Part 1 of an occasional series of essays presenting more verbiage on books too much has been said about already

Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I recently-- well, 1994, but who's counting?-- read Alexei Panshin's Heinlein in Dimension, a book Heinlein devotees-- they're something of a cult on the Net-- swear at. I found much of it perceptive; particularly the insight that most Heinlein heroes are the same individual at three different ages: naive but promising; middle-aged, pragmatic, and competent; and old, cynical, and very competent.

But on one thing he's wrong, wrong, wrong: he doesn't like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. He prefers the juvies; thinks Moon is too talky, doesn't have enough human interest. Man, what does that boy want?

Just to check, re-read book. Was riveted. Started to omit articles and pronouns just like dinkum comrade Manny. Talky? You bet; never more entertainingly. (Lazarus Long was a yammerhead. Prof by contrast is outrageous; but outrageously interesting.) Not human enough? No way; the book is packed with human interest, as well as a fascinating society described inside and out, and so real that you feel that you could find your way around it without a guidebook-- and you'd like to try.

Some people can't get used to Manny's unusual syntax. I like it; it's one of the few serious attempts to represent future linguistic change. It seems, however, that Heinlein got his Russian from dictionaries-- the accent in 'spacebaw' is wrong; and God should be Bokh, not Bog.

The book is also consummate sf. It's emphatically not simply a retelling of the American or any other Revolution. The plot, the characters, the complications come up because we're dealing with the moon: low gravity; tough-minded ecology; the power given to the (scarce) women; the rebels' military strategy. Heinlein never misses a cue; little things like burial customs, three-dimensional thinking ("cubic" not "area"), hotels that don't ask for registration, all work together, and make it seem like everything is worked out.

Heinlein even lets the demands of the story mitigate two of his hobbyhorses: guns and women. The Loonies are not, for once, NRA spokesmen; they're admirable even though unarmed. (With guns, that is. Being Heinlein characters, they can make workable weapons out of neon tubing and old typewriters.) And the women are not only competent (Heinlein's women usually are), but do exactly what they want, and the men have to like it or lump it. Wyoh, the heroine, tho' she's married by the end of the book (who isn't?), is never reduced to domesticity (like too many Heinlein heroines). Late in the book she's organizing irregulars, chairing Congress, heading the gummint while Manny and the Prof are earthside.

Not that there aren't holes. Most are caused by the passage of cruel time. In short: electronics has progressed far faster, spaceflight far slower, than Heinlein dreamed. In his Future History and in Moon, Heinlein had Luna City existing today. We'll be lucky if in thirty years we have some straggly excuse for a moon base, not a colony, much less a city.

But electronics... Luna has a few big computers... à la 1966. They have typewriters. Mike rigs an election, as if there was no such thing as an exit poll. Communications can be halted by blocking a circuit or two; a few key players can control the entire information media. The top programmer on Luna is basically an electrical engineer. Hong Kong Luna's main bank computer is replaced... by abaci. Right. After depending on massive electronic systems for 75 years or so, the manual system is not only immediately ready for re-use, but it consists of nothing more than arithmetic.

Then there's the overestimates. Mike stores 90 minutes of talk in 10M. (Try a hundred.) He learns to animate the human face in minutes. He reads 1000 books and has "every fact correlated with everything else he knows" in "minutes", as if there were no such thing as SATISFIABILITY. He snows Wyoh with talk of, omigod, minimax strategies.

And Alvarez, chief of security, is an utter maroon. Selene has offices overlooking the Old Dome; it can be easily verified that they don't exist; and the fuzz can't even conceive of a VR scam. Havoc occurs with the phone system and the sewage; no one suspects a computer malfunction. Only Manny knows Mike's innards-- his bosses don't even know he has an English interface. Endless financial shenanigans and no one suspects. Apparently Authority doesn't employ a single nerd.

