The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Robert Heinlein won four Hugo Awards for Best Novel, tied with Lois McMaster Bujold (at the moment) for the most in that category, with two of those wins coming for his iconic books Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers. Heinlein’s works, whether novels, short stories, or young adult fiction, tend to me a little lighter on the science and heavier on story, while always being readable, often compulsively so. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress diverges completely from the pattern of his other three winners – and everything else I’ve ever read from his pen – in its turgid prose and emphasis on irrelevant details, turning what might have been a compelling political allegory into a bloated sci-fi stereotype.

Set in the 2070s, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has the moon functioning as a penal colony and, strangely, an agricultural entity, growing wheat and shipping it back to earth. (Heinlein’s works often reflected the limited knowledge of the chemistry and geology of foreign bodies; in several of his novels and stories, he has humans colonizing Venus, because at the time we didn’t know how utterly inhospitable that planet’s environment is.) Mannie is the narrator, a free person on Luna who is agitating for political autonomy for the colony, and joins forces with “Mike,” a massive supercomputer that has achieved sentience without its developers realizing it; Prof, an old hand with broad knowledge of political systems; and Wyoh, full name Wyoming Knott (Wye Knott … get it?), a young woman who shows promise in an underground political rally that turns violent. These four characters plot and scheme, building a communist-style, decentralized, self-protecting network of cells that proves impenetrable for Authority forces from Earth, with Mike playing a critical role in both running scenarios and calculating odds of success and in using his pervasive presence on Luna to control and monitor communications and movements.

Heinlein has created a few iconic characters, but I associate him more than anything else with great stories – he cooks up novel situations in sci-fi settings, then puts his characters through the paces with quick prose and fast-changing plot details. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he fails on both of those latter two counts. Luna residents speak in a Russian-inflected slang, similar to the one Burgess employed in A Clockwork Orange but with more Russian loanwords, and with many articles and prepositions dropped from Mannie’s dialogue and narration, which makes for a slower, actively frustrating read.

And it turns out that revolution is kind of boring. Heinlein wastes far too much time on internal discussions of how the revolutionaries will set up their org structure, how they’ll govern if they gain independence, how they negotiate with hostile countries on Earth (which still includes a “SovUnion” … predicting the future was never Heinlein’s strong suit), or how the Lunar colony’s “catapult” to lob projectiles at earth is supposed to work. At one point he lists all of the officials in the new Lunar provisional government, many of whom are names that only appear that one time in the book.

There is a real metaphor here – and I know Heinlein disdained attempts to read into his work – about the relationship between colonizer and colony, about rights of self-determination, and about economic oppression. Heinlein wrote this in the mid-1960s as European powers were slowly and often reluctantly granting independence to their colonies in Africa, a process that wouldn’t really end until Portugal ceded Angola and Mozambique in 1975. Whether he meant the book as a criticism of such colonialism or not, it is impossible to avoid such a reading of the work given the time in which he wrote it and the exploitation of the natural resources of Africa (and previously Asia and the Americas) by paternalistic and often violently repressive European nations. It’s the most potentially interesting part of the novel, but is constantly subsumed by Heinlein’s focus on irrelevant details or dull tangents like the ones where he describes the polygamist culture of Mannie’s “warren” on Luna.

I’d read any of Heinlein’s other winners before this one, even Double Star, which lacks the philosophical weight of his other works but tells a cracking good story with a few clever twists. The early years of the Hugo Award produced some pretty questionable honorees, and I wonder if there was a Gold Glove effect here – Heinlein had won it before, and was a huge name, so this book earned some votes on that basis rather than on its own merits. It’s in the bottom half of the roughly 50 winners I’ve read so far.


  1. You must be thirsty for terrible beer Keith – ‘Robert Heineken.’


    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of my favorite books and the discussion of the governmental structure of Luna’s new government was interesting to me. Such discussion and the political maneuverings would have to be a part of any revolution. Heinlein was a rabid Libertarian… Probably close to a photo-teabagger. This shows up in Starship Troopers and some of his other books as well. I can tolerate his positions a lot easier in sci-fi than I can in the real world.


      Have you read Time Enough for Love?

    • I have not. Recommended?

    • Parts of TEFL are interesting. I like his approach to sentient computers in that book. But I found that the protagonist wasn’t very likeable and his fascination with incest and pedophilia is off putting to say the least.

  3. The dropping of words is something Heinlein toyed with in another novel (the name of which escapes me as most of my Heinlein reading was done 20 years ago) about a old man placing his consciousness in a woman’s body. The book is terrible, but they do suggest that in the future, prepositions would be dropped and most words would be shortened which, oddly, kind of represents modern texting/Twitter.

  4. Tammy Rainey (@Tammy_Beth)

    This has been one of my all time favorite novels for decades but there’s a good deal of this criticism I don’t dispute. Fr me the premise – penal colony on the moon, catapult delivery, Mike, most especially, and the proto-libertarian society was a great framework, and I really enjoyed the four main characters. And I’m a sucker for RAH’s dialogue. But otherwise, yes, he chases some useless rabbits. It is said that Heinlein eventually got so big and powerful that he could over-ride editors and I think after Stranger that shows up more and more in his novels. You ask above if “Time Enough” was recommended? Not by me. This is his last truly impressive work (to the extent one considers it impressive) – the first 2/3 or so of “Glory Road” is great, but once the adventure is over and he spends endless pages discussing the governance of the universe…..bail out. Anything after that gets progressively more bloated and less readable.

