Reading The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress again
By Alberto Mingardi
You easily understand why the novel was such a sensation among libertarians, for ages. It is overtly political, and it is an overt attempt to re-stage the American Revolution on the Moon.
A few months ago, at the invitation of a colleague, I agreed to participate in a conference on utopia and crisis, which allows for a discussion of science fiction. I picked up the theme of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I hadn’t re-read in years, with the secret fear I wouldn’t find it interesting again.
I was happily wrong. I think it is the third time, perhaps the fourth, I have read the book, and the first time I read it in English and not in the Italian translation. It was one of the first novels I read, at age 10 or so, outside the reading diet forced upon us at school. One day I discovered my father’s science fiction library and that he liked Heinlein’s works (and Asimov’s, and Van Vogt’s), and so did I.Then I read the book again when I came across libertarianism as a political philosophy, and Heinlein as one of its unlikely prophets.
Reading it now again, I enjoyed it thoroughly. In a sense, it seems to me it fits one (not all) of Italo Calvino’s criteria for a classic. Calvino maintains that “classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious”. Well, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a classic for me, both for how it was unforgettable, and perhaps for the seeds it planted in my own individual unconscious.
Here are some of the things I found most interesting… (SPOILER ALERTS!)
– One of the main characters, Wyoming, is a surrogate mother. Science fiction indeed, in the 1960s.
– The novel is actually better than I remembered in dealing with AI, the supercomputer Mike, acquiring consciousness first. This is in a sense the main theme of the book, and Heinlein plays it well. A plus, to me, is that there is no rhetoric in juxtaposing it with a revolution, i.e. a “nation” acquiring consciousness of itself.
– You easily understand why the novel was such a sensation among libertarians, for ages. It is overtly political, and it is an overt attempt to re-stage the American Revolution on the Moon. Yet perhaps its political side emerges more starkly in Heinlein’s institutional creativity (private judges, marriage pluralism, et cetera) than in the short ideological speech of Professor Bernardo De La Paz. In that sense, it is NOT Atlas Shrugged, meaning no Galt’s speech–and I see that as a plus, as a novel.
– Actually, the best ideological bit from the Prof is the question that helps him to explain libertarianism (“rational anarchism“) to his friends: “Under what circumstances it is moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”. For a few years now, it seems to me that libertarianism of the anarchist blend is at its strongest when it points to the double standard between government agency and the rest of us, and perhaps at its weakest when it tries to come up with more distinctive speculation over a political order fully compatible with liberty (competing protection agencies et cetera).
– Heinlein may not be Borges, but he is a great storyteller. It reminds me of John Le Carre (ok, not that good), whom I consider phenomenal in that respect. Part of Heinlein’s greatness as a storyteller is bringing us to see the other side of the coin. That the Moon ends up having no longer a colonial rule, but more government than it had before, may be delusional for 10 year-old me, but makes the novel more compelling for 37 year-old me.
– The best policy proposal in the book is having a second Chamber, in a bicameral system, that only repeals laws. And while the legislative assembly needs a 2/3 majority to pass a law, the repealing assembly can get rid of one with only 51%. We’ll never see that on planet earth, but it makes a lot of sense to me.