Panshin is right in one criticism: it's simply silly for Mike to keep revising the odds of the revolution's success, as events proceed almost entirely according to plan and one uncertainty after another is eliminated. It's like predicting the results of horse races and having the odds drop as each successive race comes out as predicted. It only makes sense as a suspense gimmick-- a cheap device worthy of Hollywood

As an AI, Mike is implausible in his genesis and in his powers-- but he remains completely charming and compelling as a character. And Mike is another instance of real science fiction, rather than (say) a disguised historical novel or Western. The revolution proceeds as it does precisely because it has a computer on its side. Heaven only knows how Lunar society would have proceeded if Mike had been allowed to live, however; it's just as well Heinlein killed him off.

Politically Heinlein displays a striking lack of imagination. India is still starving poor. Imperialism is flourishing; China is huge. The big guns are still in the US. Japan is invisible. Kentucky is still virulently racist. The earthside section of the book is amusing but analysis-free.

A guy on the Net accused Heinlein of racism and fake multiculturalism. The first charge is absurd. Heinlein goes out of his way (especially for a '50s writer) to provide nonwhite heroes and happy multiracial societies in his stories; and the nation he's hardest on in Moon is his own. The North Americans are the shrillest and most arrogant of all the "earthworms"-- vindictive, hypocritical, full of race prejudice, and so stupid that they traipse to the targets of Luna's rock bombardments to gawk.

As for unreal multiculturalism, Heinlein is guilty as charged. The Loonies are convincing as a society, and interestingly different from the author's own time; but they are all, even the Hong Kong bunch, recognizably Anglo-Saxons adapted to the Moon. Prof. "Bernardo de la Paz" is presented as a transported Latin revolutionary, but he shows not a trace of Latin culture, besides dropping a few señoritas: nothing of Latin American history, values, or political thought. Quotes Jefferson and Churchill, likes Ayn Rand, knows (First World) Communist organizing tactics; has nothing to say about Bolívar, San Martín, Tupac Amaru, Zapata, Castro, Perón, the Spanish Civil War, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Fanon, Nyerere. No quotes from Spanish authors, no taste for Latin food, nothing of the US's sorry history in his home region. No preferences for anything Latin that isn't also American: his sport, for instance, is baseball, not soccer.

Worst of all, his schtick is "rational anarchism", a philosophy no Latin revolutionary could come up with (though a Latin reactionary might go somewhere with it); it's pure U.S. libertarian conservativism.

Ironically, it's Lima (where the Prof was allegedly transported from) which gives to lie to the Prof's philosophy. Moon asks why there should be contract law-- isn't a man's word all he needs? If that's rational anarchy, they've got it today in Lima. And it's a disaster. Yeah, you can do business based on your word-- with the few dozen people who know you. The informales of Peru are condemned to underdevelopment precisely because they lack what Heinlein took for granted like the air: courts, laws and banks available to all, a government that doesn't run on bribes, infrastructure, a good education system, and a military that doesn't think it can run the country better than the politicians.

It's been convincingly argued that in Heinlein a passionate love of liberty coexisted with a disturbing authoritarian streak. In all too many books Heinlein maintains that a clique of omnicompetent overachievers could obviously run things much better. Paradoxically, he was perfectly aware that such elites only rule for their own benefit, and that to resist them is a sacred duty. Both sides are in evidence in this book: the book is a celebration of a revolt against dictatorship-- led by a self-righteous elite which consciously disenfranchises all opposition (the "yammerheads"). It's hinted that Luna becomes a "normal" society, with the normal degree of un-Nietzschean messiness, after the revolution. Heinlein evidently let his historical good sense beat down the ideologue in him. The revolutionary ambience never lasts for long.

As you see, I don't always agree with Heinlein-- but I never find him dull. He could write, that's for sure. And in Moon he's writing at the top of his powers-- he tosses off ideas like scrap paper, giving us marathons of political controversy without once losing our interest, or skimping on family details, satire, adventure, and humor.

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