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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert A. Heinlein
G.P. Putnam, 383pp
Published: June 1966

The list of Hugo award-winning novels that I'm working through includes many that I haven't read before and many that I have, but I haven't read any one of them more often than this one, my favourite science fiction novel of all time. I used to re-read it every few years, but it's been at least a decade since my last time through, so it read a little fresher than usual.

Bizarrely, it was nominated for a Hugo for Best Novel twice. Firstly, as a serialisation in 'If' magazine in 1965 and 1966, it lost out to the tie of Frank Herbert's 'Dune' and Roger Zelazny's '...And Call Me Conrad' aka 'This Immortal'. A year on, it was nominated again, as a published novel, both for the Nebula and the Hugo, losing the former to another tie, between Samuel R. Delany's 'Babel-17' and Daniel Keyes's 'Flowers for Algernon', but winning the latter, beating out both those Nebula winners in the process. Talk about some serious competition!

'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' is a special novel and, while it always did a lot of different things, it seems to do more on each re-read. There are two very obvious ones to start with. It's about a computer that wakes up, but as a child, an incredibly intelligent one but one with a penchant for practical jokes who has much learning to do. And it's about a revolution on the moon, to which that computer is an important part and perhaps the most important, ironically given that it's the Holmes Four supercomputer that belongs to the very authority that the revolution plans to overthrow.

Both of those stories are fantastic. They're deep and vibrant and heartfelt and traumatic and I'm surprised all over again that the whole thing wraps up in under three hundred pages. However, as much as I feel for and care about Mike, that child computer, every damn time, it's the other stories that have resonated with me and have done a great deal to change the way I think. No, I never turned into a libertarian, although I'm often just as stubborn, but this book was the starting point for a life-long lesson about tolerance and diversity.

You see, the Moon is a dumping ground, a place for the governments of Earth to send its unwanted: mostly criminals, but some political exiles too. Think Australia to the British in the late eighteenth-century. However, just like with Australia, these Lunar convicts bred and their born-free descendants gradually found a common identity. One surprise to me this time through was in how little that translates to a wish for revolution. Sure, most Loonies despise the Warden, their token authority figure, but few despise him enough to actually put their lives on their line to overthrow him. Well, until this book begins, Mike wakes up and a few key players bump into each other.

These key players are Mannie, Wyoh and Prof and even their names highlight a diversity that I hadn't read in science fiction before. For instance, Mannie is really Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis, born in Luna City with a very varied heritage. Wyoh is Wyoming Knott, a neat pun that fortunately isn't overused. Her convict father was transported and her mother chose to accompany him, so making her and five-year-old Wyoh became "volunteer colonists". She grew up in Novy Leningrand and moved to Hong Kong Luna. And the Prof is Bernardo de la Paz, a Peruvian by birth who was sent to the Moon for being a political intellectual. Luna is completely integrated racially.

The diversity doesn't end there. Beyond two gentleman of colour and one lady comprising that core trio, Mannie is also disabled, having lost his left arm in a drilling accident, though his high-technology prosthetics actually make him rather more able than the others. Wyoh is a professional host mother who has birthed eight children for others, though none for herself as radiation from a solar storm during her journey to Luna damaged her ova.

Mannie is also part of a line marriage almost a century old: he's the fifth husband of nine and he has "seventeen divided by four" children. This gets him in trouble during a key visit to Earth, when he's arrested for polygamy in the American deepsouth in a scene that impacted me young and stayed with me. Not only is this line marriage legal on Luna but Mannie happily talks up its benefits, especially its stability. Yet he's arrested on Earth for what is seen as a "moral" crime. That seemed unfair to me as a child who didn't grasp what it really meant and, the older I get, the more I understand why it's unfair and how it's dangerous to judge others according to my personal standards or any others I can conjure up.

You see, line marriages and other unusual forms of matrimony are commonplace on the Moon (Wyoh married twins at fifteen) because two specific conditions exist to shape Loonie society. One is that men outnumber women to a massive degree, leading to a culture where women are especially valued and so always get their way. The other is that Luna is an anarchist society with zero laws (just a set of rules applied by the authority) but easy to access airlocks. Therefore, anyone who causes trouble is quickly and permanently removed from that society, which becomes just a little bit more polite and a little more focused on reputation.

Heinlein does a fantastic job of creating this unusual society, not least by telling this story in the hybrid language of Luna which includes words from many languages and dialects, especially Russian and Australian, and which is lacking the definite article in Slavic style. It's eminently readable (much more so than the Nadsat slang of 'A Clockwork Orange') but different enough to underline how Luna isn't us on the moon, it's a uniquely polyglot society that has its own identity.

It's always fascinating to talk politics and Robert Heinlein, because he's a writer who has been condemned for being a fascist ('Starship Troopers') but who was also a darling of the hippie movement ('Stranger in a Strange Land') as a progressive thinker. He's often seen as Libertarian, but he really had his own politics which sit very closely to Prof. de la Paz, who's a rational anarchist. "I am free, no matter what rules surround me," he tells Wyoh. "If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free, because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything that I do."

There's so much here to absorb, obviously or by osmosis, that it really does warrant multiple readings over multiple years. It's a book that never stays static; it grows as we grow and we grasp more of it. While there are lessons in many of Heinlein's books, here there are so many that are so layered that we can't catch them all. Best of all, they're expressed without preaching, a welcome change from 'Stranger in a Strange Land'. They're also condensed so powerfully that they fit alongside multiple stories within outrageously few pages. Ian McDonald didn't get remotely this deep with his Luna books and he wrote a trilogy.

I've only scratched the surface here and I'm not going to write ten thousand words in a review, which would be easy. I'll shut up by suggesting that this is one of the pivotal science fiction novels. If you haven't read it, please do. If you haven't read it recently, maybe it's time to reread it. Heinlein certainly doesn't get everything right here, but he just as certainly tried and the attempts are as important as the successes. Best novel ever. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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