Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Libertarian Lunacy: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein has always been my least favorite of the Big Three (my ranking: Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein), but I thought I'd give him another chance.  I checked out The Moon is a Harsh Mistress from the public library, because the thought of borrowing a book about libertarian revolution from my favorite tax-supported socialist institution amused me.  There were some things I liked about this one, but there's also a lot I disliked, especially the misogyny.  The rest of this review will take place in the form of an imagined dialogue with a Heinlein fan, because that's how I was able to work out what I thought about this one.

Heinlein fan:  So, what'd you think?  Pretty great, huh?

Me: Well... I've never been a huge Heinlein fan.  I liked Stranger in a Strange Land (at least the hippie grokking stuff), but I totally don't see why Starship Troopers is so beloved.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress had some good points ... and a lot of bad ones.

Heinlein fan:  What?  How can you not love Heinlein?  What kind of SF fan are you?

Me:  A bad one, I guess.  I enjoyed Mike the computer, especially his attempts to understand humor. Maybe Heinlein's point is that a successful revolution requires a near-omniscient, omnipotent force?

Heinlein fan: Yeah, Mike!  Heinlein does characters so well, better than most other 60's SF authors.

Me:  I don't know.  Maybe.  Other than Mike, I can't say I liked any of the characters much.  I will admit that, while the plot meandered in the middle, it picked up toward the end and got pretty exciting.  But I still prefer Clarke and Asimov.  I like to think about Big Ideas in my science fiction.

Heinlein fan:  But Heinlein has a lot of those!  Human nature! Utopia! Government and authority!  Gender issues! A non-racist future!

Me: Sure, I guess.  The society does seem to be relatively colorblind, somewhat like Star Trek (although the ideal of colorblindness has its own issues).  Prejudice exists based on Earth vs. Loonies instead.  As for the libertarian revolution, I really do wonder if you could read this book as saying you'd need a near-omniscient computer to pull it off.

Heinlein fan:  Or maybe it's just a fun tale of revolution!  For libertarians!

Me:  Setting aside my own politics for a moment, let's just think about the concept of a libertarian revolution.  If your political philosophy basically consists of hatred of the concept of government and whining about how taxation is theft (as it seems to for the characters in this book, much in the vein of some contemporary American libertarians), how will you succeed in setting up even a minimal government?  And how can they really have no laws?  Won't they have to have taxes at some point?  Or maybe Heinlein's point is that the best government would be by those who hate government, hence making a libertarian utopia impossible?  Again, I find myself stretching the book a bit to make it more plausible or interesting, much like I had to with Starship Troopers.

Heinlein fan:  It's just a novel, not a philosophical treatise.  Science fiction is about playing with ideas through thought experiments, not working them out with philosophical rigor.

Me:  Fair enough.  I appreciate that.  But there were some things that bothered me about this one.  Like the gender stuff.

Heinlein fan:  Well, Heinlein was a man of his times.  And for those times, he was pretty progressive.  Women have a lot of power on Luna.

Me: But that's why Heinlein's misogyny is so weird.  It's a kind of condescending praise of women.  They only have power insofar as they are commodities for men for the purposes of sex and reproduction.  There's even a little speech somewhere in there that basically says so (mixed in with all the speeches about how authority is bad, taxes are evil, blah, blah).

Heinlein fan:  But men are commodities for their labor on Luna, too!  Hence the book's famous acronym: TANSTAAFL!  There ain't no such thing as a free lunch!

Me:  Yes, but this is a deeper critique of capitalist libertarianism, I suppose: it turns humans into commodities.  Nobody on Luna seems to have any value apart from their economic value.  That's not a very appealing future to me.  Of course it's true from an economic point of view that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, but that doesn't mean that human beings do nothing but eat lunch. But let's get back to gender.

Heinlein fan:  Okay.  What about Wyoh!  She's a kick ass woman!

Me: She's exactly what I'm talking about.  She's just smart enough to be sexually interesting to the men, but not smart enough to challenge their intelligence.  Notice how often Heinlein has Mannie (the main character) point out how ignorant she is of science and politics, even for a "non-stupid."  And of course she's a beautiful woman who ends up in the line marriage with Mannie.  I don't even need to put a spoiler alert on that, since roughly 73% of all science fiction novels that introduce a beautiful, kick ass woman in the first chapter will have the male protagonist sexually involved with her by the end.  This is not to mention the running joke when she and Mannie are flirting about how he's rapist or the fact that she has frank discussions about her fertility and past surrogate pregnancies two minutes after they meet (and of course her character arc involves becoming fertile again, because apparently an infertile woman is no woman at all).

Heinlein fan:  But the line marriage and other polyamorous arrangements are neat.  Heinlein was caught up in the sexual revolution of the 60's!

Me: Yeah, that was kind of cool.  I'm not a marriage traditionalist, but the group marriage stuff all seems a little bit too happy, like group marriages would solve all our problems.  And it doesn't seem like they've done much to help women on Luna, who mostly cook and run the households while the menfolk plot the revolution.

Heinlein fan:  But again, Heinlein was a man of his times.  He's no more sexist than other prominent male writers of the 1960's.

Me:  Actually, I'm not so sure.  Compare this to another famous book published around the same time: Frank Herbert's Dune.  I'm not saying Dune doesn't have its gender troubles (like why must the Kwisatz Haderach be a man?), but women are seriously powerful in the Dune universe often despite the blatant misogyny of the male characters.

Heinlein fan:  But Dune is so weird it's not a fair comparison!  How about the other two of the Big Three: Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov?  They weren't exactly writing feminist SF in the 60's.

Me:  True, but Asimov and Clarke basically just ignored women, or wrote the rare women who showed up as if they were men.  It's more of an erasure than Heinlein's condescending faux-egalitarianism.

Heinlein fan:  So they were all sexist.  But is one kind of sexism better than the other?

Me:  I honestly don't know.  I'm not going to defend any of it, but for whatever reason I find the Clarke-Asimov route less annoying.

Heinlein fan:  But at least Heinlein was trying!

Me:  Sure, I get that.  The biggest mystery to me is why Heinlein became such a major figure in the genre.  I'm not saying he's not talented or that some of his stuff isn't good.  But to me he doesn't seem to be at the same level as Clarke and Asimov.  Maybe I'm missing something?  I've only read his most famous works (Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and this one).  Maybe I need to read his other stuff?  Or should I bother?

Heinlein fan:  Yeah!  Read .... [launches into a long list of Heinlein books I will probably never read...]

Rating: 72/100

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. I'm a Heinlein fan and that is not how a conversation with me would go. This is my favorite book of his, btw. I loved many things about it. Including the idea of a line marriage but the details of how it works in this book. Manny was a revelation for me because there just weren't many books with a major black character in it (I discovered Butler later and the current sf/f field has many, many more done by actual WOC so now is much more awesome for me).

    1. Thanks, Cheryl. Maybe someday we can have a conversation about this book to see how it goes! I was just imagining what someone who likes this book might say. The bit about liking his characterization is taken from things I've heard Heinlein fans say. The rest of it is blatantly made up by me. That is cool to have a major black character. I didn't hate this book. It's a hell of a lot better than The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith, which I thought was just a bad book even putting aside its libertarian themes.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks for your feedback. Care to elaborate? I'm being completely honest when I ask: What is it about Heinlein that I'm missing? He's beloved by a lot of people I respect so I figure I must be missing something. What is it?