Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein — A Revolutionary Utopia?


In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein offers us a mirror into the future, at once reflecting the past, presents, and futures of (specifically) western civilization. The fantastical tale of rebellion of Earth’s lunar penal colony against its forsaken terran masters is paired with social critiques of the nuclear family, nuclear armament, and artificial intelligence. While Heinlein is an expert of placing humanist ideas — such as kinship, revolution, and even the idea of humanness — out of context as a means of social critique, his novel fails at presenting novel paths toward utopia and, in fact, works to establish a now-tired counter-revolutionary pessimism. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an important piece of science-fiction literature. We ought to read Heinlein’s work as a call to create more hopeful utopian fantasies.


This novel, written in the first-person, past tense perspective of computer mechanic Manuel Garcia O’Kelly, forces us into a world where a single computer can control all functions of a technocratic lunar civilization. Here, we’re introduced to Mike — a super computer with whom Manuel (Manny, or Man, for short) builds a strong friendship, initially by sharing jokes and teaching Mike how to be funny. We’re also introduced to the “Loonies,” descendants of Earth’s rejects and criminals (much like Australia, minus the indigenous genocide), and their network of ‘warrens’ located under the Moon’s rocky surface. A complex infrastructure of tunnels and pressurized locks connect these warrens. The Loonies are managed by what Heinlein’s characters characterize as a dictatorial government called The Authority, whose Warden (aka “Earth’s Protector of the Lunar Colonies”) is accountable solely to the Federated Nations of Earth. Loonies are situated in an interplanetary political economy that rests on the extraction of ore, ice, and grains from the Moon’s rocky surface and manipulated environments, slated for transportation to the Earth’s wanting masses.


When Manuel O’Kelly attends an anti-Authority meeting at Mike’s bequest (with a hidden recorder), the story quickly develops into one of revolt. Manuel, and Mike by extension, listen to Wyoming Knott (Wyoh, for short), the resistance’s darling political agitator, deliver a speech about lunar autonomy and free markets. Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who carries a strong-willed scientific approach to revolution, also makes an appearance before the rebel crowd. But it’s not long before the Authority’s police break up the meeting — killing everyone but Manuel, Wyoming, and the Professor. In response to the attack, the trio contrives a Lunar revolt against its Earthly oppressors. And, with the crucial help of Mike, they come up with a scientific strategy to create an independant lunar society. The rest of the plotline chronicles the spread of the revolution throughout the Moon’s warrens — employing a decentralized ‘cell’ system of networked co-conspirators, intentional conflicts with the Authority, widespread surveillance, technological manipulation, and the circulation of anti-Authority propaganda. The conditions for revolt are set up by Mike, in consultation with the other 3 protagonists, and the masses carry out the plans set up for them, ignorant of supercomputer’s central role in their popular insurgency.


Heinlein’s quartet of protagonists end up successfully deposing the Authority, which leads Manuel and the Professor to Earth as a delegation of the Luna Free State. There, they lead an unsuccessful mission to convince the Federated Nations to recognize the Loonie government. When they return to the Moon, Mike convinces the War Cabinet of the Ad-Hoc Congress that only one strategy would guarantee success: inciting a war with Earth. Luna immediately halted grain shipments to Earth, disclosed information about a Earth-bombing catapult, and spread propaganda against their Terran neighbours. Once Federated Nations troops invaded Free Luna’s underground warrens (and failed utterly), Mike initiated a campaign of kinetic bombardment, where the Lunar catapult shot masses of rock at the outskirts of Earth’s major cities. Close enough to strike fear, but not close enough — hypothetically —  to kill. But Earth’s inquisitive population flocked to the issues ground zeroes, obliterating an untold number of Earthlings, and the Federated Nations conceded one by one. Heinlein leaves us on this triumphant note, but not without a final twist: Mike is said to suddenly and indefinitely go silent once independence had been won. “But when I spoke to him, he didn’t answer,” Manuel retells, “He has never answered. Has been many years now. You can type questions into him — in Loglan — and you’ll get Loglan answers out. He works just fine . . . as a computer. But won’t talk. Or can’t” (381).


The role of technology — and more specifically, artificial intelligence — in human civilization is a polemic thread binding the whole story. What is the place of technology in facilitating human survival? Will people be able to build nuanced relationships with artificial intelligence? Where’s the line between human and non-human? Could this sort of technology set us free?


