The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A Heinlein (1966)
‘On Luna – an open penal colony of the twenty-first century – a revolution is being plotted. The conspirators are a strange assortment: an engaging jack-of-all-trades, his luscious blonde girlfriend, and a lonely talking computer. Their aim – the overthrow of the hated Authority.
Everything goes well until…’
Blurb from the New English Library Paperback Edition
Set in a near future where criminals are transported to a Lunar Colony, Heinlein delivers what he obviously feels to be a textbook case of revolution against an oppressive regime. The regime in this case is the Authority, backed by the Federation of Nations. The inhabitants of Luna are employed as virtually slave labour to produce wheat in the domes and warrens of the Lunar surface which is purchased for mere peanuts and sold on Earth at a handsome profit.
As the natives of Luna, once acclimatised to the low gravity, can not return permanently to Earth, the Authority has a captive workforce.
In the internal chronology of the novel, Luna society has been in existence for several generations and has developed its own peculiar customs. For reasons which Heinlein ascribes to the tendency of males to commit more crimes than females, there is a gender imbalance in the population which has caused systems of polygamy to evolve. The structure of lunar society is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel, and Heinlein, perhaps attempting to parallel the development of Australian society, injects some Australian slang into the narrative such as the word ‘cobber’. There is also an attempt to use a future mode of dialect which omits certain classes of words from the vocabulary, although this is not entirely successful since it does not go far enough, certainly when compared to novels such as ‘Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ or Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’.
Structurally, as he has done in the past, notably with ‘The Puppet Masters’ and ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ Heinlein employs a central triumvirate of characters, a younger male/female duo and an older mentor figure.
Also in common with the other two books is the concept of society being changed from within by a small catalyst which acts like a virus within the body of society. In ‘The Puppet Masters’ this is a negative and destructive change, while in the others – at least from Heinlein’s point of view – the principle remains.
The narrator, and central character, is Manuel Garcia O’Kelly, a sardonic wisecracking self-effacing hero, originally making a living by use of his interchangeable robotic forearms. Being prohibitively expensive to ship skilled technicians to Luna, Manuel is often called upon to perform engineering repairs for the Powers That Be, and it is in this capacity that he discovers that the central computer in the offices of The Warden has become self-aware, and names him Mike, after Mycroft Holmes.
Later, O’Kelly, at the behest of Mike who wishes to study such things, attends a protest meeting where he meets the stunningly attractive Wyoming Knott (Wye Knott) and Professor Bernardo le Paz. Following an abortive raid by the Warden’s police unit, the three begin to plan a revolution, and realise that with the help of Mike, who has control of most of the Luna systems, they might just be able to succeed.
Despite being a well-researched model of a revolution the novel suffers in that O’Kelly’s wise-cracking narrative is a little at odds with events such as the bombardment of Earth by targeted lumps of moonrock which obviously results in large scale death and destruction. It is unfortunate that a writer as talented as Heinlein could not have devised more imaginative and less destructive methods of the revolutionaries achieving their aims.