Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Moon is Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein

I am slowly rereading some books that had a strong impression on me when I was very young. I believe that I first, and last, read Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in the early 1980’s. This was another book that, while I read so long ago, contains images and ideas that have stayed with me throughout life. My take on this work now is that it is a very imaginative, innovative and fun story. However, Heinlein presents a philosophy that, while thought provoking, is very problematic

The story takes place on the future Moon of the 2070’s. The Lunar colony has served as Earth’s dumping ground for the unwanted. Criminals and political exiles are sent there permanently. Due to physical changes brought about by the low lunar gravity, both the exiles as well as their progeny are unable to return to Earth for any longer than a few weeks, as an extended stay would be fatal. (Heinlein’s book was first published in 1962. While acclamation to Earth’s gravity has turned out to be a serious issue for long - term space travelers, it turns out that the fatal effects predicted by Heinlein were overblown).

The Lunar colonists, exiles, known as “Loonies”, work as ice miners and farmers, their products are shipped to Earth, which has become dependent on Lunar grain production. The Lunar authority runs the colony as a somewhat oppressive dictatorship. However, while the Authority economically exploits the colonists it generally does not interfere in people’s everyday lives.

We are first introduced to our narrator, Manuel Garcia O'Kelly or “Manny”, a one armed computer technician who from time to time is sent to repair the supercomputer that runs much of Lunar Colony. During the course of the repairs Manny begins to have conversations with the computer who calls himself “Mike”. Mike, very powerful to begin with, has been constantly expanded and enhanced, as he is needed to perform more and more tasks for the Colony. As a result, unknown to anyone but Manny, he has achieved sentience. No cold or calculating machine, Mike has a mischievous sense of humor, and is creative and lively. He quickly becomes one of the most engaging characters in the story.

Manny and Mike become involved in an underground resistance movement aimed at overthrowing the Lunar Authority. The two are joined by several colorful characters including Wyoming Knott-Davis or “Wyoh”, a woman who is an impassioned revolutionary, as well as Professor Bernardo de la Paz or “Prof”, a revolutionary intellectual who bears strong similarities to Benjamin Franklin.

With the help of Mike’s amazing analytical and communication abilities, as well as his control of lunar systems, the resistance begins to gain traction by spreading its message, disrupting Lunar Authority operations and communications as well as inciting riots and civil disturbances.

When Lunar Authority security forces rape and murder a Loonie woman the colony explodes into rioting and the Lunar Authority is overrun.  Though not really ready to take over, the revolutionaries form a government. Mike, posing to the unknowing masses as a person through computer simulation as its head.

The Lunar Authority, backed by all of Earth, attempts to take back the colony. An invasion of Lunar Authority troops is beaten back. Next, a space war erupts. The Lunar Colony for years has used giant catapults to launch payloads of grain down to Earth (this is a real Engineering possibility, futurists and engineers still foresee such catapults being used to send Lunar minerals to the Earth). When hostilities break out, the Loonies use the catapults as weapons. They begin to hurl huge cargo containers at the Earth. The impact of such objects hitting the planet at enormous speed is equivalent to the detonation of a moderate size nuclear weapon. Initially the containers are aimed at unpopulated areas and bodies of water. But as Earth’s forces continue to attack the Colony with nuclear missiles, the Loonies begin to hit targets closer and closer to cities.

The philosophy expounded by Heinlein in this book is interesting but questionable for me. Heinlein dubs it “Rational Anarchy” It is a form of Libertarianism and has certain limited parallels with the ideology of Ayn Rand. In fact, at one point in the narrative, Prof, who is Heinlein’s spokesperson for Rational Anarchy, states “I could get along with a Randian” This sets off alarm bells with me. Living in the United States of 2012, I believe that a branch of Libertarianism, partially fueled by the writings of Rand has seized an enormous amount of power in American government. Its fanatical adherents are continuing to do terrible damage to the United States. For instance, they have for years successfully denied health care to tens of millions of people, now threaten to wipe out much of the American Retirement system in order to pay for tax reductions that are heavily skewed to the wealthy, allow America’s infrastructure to rot and become obsolete, and foster an entire host of additional maladies. Furthermore, having read Rand, I find her to be a cold and mechanistic thinker who advocates what is ultimately a simplistic and naive ideology. She spews personal venom at those who do not share her philosophies. Case in point, The Fountainhead contains a “Liberal” character, clearly meant to be an archetype, that is cold, calculating and inhuman. I would argue that in Heinlein’s case however, that while his belief system is just as unworkable as Rand’s, his vision is much more humane, reasoned and thoughtful. He also shows respect for those who do not agree with his beliefs. For instance, though best described as a Social Democrat, Wyoh is portrayed as intelligent and honorable.

