Friday, November 13, 2009

1967 Hugo Winner – THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert Heinlein

The fifth and final novel by Robert Heinlein to win a Hugo (and the third in eight years) reenacts the American Revolution on a lunar colony. This is another novel that I read, and loved, when I was a teenager.

It’s the late 21st century and the moon is home to several million people, most of them descendants of criminals sentenced to the penal colony there. The inhabitants call themselves Loonies, and they’re beginning to get fed up with taking orders from Earth. The colony is managed by a supercomputer called HOLMES, and the novel centers around a technician named Mannie who discovers that the computer has become self-aware. Instead of bumping everyone off like HAL-9000, HOLMES (who Manny soon renames “Mycroft,” or just “Mike” after Sherlock Holmes’ brother) has a sense of humor and likes to play childish pranks on the Loonies.

Before long, Mycroft is holding meetings with lunar dissidents and hatching a plan to rebel against the Earth, which is taking too much of the moon’s food production. An anarchist professor named Bernardo de La Paz (really more of a libertarian, but Heinlein prefers the term Rational Anarchist) discusses political philosophy with Mycroft and becomes a mouthpiece for Heinlein’s personal politics in the process. The moon begins to use its infrastructure to launch some devastating attacks on the Earth, and soon, the dissidents have their independence and are charged with forging a new society.

In a lot of ways, this novel is an extension of Farmer in the Sky. That novel gave us a heroic story of frontier settlement; this novel gives us a frontier society that has grown up and is ready to strike out on its own. Turner’s frontier thesis of American history is still very much in effect in Heinlein’s writing, but we’ve moved to the “American Revolution” phase. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is much concerned with Heinlein’s libertarian politics, which he apparently felt the need to spell out after the accusations of fascism that accompanied Starship Troopers. He also manages to work in some of his pet ideas about unorthodox sexual relationships and open partnerships with a concept of polyandry he calls “line marriage.”

There’s a lot about Heinlein’s politics that I don’t really agree with, and this novel is almost nothing but Heinlein’s politics. Yet, this is by far my favorite Heinlein novel and probably my favorite Hugo winner thus far. The political discussions are at least well-informed and interesting, the Lunar society created by Heinlein is fascinating, and the sentient computer Mycroft Holmes is incredibly fun and lovable. Heinlein’s writing is, as always, clear and direct but also amiable and energetic. He’s the closest thing to a 20th century science fiction Mark Twain this side of Kurt Vonnegut.

In the 70s and 80s, Heinlein’s novels get a bit more sex-obsessed (sometimes in disturbing ways), and there’s a lot of navel-gazing as his later novels focused on tying together is older novels into a multiverse. But, if you have any interest in science fiction and have somehow missed out on Heinlein, you need to give Stranger or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress a chance.

This novel came in second in the Nebula voting after the dual winners in 1966, while Flowers for Algernon and Babel-17 came in second and third in the Hugo voting. It’s the first time the awards diverge at all, and I’ve got to give the edge to the WorldCon Hugo voters on this one.

Grade: A

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