Review – The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

Edition: SF Masterworks, hardcover
Where I got it: Waterstones Glasgow

From the cover, an intro:

On Luna – an open penal colony of the twenty-first century – a revolution is being plotted. The conspirators are a strange assortment: an engaging jack-of-all-trades, his luscious blonde girlfriend, and a lonely talking computer. Their aim: the overthrow of the hated Authority. But things don’t go according to plan, and their independence may ultimately prove harder to maintain than it was to seize …

… And what a gripping story it makes. I’ve read intelligently plotted and intelligently written novels before, but Harsh Mistress stands alone as one that quite simply humbled me, even while I reveled in it.

The story begins with our jack-of-all-trades, Manuel ‘Manny’ O’Kelly, going about his day job of keeping up maintenance on the Authority’s supercomputer – and, while he’s at it, keeping up a conversation. The computer, a ‘HOLMES FOUR’ which Manny has nicknamed Mycroft, or Mike, can talk. He’s also lonely, since the only human who even realises he can speak to them is Manny. Their friendship, and Mike’s level of intelligence, is established in short order – and it’s both of these things that help to make the story what it is, though they’re certainly not the only factors.

The story of the revolution, and of the subsequent establishment of the Luna Free State, is told from Manny’s point of view, from the perspective of history. From the beginning, even Manny’s ‘voice’ had my attention – there’s a very definite ‘Russian’ influence there that’s even apparent in the way he narrates the story. This, as well, was something new that I enjoyed, though I admit it did take a little getting used to at first. Still, not a complaint! Though I may have to look into getting the audiobook at some point … For the complete experience, you understand.

Throughout the story, which focuses very much on the intelligence and politics necessary to any revolution, instead of simply the violence or the upheaval of society that can result from it, we find Manny generally in over his head, yet bearing his responsibilities as he must and still managing to convey a sense of good-natured bemusement at times. He’s accepting of what he’s done, as well as what he has to do to keep everything from falling apart, because not only are he and his fellow revolutionaries doing The Right Thing, they’re doing it together, as friends. It’s this tightly knit friendship, and the level of trust that comes with it, which helps to make the story so engaging; even when secrets are revealed to have been kept. Security within the revolutionary cells does, after all, demand that not everyone can know everything at all times. Given that their appointed leader is a computer, even one that they become friends with, the strict logic is … well, logical. (Yes, I just used the Spock voice in my head. I can do that, it’s my head. Anyway!)

I said earlier that I felt humbled by this book, and the reason for that is the way in which Heinlein so thoroughly (and wonderfully!) details the necessarily intricate structure of a revolution. It is literally being built up from the seed of an idea, even while that seed is ‘watered’ by an act of violence brought on by confrontation with the aforementioned Authority, in the form of the city’s equivalent of prison guards. As it’s one large penal colony, the point is often made that since Luna has no laws, it can’t have law enforcement – though the thoughtful explanations of how the locals (Loonies, as they like to call themselves) keep this fact from making life miserable for everyone there is as intriguing as the revolution and everything afterward. I am a sucker for worldbuilding as well as clever plots, and Heinlein provides both here with a level of intelligence that not only humbles me, but inspires me. (Certain people know who they are, and what I’m talking about. *Commences cackling*)

And yes, in response to those who have already raised the point, I also found myself so emotionally invested that the end of the story brought me to tears. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but let me just say that it’s a rare and wonderful thing indeed when, as a reader, you’re able to think of a computer as a real person, and feel for it (him?) in the same way. Mike becomes as much a part of the revolution for Free Luna as Manny or the rest of his cell, and not only because they need his analytical or intelligence-gathering skills. Mike becomes real to them, and as they befriend him, so I found myself forgetting sometimes that Mike wasn’t actually a person. I see what you did there, Mr Heinlein. Hats off.

Before I start to ramble, I will sum up. I gave this book five stars in its Goodreads review, and every one of them was well earned. While certain aspects did, perhaps inevitably, seem dated at times (the book was written in 1966, don’tchaknow), overall I was thoroughly impressed with how well it’s aged in spite of those little things. All the best books do this, after all, so again. Good job, that author. This book will definitely be going on the Favourite shelf.

So! My first real foray into vintage science fiction went incredibly well. Now let’s see what the rest of the month brings …

4 thoughts on “Review – The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

  1. From everything I have read it is one of Heinlein’s best. I’m a fan of his work, mostly his earlier work, and this is one I really need to give another try. The first time I started reading it I was annoyed by the strange language usage and decided I had better things to spend my time reading. But as I’m a fan and as this is universally praised I’ve got to work past that annoyance and enjoy the dang thing.

  2. I also found the voice a little strange to begin with but once I’d become accustomed to what was going on it was really good. Great humour. Very thought provoking.
    Lynn 😀

  3. A visitor from Little Red’s page. 🙂
    This is my favorite Heinlein book. He gets the same points across as Stranger in a Strange Land, in many fewer words, and with a better story to boot. Lots of meaty stuff to dig into, though I don’t always agree with his radical Libertarianism. (Line Marriages on the other hand, seem like a great idea, in concept at least.)

  4. We’ve talked on twitter a bit, but I’ll say it again, this is one of my favorite Heinlein’s, so I’m really happy you liked it too! everytime I read this book I get more out of it, and everytime, the end hits me like a ton of bricks, even though I know what’s coming.

    There’s plenty of AI fiction out there, plenty of fiction that touches on what makes someone human or machine, and in this one, I don’t think Mike ever sets out to be human. He’s not really, truly, trying to fool anyone. He just likes to play a bit. But by the end, he’s as human as you or I. Like you said, very moving and humbling.

    readers seem split on Manny’s voice, some people (like us) get a kick out of it, while it’s a complete turn off for others.

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