Nov 28, 2016

Science Fiction Classics: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress cover
Image from

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a 1966 novel by Robert A. Heinlein. It's one of his most famous works and got a Nebula nomination in 1966 and won the Hugo award in 1967. The book tells the story of the Lunar colonies breaking away from Earth. It's written in first person, narrated by the main character, Manuel "Man/Mannie"Garcia O'Kelly-Davies, a computer technician who becomes a key person in the revolt.

The idea is that Luna was first a penal colony where Earth shipped their criminals and rejects who worked and lived under the supervision of a warden who stood in for the Earth Authority. At the start of the book most "loonies" have either completed their sentence or are the descendants of prisoners. They grow grain, which they have to ship to Earth and sell to the Authority at a pittance. One reason the revolt starts because the loonies can't support their families on what the Authority pays them.

Another key figure in the book is Professor Bernardo de la Paz, through whom Heinlein explores the concept of "rational anarchy," a belief that the state and government are useless, and that responsible individuals make the law. On Luna, wrongdoers get spaced and people take care of themselves and their families. They pay for what they use and operate on a peculiar kind of morality grown from the harsh conditions on the Moon. The main principle is TANSTAAFL, "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch."

In the book, the gender ratio is skewed with there being many more men than women, which has led to a system of "line marriages," a kind of polyamory. Women have power to choose their mates and sexual violence is almost unheard of; anyone who tries it gets spaced. Supposedly women are equal in society, too, but the main female character, Wyoh Knott, was a letdown for me. For someone who has lived on Luna almost her whole life she sure needs a lot of things explained to her. I believe the phrase "oh, honey, that's not how it works" was used on one occasion. Of course she's beautiful, a fact that gets hammered in any time anyone meets her. And guess what she does for a living? She's a surrogate mother. Also, for a badass revolutionary she's kind of a wimp, like she's afraid to stay in a hotel room without a man to keep her company. After she marries Mannie, she pretty much dedicates herself to wifely duties.

My favourite character was actually the computer, Mike/Michelle. I liked the humour and that it didn't feel stereotypical but a character in its own right. And a sentient computer that isn't homicidal? That's a change.

One thing that bothered me while reading was the Lunar dialect Mannie uses, especially the way he drops the word "the." It's explained that this is because a lot of the people on Luna are Russian, but to me it felt like someone doing an impression of a Russian, not organic and original like the Nadsat slang in A Clockwork Orange, for example. It took me almost half the book to get used to it. While I liked many elements of the book, to me it felt quite slow until about halfway through.While a lot of the world-building is interesting and realistic, the idea that growing grain hydroponically on the Moon would be cheaper than on Earth is quite a stretch.

My final verdict? This novel is definitely worth reading, but once is probably enough for me.

Science Fiction Classics read 45/193.


  1. Hi Anna,
    I have lots on my mind.
    Part of the book's appeal at the time was the readers would have grown up on black and white TV, wearing coonskin caps and watching westerns, and been used to the frontier where women were a precious minority on a pedestal. Sexual assault back then was like horse stealing: a hanging offence.

    Another nostalgia appeal was the similarity to the American Revolution.

    In the sixties, of course, people were questioning society and marriage.

    Another appeal was that nearly all the third world had just broken away, or was breaking away, from being colonies: how could they fight imperialism, and how could they govern themselves? Simply copying the U.S. constitution would not work—although Americans hate to hear that: They have little idea that the Canadians have made a new, improved one back in the 1970's.

    Pet peeve: Incidentally, in Canada just now no one is saying the word "imperialism," but the government is trying to break the U.S. monopoly on Canadian oil. The U.S. is responding by funding anti-pipeline efforts (it was in the news) for getting to Canadian coasts, and building many, many miles of their own interior pipeline while federally opposing a single Canadian one that would cross the U.S. to get to the ocean.

    I think at the time I saw the dialect as Russian, not Chinese, but still, a lot of the people on the moon were Chinese... As you like language: I wonder if dropping the word "the" comes from pidgin Chinese? I read once that Koreans get very annoyed at how English speakers say "the sky is blue." What, is there more than one sky?
    I once used pidgin on the Chinese fellow seated next to me at my club: He showed pleased surprise and then told I had used Chinese (in English) What I said was, "Long time no see."

    More language: Some famous author (I forget who) has pointed out that Manuel, or manual, means arm, and just as he has an artificial arm so too is he the arm of Mike, meaning: The story is in fact Mike's story, beginning with Mike coming alive, and ending after Mike departs.

    As a boy I read the book with the same cover. On our farm we had some (boardwalks) duckboards like for crossing the mud in WWI and I recall trying to bounce down like a loony on a ramp. My sister cried at the fate of Mike.

    Someday I'll read it again.

  2. Heinlein's intended title was The Brass Cannon. It was the editor who gave the book such a long mouthful of a title, because he was afraid people wouldn't know it was sf.

    Heinlein's title implied that decisions between governments, such as giving a colony independence, are made not by educating a government to, for example, believe in allowing freedom, but by having an ability to use force. Not something naive Americans like to hear.

    I once wrote an essay called The Brass Cannon to explore the idea. Here's the link:

  3. Thanks for the comments! And you're right, context matters, like the similarity to westerns, which were a big deal at the time.

    Yes, the other colony/city was Chinese, I think. I don't recall picking up any Chinese influences in the way the loonies spoke, though?

    The Brass Cannon? I have to side eith the editor on that one :) And thanks for the link, I'll check it out!


Hello, stranger. What's on your mind?