Review | The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

When a book has stood the test of time, has been deemed a “classic,” reviewing becomes something of a futile effort. Like an art critic reviewing the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel with anything short of awe and respect, reviewing a classic novel feels a little arrogant. How does one critique what is universally acknowledged?

And so we come to the book: Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon is Harsh Mistress.” In the world of science-fiction, Heinlein is a giant, called the “dean of science-fiction” and seeing four of his books win the Hugo (a record, if I am not mistaken). Published in 1966, before Kennedy’s moon shot had succeeded, it is clear that “Mistress” is looking far ahead in time, and I can only imagine how forward and revolutionary it was at the time, even if there are elements of it that feel dated now.  As a classic, it’s beyond me to critique, but I’ll at least lend a few thoughts. One doesn’t.

“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is the story of a revolution, the rebellion of the lunar penal colony against the master nations of Earth told through the voice of a computer engineer who inadvertently finds himself at the center of events. Along with an aging professor, a beautiful agitator, and a computer that becomes self-aware (and is seeking a sense of humor, decades before Star Trek: The Next Generation had Data trying to understand humor), he leads the prisoners and free people of the Moon to attempt first the overthrow of a warden ruling the colony, and then the Earth’s worldwide government that tries to put down the rebellion.

In contrast to the Gene Roddenberry idyllic version of the future–where worldwide government has resulted in perpetual peace and the end of economic tumult (or any visible economy at all, for that matter)–Heinlein’s world of 2075 is gritty, dangerous, and free on the frontier (the moon), while the Earth is ruled by a large, bureaucratic government that is bloated and corrupt. Indeed, Heinlein’s novel has rightly been called a novel of libertarian revolution. On the moon, laws are limited, government small, and only the strong survive.

Seriously. Like a penal colony in any frontier land, be it was the New World or Australia, the environment is harsh, the rules are only those that are created by common consent. In one scene, a cultural norm is broken when a tourist from Earth propositions a woman in a bar, misunderstanding the cues. Rather than push him out an airlock or compete in a duel to the death, both completely acceptable options in the lunar culture. Instead, a third option is proposed and followed–an impromptu jury with a respected member of the community serving as the judge. It hearkens back to medieval England and the power of the jury to nullify laws and set people at liberty to serve justice.

It’s a little unnerving, but Heinlein’s libertarian republic is by no means perfect, but sees elements that seem to echo the Russian communist revolution and the rise of a small, secretive group that manipulates the rest of the country to their own ends. Seeing the mix between a libertarian society and communist-like principles of revolution seems a little odd and occasionally out of place, but the integrity of the characters themselves lets the story carry to a simplistic conclusion where the heroes remain uncorrupted by the secret power they hold.

At the heart of the story is the phrase “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” or TANSTAAFL as it is commonly known among the Loonies, or the natives of the moon. It’s the idea that nothing is free, and to everything there is a cost. It’s the idea that everything is negotiable, it is why the cost for freedom is high, and describes why in the end freedom is more available on the frontier where those who are strong enough are able to win the rewards of their labors. To his credit, Heinlein endorses the right to bargain ones efforts and resources with a simplicity that others, most particularly Ayn Rand, spend thousands of pages attempting: “It is ridiculous—pestilential, not to be borne—that we should be ruled by an irresponsible dictator in all our essential economy! It strikes at the most basic human right, the right to bargain in a free marketplace.”

Ironically, this does not lead to great wealth. Quite the contrary. His protagonist, not unlike every other lunar libertarian, describes himself as “Not wealthy, not weeping.” He has enough to be comfortable, but he’s not wealthy. What really matters is not lucre, but freedom to do as one chooses, to be responsible for ones choices, and to succeed or fail on the merits.

The problem is the state. While a necessary evil, its needs are secondary to the individual. A trip to Earth shows endless bureaucracy, lines to stand in, forms to be completed, licenses to be sought and obtained, taxes and fees to be paid. On the other hand there “are no circumstances under which State is justified in placing it’s welfare ahead of mine.” If the individual’s needs are subsidiary to the state, the individual is no longer free to choose.

Even if it does occasionally seem dated, Heinlein’s genius is in looking ahead down the road of human history and imagining what might be. Without using technology that is so far advanced that it is more magic than science, Heinlein is able to focus on a story that just happens to take place over a hundred years down the road, though that story might just as easily have been set in the past or on our own planet. Whether it is creative family structures, a land with no laws but is crime free, or a jargon that bastardizes Russian, Chinese, and English, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” retains a timelessness that while perhaps not the most exciting read, is guaranteed to provoke thought and conversation for decades to come.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.