Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Ace, 2018 (originally published in 1966).

Summary: In 2076, Luna, a colony of Earth on the Moon, decides to declare independence, to end the one-sided grain export to earth that will deplete lunar ice reservoirs, under the leadership of a sentient computer.

In 2075, the colony of three million on Luna lives underground in a warren of tunnels. Many are convicts, former convicts, and descendants of convicts. Nominally, they are ruled by a Warden whose main responsibility is insuring the continuity in hydroponically-grown grain shipments being shipped to earth via the catapult. He’s largely incompetent, and the real brain behind Luna’s operations is Holmes IV, a supercomputer, that, unknown to all but a computer tech who listened and treated him humanely, had become sentient. The tech, “Manny” O’Kelly-Davis engages him and teaches him to joke.

As extraordinary as this relationship is, it is just the prelude to a series of events leading a body including Manny and the computer, now named Mike (short for Mycroft Holmes), to instigate a movement leading to a declaration of independence on July 4, 2076. Joining him is Wyoming (Wyoh) Knott, a female revolutionary agitator and Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who has recognized that Luna’s grain shipments to earth will use up Luna’s ice reserves in seven years, leaving the moon waterless and threatening the existence of the colonies. And Mike? He becomes Adam Selene, leader of the movement (as well his alter ego, Simon Jester, who loved to poke fun at Luna Administration as the impetus for revolution developed)

After independence, Manny and the Prof pursue a desperate course to head off an invasion from a vastly more powerful but dependent Earth. Despite their physical weakness due to living their lives in Moon’s low gravity, they go to Earth, even while they leave Mike and Wyoh to prepare an unorthodox defense of Luna. They hope to negotiate a peaceful transition to independence and a sustainable trade relationship that didn’t deplete Luna’s ice reserves, serving as ambassadors for Luna. Will proud Earth listen, especially the North Americans, or will they be as stubborn as the British monarchy 300 years ago? You can probably guess, if you don’t know the story. Will a war be necessary and will these scrappy revolutionaries have any better chance of succeeding? Mike had calculated their odds as one in seven.

The plot serves as a vehicle for exploring a variety of alternative possibilities–sentient computers being just one example. Line marriages address a two to one ratio of men to women, where one married into a line of interlaced marriages of men and women spanning generations and lasting over a century or more. Government, such as it is a combination of a function-driven bureaucracy and a cross between anarchy and libertarianism. The threat of being tossed out an airlock keeps most in line–the bad actors don’t last long. They develop a system of trade with little theft and where payment of debt is a high value. With the “harsh mistress” of the moon, perhaps they realized both responsibility and interdependence.

Of course, the most interesting question is what the relation of colonies on the Moon, or perhaps Mars, will be to Earth. More recent futurists and many in the space exploration enterprise have considered the colonizing of the Moon and Mars, particularly as life on earth becomes more environmentally tenuous. It is easy to think of Earth as the Mother planet. But if colonies become established, and people inhabit them for generations, what paths will exist to redefine these relationships to avoid interplanetary war? Admittedly, this is still a ways off, if ever. But Heinlein makes us consider questions that go beyond feasibility and technology–questions that in a way have always occupied us and need to be answered anew.

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

Starship TroopersRobert A. Heinlein. New York: Ace, 2006 (originally published in 1959).

Summary: Juan “Johnny” Rico’s narrative of training and fighting in the Mobile Infantry during the Terran Wars with the Pseudo-Arachnids (“Bugs”) set 700 years in the future.

I read several of what would now be considered Robert A. Heinlein classics in my youth. Somehow, I missed this one, despite the fact that it won a 1960 Hugo Award. Coming across a copy, I finally decided to fill that gap.

I found myself wondering what this book is really about. The setting is a war between the Terran Federation and the Pseudo-Arachnids (“Bugs”) set seven centuries in the future, at a time when travel at faster than light speeds is possible through Cherenkov Drive. The book opens with the narrator, Juan “Johnnnie” Rico describing a “drop” onto a “Skinny” planet (the Skinnies at this period were allied with the “Bugs” and later with the Terrans.) We’re introduced to the Mobile Infantry and their special powered and armored suits, equipped with all sorts of lethal weaponry that renders each infantryman more powerful than a tank.

The book then traces Rico’s enlistment into the military, assignment to the apparently “lowly” Mobilized Infantry (M.I.), his basic training under Sergeant Zim (a good portion of the book), his deployment with Rasczaks Roughnecks, battles, acceptance into officer training, deployment, and further battles culminating in an attack on the Bugs home world of Klendathu, the outcome of which for Rico, or his forces, we do not learn.

What, then, is this book? According to Wikipedia, Heinlein wrote this in about two weeks as an angry response to President Eisenhower’s decision to cancel nuclear testing in 1959, at the height of the Cold War. It has the feel of a work that upholds the necessity of the military, especially the most basic element of it, its infantry. Its battle scenes reflect both strategic thinking and imaginative tactics based on the power suits the M.I. is equipped with. It touts values ranging from unit cohesion, never leaving a buddy behind, and the wisdom of sergeants It proposes a form of militarized society in which only those who have served (and survived, both men and women) have the right to vote and hold office. Others have basic rights of free speech and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, but not full citizenship.

One wonders if Heinlein thought Eisenhower had gone soft against the Communist threat of his time, and maybe American society with him. Corporal and capital punishment are practiced in this military–floggings to executions. One also the sense of a military engaged in cosmic warfare for the future of the planet (occasionally attacked, one of which results in the death of Rico’s mother, and the subsequent enlistment of his father, who had opposed Johnny’s enlistment), while the rest of the planet goes to the shopping mall, or whatever its equivalent was.

Twice during the book, Rico undergoes courses on History and Moral Philosophy, the first with a high school teacher (former M.I we later learn) and later in Officer Candidate School. Each seems to provide Heinlein the opportunity to explore profound political questions that give one the sense that Heinlein had deep questions about the long term viability of democratic-republican forms of government.

Needless to say, this has been a book to stir up controversy on a number of fronts from  Heinlein’s portrayals of gender relationships, to his political ideas, to his militarism, to proper forms of discipline and punishment. Yet to create such a social imaginary is not necessarily to advocate for it. One wonders, rather, if in his time, this was his way of challenging a country he thought might be going soft with what is required to prevail in a global conflict. One is reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s comment following the Constitutional Convention when asked by a lady, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s reply was, reportedly,   “A Republic, if you can keep it.” One wonders what Heinlein might write in our day.