It’s some years into the future and our satellite has finally been colonised. Not in the usual utopian fashion though, instead Luna is the ultimate in penal colonies. Transformed into an orbiting farm, Earth now depends largely on the grain sent down from above, courtesy of the inmates. All trade is strictly controlled by The Authority, creating a stranglehold on Luna’s inhabitants which they are powerless to release. Not only that but the sentence to hard labour moonside is a one-way ticket; more than a few months living with Luna’s weak gravitational field wreaks irreversible physiological havoc
With the harsh rule of The Authority, presided over by the Warden, an unenviable economic status and a 2:1 ratio of men to women, Luna is a powderkeg waiting to blow. All it needs is a spark, one provided by a meeting of revolutionaries which is bloodily interrupted by the Warden’s overzealous guards. Among those fleeing are the intellectual insurrectionist Professor Bernard de la Paz, a visiting sister of the revolution known as Wyoming and Manny, a humble electronic technician who has just stumbled upon and befriended the world’s first sentient computer – one which just so happens to be responsible for overseeing all of Luna’s computerised infrastructure.
What follows is a wonderfully ridiculous tale of revolution as the moon’s oppressed masses rise up, under the guidance of our three protagonists and their AI friend Mike, shaking off the shackles of Earth’s distant government and forging their own rule. Utilising Mike’s localised omniscience and ability to evaluate millions of potential outcomes seemingly simultaneously, the lunar government is swiftly overthrown. Earth is none too keen on this turn of events, particularly since they now face the prospect of paying true market prices for the food their former slaves provide. Fortunately the new ruling committee have an ace in the hole in the form of the enormous catapults used to launch grain shipments. Luna is not short on rocks and it’s a long, long way down.
One of the joys of reading Heinlein is the absurd attention to detail and the sheer plausibility and levels of knowledge he brings to near any subject he touches. For starters, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress could almost have been marketed as The Idiot’s Guide To Revolution. Every step of the way the innermost thoughts of those engineering Luna’s freedom are illustrated, alternatives discussed, reasoning tested and scrutinised. Obviously to any graduate of history or politics it will seem simplistic and flawed but for the lay reader there are many lessons to be gleaned here, from economics to group psychology.
The discussions of technology are similarly thorough. From the habitations used on Luna to the catapults and spacecraft featuring later in the novel, nothing is merely glossed over. To be fair Heinlein wrote The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress in 1966, well before the digital revolution. With the benefit of hindsight his depiction of Mike is comically dated but his insights into AI itself and the concept of consciousness as a complexity-dependent emergent phenomenon were well ahead of his time.
The only nagging point I have with the novel is his political views. Heinlein is an unashamed fan of Ayn Rand, who I believe to be one of the most despicably amoral writers in history, skewed against humanity and fetishising selfishness to an almost psychopathic level. Indeed he goes so far as to namedrop her fictional hero, John Galt, in his discussion of worthwhile role models. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is drenched in Libertarian thinking, taking the idea of personal freedom too far and forgetting that government can be extremely useful in protecting the powerless from those who would wish to exploit them. His comments that taxation is the ultimate and vilest form of theft had me alternately in fits of laughter and reaching for the sickbag.
This personal point aside it is an astonishingly easy read for a book with such ambitious scope. After a dragging first fifty pages I was rattling through it at a pace which kept increasing until I hit the back cover. Definitely a book to reach for if you want something which will give your grey matter a workout while entertaining at the same time.