feel a bit bad about not loathing this. Ah well.

The short version is: I enjoyed it more than I anticipated that I would. I had zero knowledge of what the story was about before going in (except for the slight teaser from Jonathan Strahan describing Luna: New Moon as “The Moon is a Very, Very Harsh Mistress”), and given that it was published in 1966 by a man who has almost become synonymous with outdated ideas and views… yeh, I found it surprisingly readable.

Let me deal with the problems first and get them out of the way. Yes, it’s racist. The Chinese colonists and those on Earth are not given the same level of respect as the white colonists. I am in no way disregarding that; but I was expecting it. It’s like being able to tolerate – that is, not run away screaming from – such racism in James Bond movies. But I’m white; I have the advantage of not having to deal with that sort of crap every day. I can understand not wanting to wade through that to get to possible good bits. I am certainly not saying anyone has to read this.

Additionally, yes it’s sexist. Interestingly it’s not as sexist as I had expected; there are a couple of women who have active and interesting roles. While Wyoming doesn’t have as active role as some of the others, she is present and she is a genuine member of the action, as are – if to a lesser extent – a couple of other women. So I think it does slightly better on the female angle than on the non-white angle (damning with faint praise?).

The short version of the plot: the moon is being used largely as a penal colony – well, the bit the story cares about; there’s also a Chinese colony, but they hardly feature (see? racism). The colony is being used as labour to extract stuff that Earth needs. So there’s a revolution. Naturally.

SPOILERS below in case you’re like me and a Heinlein novice. This isn’t pretending to be an in-depth analysis of the book, just a few comments on the things I found interesting.

The most fascinating, and weirdest, bit for me was the parallels I saw not with the American Revolution but with the Russian. Now I know a lot more about the Russian than about the American – it took the Prof to point out that the revolution is all happening around July 2076 for me to realise the significance of the date. But the thing that really caught my eye was the way that the Prof’s rhetoric was so much like that of Lenin. De la Paz talks about how there needs to be a small group of dedicated revolutionaries rather than trying to get everyone involved… which is straight out of Lenin’s playbook. I’m not going to claim that this is a play on 1917, because clearly that would be a bit nuts and tie me in knots as I tried to figure out who Mannie and the computer actually were (who is Trotsky? Probably Mannie because of the war connection. But Mike? is it suggesting someone was manipulating Lenin?!). But Wyoming does therefore get to be an Alexandra Kollontai figure, which is pretty awesome.

Other things I liked: the language. I was reminded in passing of Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong, not because there’s any similarity in the language or the ideas but because they’re both experimenting with the same idea – how language changes over time. Heinlein stripped some non-essential words out, and invented some slang (… or used 60s slang that hasn’t survived, it’s entirely possible and I’m young, ok), and seemed pretty consistent about it across the whole novel. I especially liked that the language was different on Earth from what it is in L-City – like Australia developing its own idiosyncratic style.

Finally, the AI. The naming of it and the Sherlock jokes are a bit eye-rolly today, but that’s something that probably hasn’t translated from a less Holmes-saturated world. The idea of an AI learning about how the world works – about humour and so on – was genuinely insightful, I felt. From the moment I realised that Mike was going to be so involved with the revolution I was deeply concerned about how, and whether, Heinlein would resolve the issue of such a powerful entity actually sharing power with such limited ones as the humans involved. Killing Mike off is simultaneously a bit of a cop-out, I feel, and probably the only logical thing Heinlein could have done. I admit to feeling a little sad at such an ending for such a being. (… or was it?)

I didn’t like Mannie. He was too boastful, and too impatient, for me to really like him throughout. But I did find him an engaging enough narrator that his presence didn’t hinder my reading. I was also amused by his name – the AI calling him “Man” – and then the AI naming himself Adam Selene. Talk about a figurative sledgehammer. Of all the characters I probably only liked Mike, and that might have been more a fascination than an actual would-like-to-be-friends attitude.

Not sad I read it. Not in a hurry to read any more. Appreciate what this did for the life-on-the-moon genre.

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