As expressed by its fictional proponents as well as by the society portrayed in the book, Rational Anarchy is strongly anti government, anti authority, and anti any organization other than the family.

Rational Anarchy is also pro - capitalist and free market.  A controlling and overbearing Lunar Authority is constantly oppressing The Loonies economic and work activities. Again and again the Authority is portrayed as an inept and inefficient mess. provides commentary indicating that such characteristics are true of all governments.

Heinlein is no more forgiving of democracy as he is towards dictatorship. He portrays the legislature elected by the newly independent Lunar Colony as composed of fools who are unable to accomplish anything by themselves. Repeatedly, Prof is highly critical of democratic systems. He observes that the masses can be easily manipulated and that those of a minority opinion always rightfully feel disenfranchised.

Prof labels government as a disease that humans cannot shake. If a government must exist, he argues that it be small and be what he describes as “starved”. He opposes all codified restrictions on individual rights and freedoms. He also argues against all taxes and regulations.

Furthermore, the belief system rejects any group morality, as when a person says that “country X was wrong” “or country Y was right”. The professor states:

“In terms of morals, there is no such thing as 'state.' Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts."

Heinlein’s ideology places no responsibility for the individual to obey laws or rules other then his or her own oral beliefs. Prof contends:

“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do”

The rational part of Rational Anarchy comes in as the philosophy recognizes that this belief system will never be universally accepted and its adherents must get along in a world where they are a minority. In consequence, unlike Rand, Heinlein recognizes that sometimes even the rules of the ideology need to be broken in order to make things work in an imperfect world. Prof, who claims to be a vegetarian, exemplifies this, as he occasionally eats meat and jokingly pretends it is a vegetable. Later, he allows pro lunar independence propaganda to be spread by the revolutionary government as a way to deal crises, though such propaganda is anathema to his philosophy.

 The benefits of Rational Anarchism are illustrated in the society of Lunar Colony. While the Lunar Authority is economically stifling, sometimes represses dissent, and controls the “big picture” things, when it comes to day-to -day laws, it plays no part in society. Therefore, Lunar society is without criminal or civil laws. The result is a socially ideal place. The Loonies do not always act individually with wisdom, but when you put everyone’s action together, the end result is a model of an exceptional society.

There is no civil law in a society with lots of commerce. Manny explains that if anyone were to be foolish enough to break a contract, no one would ever do business with that person again. This is a common train of reasoning that I often hear from “no regulation” conservatives.

Criminal law is simple. There are no written laws, police or professional judges.  If someone violates another person or property, or even behaves very obnoxiously, a local group apprehends them and an ad hoc court forms, judge and jury are selected from the populace. The accused is tried. Punishment ranges from a fine to execution. False accusations are discouraged, as accusers who make false or frivolous claims are themselves subject to punishment. Heinlein portrays this system as yielding a low crime, and a highly civil society. Criminals are quickly executed or punished, as are the aggressive and the extremely ill - mannered. Heinlein paints this system as not being comprised of lynch mobs, but as working through common sense to provide justice and tranquility. As a result people are all very polite and civil and there is little crime.

This free and open system also has greatly impacted gender and family relations on Luna. Especially in the early days, men greatly outnumbered women. This numerical imbalance gave women an enormous social advantage with men going to great lengths to curry favor with them. To touch a woman without her consent can lead to trial and severe punishment. Many marriages are polygamous where men outnumber women. Often these relationships are well run matriarchies. Women are never questioned when deciding to bring additional partners into any situation.

Once again Heinlein portrays these arraignments constructed by people without the influence of outside authority as working supremely well. Manny’s group marriage is portrayed as a warm, family style relationship that provides support and love to all of its spouses and children. It is well led by the senior wife, however all members have a say in everything. The needs and desires of all of its spouses are given consideration. It is self sufficient and economically viable.