    For example, The Number of the Beast has a fun premise – the idea of our heroes literally crossing over between the various realities in which his other previous characters exist but…I can’t recommend it. If you HAVE to read a later RAH novel it’s probably going to need to be “Friday.”

    And it pains me to say all this because as a teen and young adult, there was not another writer alive that I’d even entertain a comparison to RAH. I adored him. But after the 60’s ended, loving him was the only reason to keep slogging through.

    Also, if you didn’t know, Farnham’s Freehold (while having the kernel of a good idea for a novel) is by far the most problematic of his pre-decline work – avoid at all costs.

    • Tammy Rainey (@Tammy_Beth)

      I should add, just to be pedantic, that in “Number” the characters meet not only previous RAH characters but those from other books as well

    • I tend to agree with Tammy about the four main characters in Moon; I liked them and, contrary to Keith, really liked the creative use of language.

      I also agree that Farnham was very problematic and has a regrettable approach to race. RAH does the same thing with Fifth Column, an interesting quick read that was, for me, ruined by stereotyping of Asians.

      Unlike Tammy, though, I wouldn’t recommend Friday either. I thought the concept of the artificial persons and the discrimination they would face was interesting, and enjoyed having one of SciFi’s greats take on pros and cons of gene alteration in humans. But I preferred Kettle Belly Baldwin more in the novella Gulf, written 30+ years earlier, than in Friday and found the protagonist, while a stronger female character than RAH usually wrote, still turning to a long line of men (Baldwin, her Canadian ‘family,’ Mack …) to help guide her.

      If I were to recommend Heinlein, I’d probably start with some of his early short stories and novellas like Man who Sold the Moon, If this Goes On, We also Walk Dogs, Green Hills of Earth, etc. RAH, unlike some other sci fi writers, didn’t do a good job of predicting technology, but I worry that we may have elected Nehemiah Scudder.

  5. Having read more than half of Heinlein’s printed output, I fully agree with your assessment, Keith.

    Heinlein always considered societies the proper subject of science fiction (and preferred the term ‘speculative fiction’), which is why his work involves as much politics and social commentary as it does. He let that get ahead of the story in Moon and I always thought it overrated.

    In reference to some of the other comments, I think his later work is compromised by his attachment to his Future History characters. I adore ‘Friday’, and don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s free of that influence. I wouldn’t recommend any of his other late period work (with the disclaimer that I haven’t read Job.)

    If you’re looking for recs, I would suggest:
    *Friday (only good late period book, my favorite non-Hugo, and the best case for his commitment to equality)
    *Podkayne of Mars (just because it was pioneering in using a female protagonist. She was recycled from some short stories he wrote when a female editor said ‘I wish someone would write some stories like this for girls.’ Note that if you get an early edition it will have the nerfed ending the publisher forced on him, which caused it to be mistaken for a juvenile.)
    *Tunnel in the Sky (my favorite juvenile, and as far as I know pioneered the use of a minority protagonist – but he was too subtle; it was so unthinkable no one noticed. It was a counterpoint to Lord of the Flies and reflected his belief that civilized government was mankind’s greatest accomplishment and we would take it with us.)

    And I would avoid Glory Road (pseudo-fantasy about the inadequacy of the typical hero’s reward, but nothing will do more to convince you he was an MCP) and Farnham’s Freehold (he was only trying to say that the power of the slave owner would corrupt anyone… but yeah, that one just didn’t work).

    • I’ve probably read virtually all of Heinlein’s work, and Farnham’s Freehold is one of my least favorite books. What struck me about the book (and I have to confess I haven’t read it in years) was the underlying racism. I can live with Heinlein’s politics (and recall an essay by Spider Robinson about not confusing the POV of the characters for Heinlein), but this one just sat wrong in so many ways.

      Not to get into a long digression into the nature of Heinlein’s writing, but I agree on the later stuff. I don’t know whether the acclaim for Stranger went to his head, his health issues made him impatient, or what, but his later work tended to be heavy-handed, self-referential, and … at times … boring. To Sail Beyond the Sunset rehashed a chunk of Time Enough For Love from another perspective. Parts of the latter were, IMO, unnecessary. Job is interesting, but I definitely wouldn’t put it near the top of his canon.

      Anyway, thanks for the review, Keith!

  6. Keith (and others)- have been meaning to ask for new book recommendations. I spent last 2016 starting and not finishing a lot of books. This year i re-read a lot of my favs. The only new book i read was the colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

    I’m a huge Vonnegut, Graham Greene, Steinbeck, Murakami fan. I use to like more philosophic texts (Kafka, Sarte, Camus, etc.), but I find myself more drawn to books now that have a little levity in them.

    Knowing this, any writers I should check out that I might not be aware of? Also, any lesser known works by Vonnegut/Greene(others) that I should go after?

    Thanks! You’re the only reason i pay for insider (hope ESPN is reading your comments!)

  7. Keith have you read any Iain Banks Culture novels?