Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein

I listened to the audiobook (from Audible) version The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein. It wasn’t an especially pleasant experience and not just because it was so drawn out now that my commutes are only 25 minutes long.

The narrator had a really terrible accent for the main character (the book is in first person). At first I thought the character was supposed to be Italian, but that didn’t make sense in context and in the end I decided he was probably supposed to be Russian. I was able to tune out the confusing accent eventually (and he wasn’t too bad at the other voices, particularly the American and British men). ETA: Also, assuming he was supposed to be Russian, the grammatical mistakes were the wrong sort. The common mistake Russians make when speaking English is leaving out articles or the verb to be because these don’t exist in Russian. Manuel, however, was written as making different errors, which was just another grating thing I tuned out eventually.

What I had more difficulty tuning out were the casual (unintended) sexism, the politics and part of the underlying premise.

Let’s start with the premise. The moon is a penal colony; this part I don’t object to. While it would take up a lot of resources to send prisoners there, it’s not terribly different to sending them to Australia. That part’s OK. And once there, of course mining ice (for their own consumption) makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is using the moon to grow crops: mostly, but not exclusively, wheat. It’s a problem addressed in the actual story when they have issues with nutrients etc (although where the soil they’re growing in doesn’t come up, I don’t think). But the question of why start growing crops on the moon for any reason other than self-sufficiency is not addressed. Really, there’s no way it’s cheaper for Earth to do it this way.

The other part of the setup — the lunar penal colony being rule with an iron fist by a dictator-warden — I have no problem with. In those circumstances, a revolution seems inevitable sooner or later (and if they’d waited ‘til later, they would’ve run out of water to grow their crops with, among other possible issues).

As for the sexism I mentioned, it’s mostly nothing special, just a lot of “she was pretty good at [whatever] for/despite being a girl/woman”. Which got old. The societal structure of the penal colony was such that there were about twice as many men as women and this made the men more protective than usual of the women. There was no rape because if a man tried (or succeeded) to rape a woman, the other men would gang up on him, beat him, and throw him out an airlock. In a way, women had more power than real 1960s women but this was due to their scarcity rather than any inherent sense of equality of aptitudes. Unfortunate, since I think Heinlein was trying to progressive with this writing. For example, Manuel, the main character, is part of a line marriage. This is a system where more wives and husbands are added into a large family. I don’t remember exactly how big it was, but there were maybe 10 wives and “co-husbands”. (I like how the husbands had to have the co- prefix. You know, just in case they were accused of homesexuality or something, an orientation which was conspicuously absent.) The wives had more say over accepting new members into the family (they voted and in some families husbands didn’t get a say) but were still expected to do things like cook and all the housework, while the husbands had “manly work”, like farming or mining or whatnot.

The beginning of the story centres about the central control computer which has gained sentience, as Manuel discovers during his tech support duties. There are flaws in how the computer works, from a technical point of view, but given the book was published in 1966, I’m happy to ignore that. (And the fact that the physics is pretty good helps. And although some of the physiological effects of acceleration were a bit iffy, that’s another area which hadn’t been fully explored in 1966.)

After an activist peacefully-complain-about-the-warden meeting is interrupted by the warden’s men trying to kill everyone. Manuel, who was there only because the sentient computer was interested in the goings on (being a curious sentient, also interested in dissecting humour), is caught up in the crossfire and, with Wyoh, an activist from the other lunar city, escapes and goes underground. They make contact with the Professor, one of the only teachers in Luna City, and the three of them, with the computer, Mike, begin to mastermind a revolution. It ends up being managed on the line between terrorist and freedom-fighter, in my opinion. In terms of how it’s written, it’s very cerebral, with a lot of revolutionary theory and logistics thrown around.

Politically, I was a bit confused about what they wanted, other than to overthrow the warden. I mean, there was no question about overthrowing the warden, but what they wanted for a replacement government didn’t become apparent until after the revolution (which happens at roughly the half-way point). Afterwards — minor spoilers ahead, but really, not important ones — it transpired that the professor, one of the masterminds, was vehemently opposed to taxation which… yeah. I mean, sure, he was a “rational anarchist” but the whole thing, post-revolution, (not just the tax aspect) was a bit too anti-establishment for my taste. And they were a bit too blasé about bombing the Earth which didn’t seem to me to be the best way to gain recognition as a sovereign nation, but maybe that’s just my modern sensibilities talking.

The ending was kind of poignant, I’ll give it that.

Overall I wouldn’t recommend The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I found it of interest only as a historic text and it has made me hesitant to read more Heinlein in the future. Perhaps I’ll have more luck with my next foray into new (to me) classic SF than I did with this one.

2 / 5 stars

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