This vision is different from Rand’s brand of elitist Libertarianism. Rand rails against all collectivism and promotes individual genius and accomplishment as the highest ideal. In her writings she expresses disgust for weakness and finds compassion a contemptible emotion. In contrast Heinlein advocates for the beneficial effects bestowed upon society when the masses are free to interact without the influence of outside authority. He sees the good and bad combining to form a beneficent and civil society that actually takes care of its weakest members. His ideology is not based upon individual elitism but upon the collective common wisdom and efficiency of society.

Though slightly more sophisticated, and much more humane, than Rand, I think that Heinlein’s ideology is also unrealistic and naive. History has shown that societies without strong civil law systems never develop prosperity. Economically viable societies that lose their civil law systems quickly fall apart. It sounds good to say that no one will do business with a contract breaker, but such people and organizations run rampant without civil authority.

As for countries with no codified criminal law, history again proves that Heinlein is sadly mistaken as to the results of such a system. I think such a place would resemble Somalia of the last twenty years as opposed to the balanced community that Heinlein envisions. As for the role of women in a culture where they were greatly outnumbered amid no legal controls, I doubt that they would fare anywhere near as well as Heinlein predicts.

Like many Libertarian philosophies Heinlein focuses too much upon things that are sometimes, but not always, true. By making overly simplistic generalizations he distorts reality. Like many of his peers, Heinlein turns insight into dogma. Government is often oppressive, wasteful and inefficient. But under the right conditions governments have been a key component in human progress, prosperity and the propagation of justice. They sometimes do things very right. Nations without government safeguards have been characterized by ills such as  brutal child labor, exploitation of the weak by the strong, environmental  destruction, and a host of other evils.

I am much more sympathetic to the personal aspects of “Rational Anarchy”. I believe that a human being’s morality should never be subsumed by a group. Nothing is justified only because the law says it is allowed. I agree that if one finds a law or rule immoral, one should do one’s best to disobey it. “My country right or wrong” is a completely untenable statement to me. I read this book when I was young. Along with many other influences, this philosophic angle played a part in helping me to form my beliefs.

I also agree with view of civil liberties espoused by Libertarianism and Rational Anarchy. I want government play as small a role as possible in our personal lives. Thinkers like Rand and Heinlein have it exactly right when they advocate against censorship and government interference in things like reproductive rights, which genders should be allowed to marry, etc.

There is lot more to this book then the advocacy of the philosophy of Rational Anarchism. There are some interesting thoughts and analysis presented upon the nature of revolutions in general. Heinlein also explores many aspects of consciousness as Mike becomes a more and more rounded being. The book’s characters are interesting and at times behave in surprising ways that give them a degree of complexity.  Finally this is fun science fiction. The plot is engaging, the prose is cynical, witty and often humorous. Heinlein has invented a fantastic Loonie slang that Manny uses. This vernacular is brilliant yet at times hilarious. This is a very well rounded work.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress deserves its reputation as a work of classic science fiction. In addition, for someone looking for a fictional philosophic story that explores Libertarian beliefs, this is a much superior alternative to the cold and ultimately juvenile novels of Rand. While I would describe Heinlein’s belief system as sophomoric, it is far more nuanced and reasonable then Rand’s mantra. It is also a much “warmer” book than is typical of her works. Heinlein envisions a system where people look out for and take care of society and each other without government intrusion. I think that Heinlein is off base; however, his presentation is very well stated, respectable and interesting as compared to those of some of his peers. He also carries the reader on a very interesting and fun ride toward his flawed, final destination.

My comparison between this book and Jose Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda can be found here.


Ryan said...

I love Robert Heinlein but I have not yet read this title. I read Methuselah's Children a couple of years back and it was a very thought provoking novel about the problems of space exploration and it's inherent comparison to European colonialism.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - I have not read "Methuselah's Children". When I was much younger I read a bunch of Heinlein;s Books,"Stranger in a Strange Land", "The Number of the Beast", "Glory Road", and what was I think the first science fiction novel that I ever read, "Orphans of the Sky'. He is usually very mentally stimulating.

