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Jul 062009
Mike liked it.

Mike liked it.

Don’t know if anyone likes my reviews yet, but in light of the LCROSS, and LRO NASA projects currently orbiting our celestial ornament, I think this particular work is applicable fodder for my errant scripture. Oh and of course meeting Buzz Aldrin didn’t help any.

In 1966, Robert A. Heinlein one of the great science fiction writers of the age released a work that he hoped would eclipse all of his prior established works. Some consider this to be his literary coup de grĂ¢ce. Personally, I’m not quite sure. Despite my enjoyment of the work, there is something more primal in the way he expresses social commentary in works like starship troopers that really rob this work of any real controversy. That being said, this work may yet be seen as a harbinger of real events yet to come. Though, I’ll try to spare you the spoilers.

The stories plot contains three elements that I think contribute to it’s status as a unique work of science fiction. First is revolution, certainly a wonderful backdrop for any work of art as it provides ample opportunity to play off many of the fundamental emotions of man. Second it approaches the concept of Artificial Intelligence in a disturbing and profound way. And lastly, it addresses a possible future, that without Heinlein’s personal technical background and expertise would be very difficult to communicate. Now alone any one of these three elements would be a rehash of ideas trodden upon time and again by our literati. But, the combination of the three and coupled with Heinlein’s attention to scientific and technical accuracy ( to say nothing of his skill as an author ) gives birth to an idea that is very much unique. And having been released three years prior to man having ever set foot on the moon, it must have been a truly jaw dropping view into a future that no doubt seemed imminent to the people of the time.

I am now going to discuss each of my key elements in the reverse order of listing, because I feel this makes the most sense. Don’t ask me why.

So, let’s discuss life on the Moon. As any nerd will tell you, the biggest problem with colonizing the moon, or mars, or anywhere outside of earth is our gravity well. Defeating it is difficult. Defeating it and getting enough weight into an escape velocity, while preserving economic viability is where it gets utterly gruesome. Already, even in Heinlein’s day people were thinking about how to replace the very expensive, very dangerous, and very inefficient, Saturn V ( for very? ) rocket program with something a little more cost effective. Today, we mostly look to the idea of a space elevator as a solution. But second to that theory is the one Heinlein settled on, linear acceleration. If you don’t know what linear acceleration is, just look up “rail gun” on google. Heinlein’s genius is in his ability to construct fantastic settings for very real human stories. And, in this book, he’s painted a very realistic view ( especially for 1966 ) of what a future of human exploitation of the moon might be like. A moon full of earth’s worst prisoners and their descendants ( loonies ), are depleting the ice stores on it to meet the growing demand of underground farms snaking throughout the moon. These farms are being used to help ease the food shortages on a horribly overpopulated earth.

It’s uncanny how Heinlein has predicted a future that we can very much see now. An India no longer able to contain it’s poverty, and a china whose sole concern is it’s economic future. It’s also with incredible insight he manages to construct an improbable and exotic lunar people built from descendants of the “scum” of humanity. I find myself very much into his excitement at explaining this brave new world. And it is charming, much the same way old new york was. With interesting characters and malcontents bread in this tumultuous and dangerous new world (is it a moon anymore?). A future without dirt, grime, and the seedy underbelly of humanity is a false future indeed.

The best character in this story, in my mind, is Mike, short for Mycroft Holmes (1966, not a microsoft reference). Mike is a computer ( hey you kids! stop all the downloading! ) that’s befriended by the three main characters in the story. Mannie the protagonist is the systems administrator (of sorts) that discovers Mike. Wyoh is the revolutionary love interest of Mannie’s and a female counterpoint to Mannie. And lastly there’s prof, a grizzled old Anarchist who acts as a sort of voice of revolutionary history. Mike is really only seen through the eyes of Mannie who is telling the story, and much of the time we are left skeptical about what it is that Mike is thinking. I suppose after decades of AI phobic movies and books it’s easy to play to Mannie’s own fears regarding Mike’s development. But, more than anything you are drawn to Mike’s often times unexpected, and often curiously indirect commentary. For instance, when Mike refers to Mannie in the beginning of the story he calls him “Man, his first and only friend”. I found this phrase to really be incredibly thought provoking despite it’s simplicity. And I found that as Mike developed as a character I really did find his words to be very much endearing, and equally enjoyable thought candy. What would an AI think of mankind upon waking to his new life? Alone, Mike innately yearned to learn from the only other “not stupid” he knew of, Mannie, his first and only friend. Is Mannie, a representative of all men? Mike to me is like the world’s most intelligent dog. He can’t help but love the few friends he has, and every task he volunteers for he attacks with absolute glee. I really have to admit, Mike may be my favorite character ever. He’s certainly my favorite AI. And if for nothing else, I’d read this book just to see this character developed.

But we can’t have a revolution without a conspiracy, and as we all know you need at least 3 for a conspiracy. So Mannie is you, and I. He’s skeptical, he’s got his life figured out. He’s of moderate success, has a family, and for the most part is pretty happy with his life. But, Mike is a central part of his life, and ends up putting him on a path to meet Wyoh. With the help of Mannie’s old mentor, prof, Wyoh is able to quickly ( and largely before Mannie even realizes it ) place Mannie at the heart of the Lunar revolutionary party. And from there we get to see first hand, how the very fragile balance in society that allows the people on the moon to flourish, will also make them a force to be reckoned with.

The themes in economics, science, and cultural that this story brings up oddly enough parallel the US revolution of 1776. Prof, a self proclaimed rational anarchist, acts as the voice for many of America’s founding father’s. Something of a welcomed change from the socialist reform that dominates literary ideas of revolution in modern texts. It’s also a very interesting and modern edge that prof puts on American colonial politics. Prof’s quotations have proven, for me, a source of renewed inspiration in reading the works of Whitman, and the founding fathers on what America is and is not. And it’s provided at least for me some insight into where cultural values have diverged for us.

This was a pickup, and hard to put down read. I could have finished it in a single sitting if I had the time. I highly recommend it to all.

 Posted by at 3:40 pm

  5 Responses to “Book Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

Comments (5)
  1. I read this back when I was in college and really enjoyed it. I say keep the book reviews coming!

  2. Mycroft Holmes is Sherlock Holmes’ brother. He’s smarter than Holmes, works for the government.. doesn’t like to dig up his own facts, prefers to take info from government folks and do the figuring himself.. hence, computer.

  3. Interesting useless fact: One of the main characters from that hacker book “Little Brother” is named after one of the characters in this book. I forgot which one though…

    Oh, and can I recommend a book for the book review? I’m currently half-way finished reading “The Art of Money” by Jason Kersten and it’s really fucking good! It’s about the counterfeiter Art Williams, his life and how he defeated the 1996 $100 US Banknote. Will bring it to NYC2600.

  4. 1966 you say? That’s years after Farnham’s Freehold, a commentary about race. Boy,when he wrote, few things slowed him down, and only the inevietable could stop him.

  5. This was my first Heinlein book to read. I had to get my parents permission to check it out of the library. My favorite book.

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