28 October 2007

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Over the weekend, I finished Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Not your typical science-fiction--Heinlein's best work always transcended genre--this is really a novel of revolution... so of course it appealed to me right away. My review follows the jump.

Good thing, too, because from the first page I knew I would have trouble with the dialect the book is written in. I've discussed (in Plainsong and elsewhere) the fact that I'm very picky about writing style. In this case, after two pages I decided the narrator, Man (Manuel O'Kelly Davis), was Russian. This was based on some clues in the narrative (and the use of the Russian word for comrade, 'tovarishch'). Although I later decided there was no way Manny spoke with a Russian accent, by that time it didn't matter any longer. I still read it with a Russian accent in my head, which was amusing because if I read long enough I'd speak with one for a few minutes after I put the book down.

Anyway. Manny isn't Russian and the one place where Heinlein's future world falls apart is the existence of the Soviet Union and the fact that the U.S. seems to have disappeared some time around the turn of the current millenium. Hey, he wrote it in the 60's.

Two things make this book stand above others. One is Heinlein's political viewpoints, so well articulated within the framework of the narrative that the book in no way reads as a polemic. Stranger in a Strange Land, which I finished in early 2005, before I was reviewing books here, suffered a bit from this. It, too, was more than a simple work of sci-fi/fantasy literature, but Jubal Harshaw came across as a more direct Heinlein mouthpiece than Professor de la Paz does in this book. The politics is both clearer and more subtle at the same time in this book, if that makes sense.

Being a libertarian (classical liberal, whatever you want to say), Heinlein's political leanings mirror my own a bit so I just loved delving into Prof's (and Stu and several other characters') discussions. But the book also made me ache, for what Prof is describing, a state without government--a stateless state, I guess, or maybe an anti-state--was only possible on the moon because of the physical situation there. Individuals were forced to conform to a certain set of behaviors--to be a decent person at base level, having nothing to do with drinking or gambling or cursing and everything to do with working hard, being polite, etc--simply to survive in the harsh territory. It's not rule by law or by men, but by environment. Anarchy could conceivably have worked there--though, as Manny points out, men seem to have an unquenchable thirst to bully other men around, make laws, enforce standards, rather than let people get along by themselves. It's probably inherent in human nature, for some reason, for us to want to control what other people can do. As Prof points out at one point, no one wants to ban a behavior to stop themselves from doing it, only to stop other people from doing it.

The other thing that makes this book stand out is the well-crafted Lunar world. Heinlein got a few things wrong, as always happens when we try to predict the future, but the tightness and reality of his world is breathtaking. Everything fits together. The existence of Mycroft Holmes is entirely plausible in just the way Heinlein describes. The way the moon was settled, the view taken of the moon by the powers back on Earth, the necessity of living underground, the types of jobs done by Loonies (residents of Luna, naturally, are Loonies), the construction of the cities... it's done so well. Apart from the awakening of Mycroft Holmes--which I maintain is plausible--and the existence of water ice within the moon (not disproven but probably unlikely), there are no leaps of faith required, no suspension of disbelief. If the moon were to be settled surely it must be just this way.

It's brilliant. It's gripping. It's well worth a read. My friend Taemon sent it to me while I was in Djibouti, and it took me this long to finally get around to reading it. Sorry it took so long, T--but it was great. Thanks.

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