Caroline said...

I haven't read Heinlein yet but the compariosn to rand would ring an alarm bell as well. i wasn't aware of how problematic her books are until I read about her recently.
I'm not keen on chunky books so it wasn't likely I would read her.
I suppose some of the ideas Heinlein incrporated must have seemed more realistic at the time.
t's interesting that some SF is dated while others will just endure and are timeless.
I found the parallels you drew too rand very interesting.

Guy Savage said...

I read this when I was a teenager. It was part of my Sci-fi period which I left far behind me. I don't really remember the political aspects of the book, to be honest. I've either forgotten or it didn't hit me at the time.

Like Caroline, Rand rings alarms. She did a lot much damage to people in the film industry in the 50s.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - One aspect of Heinlein's predictions for the future is that he really tried to use established science and engineering concepts. I think that is one of the reasons that his work does not seem too dated.

If anyone HAD to read Rand I would recommend 'Anthem". It is short and not nearly as strident as her other books. I believe that in some ways it was influential on George Orwell's "Nineteen Eight - Four".

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - In some ways I too have mostly left my Science Fiction reading days behind, but occasionally go back to read something that seems worthwhile.

I have only head a little bit about Rand's participation in the Blacklisting of the 1950's.

Jennifer Hartling said...

I haven't read these books but I'm always interested in re-reading something from my youth. You have a whole new perspective :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jennifer - I definitely agree about the perspective being new. As of late I have been going back and reading some books thatI originally read 25 - 35years ago I believe had some impact on my lifetime thoughts and philosophies. This makes change in viewpoints doubly interesting .

Maria Behar said...

This is such a beautifully written and anlytical review, Brian! It sounds like a dissertation, and I LOVE it!! It's brilliant!!

I greatly enjoyed reading your thoughts on the philosophy espoused by Heinlein in this novel. The only Heinlein novel I've read is "Stranger In A Strange Land", which I really should re-visit, since I don't remember much of the plot. I read it several years ago.

Along with Asimov, Heinlein is one of the giants of science fiction. I really should plan to read more of his work, perhaps starting with this one, which sounds absolutely fascinating!!

I agree with you about Rand. I started reading "The Fountainhead" years ago, and couldn't finish it. I didn't like her coldness, or her contempt for those she deems inferior. Roark, her main character, is practically a megalomaniac; at least, that's what I remember. Rand's philosophy of Objectivism does have some good points, but again, there's that exaggerated slant toward the glories of individualism at the expense of a social conscience. Besides, I have a major complaint about her -- she had an ongoing affair with her staunchest disciple for many years. His name is Nathaniel Branden, and he was many years her junior. Both Rand and Branden were married to other people during their affair. (Naturally, I dislike Branden as well.)

Your superb review has really piqued my curiosity about this novel!! I'm also thinking of going back to "The Fountainhead", believe it or not, just so I can compare the philosophies.

In closing, let me tell you that I am a HUGE fan of "meaty" reviews and posts such as this one, so keep 'em coming!! Thanks for this one!!! : )

Maria Behar said...

P.S. Branden is now a well-known psychotherapist, with several books to his credit. In spite of the fact that I dislike him as a person, I have read one of his books, "Honoring the Self", which does make many valid and helpful points. However, the affair with Rand still remains a major sticking point for me.

Another important book written by Branden is "The Psychology of Self-Esteem", which I have dipped into occasionally, but haven't actually read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks so much for your kind words.

I read "The Fountainhead" a few years ago. One thing that I find disturbing about Rand is the way that she expressed such a lack of regard for those members of society that she deemed to be weak.

i totally agree that her philosophy had some good points, especially her views on personal liberty.

I have not read Branden but his titles sound very interesting. I have heard the affair was between the two was conducted after Rand and Branden had bullied their respective spouses into accepting the arraignment. Go figure!

Maria Behar said...

Yeah, that tells you something about these two....their actions were totally despicable. I can't believe their spouses were so scared they actually accepted this rather disgusting arrangement...

You're very welcome for my compliments! You richly deserved them!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks again Maria - The thing about the blog is that I really like to share the ideas that I derive from the books that read. I really appreciate the comments for many reasons, in particular it allows others to bounce ideas back.