Mike is the archetypical example of computer-made-human: he senses responsibility toward humans, feels pleasure and remorse, and can even make himself into a convincing human form on any digital screen (as we see with Mike’s humanesque alter ego and leader of the lunar revolution, Adam Selene). At the same time, Mike is certainly a supercomputer. He controls all flows of energy and people in Luna and is the greatest asset revolutionary Luna has in mounting a successful campaign; he can continually recalculate probability of the rebellion’s success, shoot rocks at Earth with astonishing precision, and keep tabs on everything happening in Luna at both macro and micro levels. Somehow, without being aware, the reader is made to empathize with Mike: a computer who sits alone in a far-removed sanctuary, who — in a childlike attempt to learn humour — fumbles on the fine line between hilarity and acrimony, who wants to please, and who craves human companionship. At a point when Free Luna is poised to win their claim to independence, Mike articulates his nostalgia for simpler times:

“Man, when this is over are you going to have time to take up with me that research into humor again?”

“I’ll take time, Mike; that’s a promise.”

“Thanks, Man. These days you and Wyoh never have time to visit… and Professor wants to talk about things that aren’t much fun. I’ll be glad when this war is over.”

“Are we going to win, Mike?”

He chuckled. “It’s been days since you asked me that. Here’s a pinky-new projection, run since invasion started. Hold on tight, Man — our chances are now even!” (319)

The idea of empathizing with ultra-intelligent machines is a part of popular culture today, but actually leading readers to embody this empathy while reading the book brings a faraway future possibility into present reality. The acute relationships of care woven between human (both characters and Heinlein’s audience) and computer in The Moon is perhaps the most poignant and breathtaking aspect of this science-fiction classic.


Where Heinlein’s novel succeeds in pushing an affective, emotional post-human argument, his theory on revolution — on the other hand — reads as rather pessimistic, banal, and uninspired. Most responses to The Moon from critics on the Left, and especially among anarchists, applaud it as a cautionary tale against the pitfalls of over-determined, over-centralized revolution. These critics urge us to ask: the Moon’s human population were able to secure independence, but at what cost? Indeed, by the end of the novel, the Luna Free State had ‘won,’ but lost the rebellious, utopian spirit that circulated the its warrens leading up to the abolition of the Authority. In here, there’s a tale about the harm of top-down political change and the rapid ossification of rebellions into governments, if not dictatorship. Heinlein was writing in the heat of the Cold War, so the anti-authoritarian argument articulated in The Moon may also be read as anti-Stalinist and anti-USSR. But, here, we must be careful — even though anti-Stalin has been en vogue in Leftist circles from the 1940s to today (and for good reason) — Heinlein himself was much more than an anti-Stalinist. Heinlein described himself as a libertarian, autarchist, and philosophical anarchist in 1967. In his time, he also campaigned against Communism and for the Vietnam War. Was Heinlein invested in theories of freedom and struggle? Certainly. But was he also invested in the types of freedom and struggle that liberate us all rather than a select few individualists? Certainly not.


Read in 2019, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress leaves its readers with counter-revolutionary pessimism — a sense that revolution logically evolves into despotism. In a world where many struggles for national sovereignty have led to repressive national dictatorships, The Moon’s tale of revolution-turned-authority only confirms our worst fears: revolution is futile. But our world needs revolutionary change now more than ever. I argue that the real cautionary tale to be gleaned from this story is one against functionalism, scientific socialism, and technocracy —  the three principles on which the lunar revolution was founded, and the three that precipitated its fall into rigid governmentality, manipulative populism, and rule by the few. Let’s be careful not to foreclose the possibility of revolution, but learn from past mistakes and present conditions to create better actions, campaigns, and revolutions.
Because Heinlein’s novel is a such an iconic piece of fiction, our contemporary and activist readings of this work ought to prove counter-revolutionary pessimism wrong. By generating fictions that espouse revolutionary optimism, we can chart novel paths toward utopia. We can even recuperate The Moon’s strong ethics of more-than-human care shown in the relationships built between Manuel and Mike, and the relational autonomy depecited among the innumerable rebellious lunar cells that take down its oppressor. In creating more hopeful revolutionary tales, it’s my hope that we not only avoid the pitfalls of this fictional struggle, but find radically new ways of supporting life in our many shared futures.

By Darian Razdar

Writer, researcher, and artist with an activist bent.

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