Escape Velocity

A curated Collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction Media

Manny is a computer engineer in charge of programming Mike, the central supercomputer running the systems of Earth’s penal colony on the Moon. Unbeknownst to anyone but Manny, Mike has achieved self-awareness. Mike mainly wants to learn to understand human humour, but when the AI meets political activist Wyoming Knott through Manny, the three of them start speculating on an uprising that would free Luna from the yoke of the Warden and the Federated Nation’s Lunar Authority.

I love the classics of the genre, and if I have ever talked to you about science fiction, you will know that I am always explaining that ancient sci-fi novels are worth reading because they are still relevant to the present day. Still, even I am sometimes surprised myself exactly how true that statement can be.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is closing in on its 60th birthday. The overarching theme – of a population rising up against their oppressor – is as old as time, and will no doubt be recognisable for as long as people will be able to read. That is not what I am referring to, however.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress also delves into AI, deepfakes avant la lettre, polyamory, and gender – topics that may be more relevant now in 2024 than they ever were in 1966.

I will admit that Heinlein can be relatively crude about these issues – I don’t find his writing particularly thought-provoking because it lacks a little in subtlety (looking at you, Starship Troopers). There is a certain self-righteousness in Heinlein’s works, a certain conviction that doesn’t always feel like just the characters’.

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the main character Manny’s dry cynicism can be a bit off-putting, though I do find it a charming way to introduce certain topics as extremely normal and hardly worth mentioning – such as the complex polyamorous family structure he is a part of. It is contrasted nicely with Wyoh’s rebellious fervour. But I never really liked the supposedly brilliant co-conspirator professor De la Paz’s platitudes about the evil of government and the virtues of self-organisation. He feels just a little too much as a conduit for Heinlein’s own political ideas. It is in fact the moments when Heinlein is consciously delving into the politics of building a nation that I think The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is at its weakest.

Perhaps that is simply a matter of space: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is not dissimilar to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in some ways; though being a trilogy of books triple the size of Heinlein’s work certainly helps in establishing the Martian independence movement and the politics of the solar system in that.

Fortunately, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has more than enough to offer besides the supposed wisdom of professor De la Paz. In particular, the AI Mike is a delight to read. His development as a character is central to the story, and I think Heinlein does a great job of making his interactions with the human characters believable. I like that Mike could probably have been really frightening, but never comes across as such in the story (though that is probably a matter of perspective).

Overall, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a surprisingly relevant classic that is well worth the read for its interesting characters and the tension of its plot, if perhaps not for its politics.

Share this post: