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.

Double Star.

My latest Insider post covers Mike Leake’s contract with St. Louis. I don’t think I’ll be able to chat this week, but will get the word out if that changes.

I picked up Robert Heinlein’s short 1956 novel Double Star just before Thanksgiving when the e-book was on sale for $1.99, but it was already on my to-do list since it won Heinlein the first of his four Hugo Awards for Best Novel. While it wasn’t among his first novels, Double Star was only his third novel geared toward the adult audience rather than the juvenile readers of most of his early work, and presaged his turn around 1959’s Starship Troopers toward this sort of more serious literature.

Double Star is the fictional memoir of the actor Lawrence Smith, a.k.a. Lorenzo Smythe, who is coerced or tricked into a job – or perhaps he just took it because he was desperate, and concocted the reasons later – that involves serving as a stand-in for a major opposition politician in the solar system-wide government, a constitutional monarchy similar to that of the United Kingdom. The politician is indisposed for at least a few days, and Smythe needs to stand in for him at a major function on Mars, after which he’s to be paid and sent back to wherever he wants, but as you can easily predict, the job lasts longer than Smythe expects.

Although Heinlein’s milieu was science fiction, with Double Star taking place on Mars, the Moon, and various ships, the science aspects of the novel are almost irrelevant to the plot itself, and often serve as a distraction. The only meaningful addition from the sci-fi setting is the hostility between humans and Martians (described in the book as an intelligent if rather horrifying-looking species), which seems like a strong metaphor for ethnocentric policies in the racially and politically divided human world, such as the nascent civil rights movement in the United States at the time Heinlein was writing the book. Most of the other science fiction elements could go by the wayside without affecting the core story; some seem patently ridiculous now (Heinlein loved to depict settlement and/or native life on Venus) or incongruous (he was fine writing about travel as far as Pluto, but has characters doing tabulations by hand rather than on computers).

Instead, Double Star is a character study that happens to have a sci-fi backdrop. Smythe/Smith is a fatuous, egotistical actor of only modest success, down on his luck when he’s first approached about the job, yet playing the prima donna in all negotiations with his employers/captors. He’s the stereotypical method actor, inhabiting the part rather than just playing it, but also manages to grow somewhat even as he’s spending less and less time being himself. The fool we laugh at in the book’s first half becomes a modest hero in the second half, as he’s asked to do things that would stretch even the strongest personalities. With Heinlein often saying that readers shouldn’t look for metaphor or subtext in his work – I don’t buy that, but hey, it’s his writing – I do think his own argument for Double Star would have been built around the character first and the story second. Here’s a cleverly crafted individual, well-rounded, capable of growth, put in a situation that starts out as difficult and ends up nearly impossible.

It’s only about 140 pages, barely even novel-length, and since most of the sci-fi stuff feels tacked on or superfluous I’m not sure about this as Hugo-worthy, although I’d guess the competition at the time was mostly pulp anyway. I’m not terribly fit to judge the book in Heinlein’s canon, though, since I still have two more of his Hugo winners, the more widely acclaimed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, left to read.

Next up: Almost done with Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.

Starship Troopers.

My latest review for Paste covers the app version of Camel Up.

Robert A. Heinlein was both a prolific and critically-lauded writer of science fiction, with an emphasis on keeping the science somewhat grounded in the possible and using it as the platform to explore themes of liberty, individualism, and the role of government. Yet as far as I can remember, I’d only read one of his books, one of his young adult novels called Between Planets, and none of the four core Heinlein works that won Hugo Awards for Best Novel. (What I remember most strongly about that book was the absurd notion that humans could colonize Venus, but apparently at the time Heinlein wrote it scientists were unaware of that planet’s hellish atmosphere and climate.)

Starship Troopers won Heinlein the second of those four Hugos, four years after he won for Double Star and two years before his magnum opus, Stranger in a Strange Land, did the same. I was turned off from reading the book after seeing the trailer for the apparently very unfaithful 1997 film adaptation, but the book is nowhere near as dumb as the movie. (Casper Van Dien, who starred in that film version, was most recently spotted in a straight-to-DVD film called Avengers Grimm that holds a 13% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) Heinlein’s book, written as a first-person memoir of the protagonists youth and first few years serving as a space marine, touches on many of the themes I mentioned above, while also apparently drawing controversy for its overtly militaristic setting … although I don’t agree with criticism of the work as somehow pro-war or even pro-fascism.

Johnny Rico is the space marine and narrator of Starship Troopers, having defied his wealthy father’s wishes and signed up for the service, only to find himself in a boot camp of unimaginable intensity, one designed to weed out most of the recruits. In this future society, Earth is ruled by a single government, and is engaged in war against sentient ant-like creatures just called “Bugs” from another solar system, and only retired veterans of the armed forces are allowed to vote. Rico’s personal philosophy is shaped by his experiences at boot camp and through “moral philosophy” professors he encounters (although he also takes a lot of math), but his presentation is hardly such that the reader should take his views as Heinlein’s. The one-world government arose after western societies collapsed due to rampant crime, much of it committed by undisciplined juveniles, and gave rise to this military-focused regime, one that seems built to feed the machine even when no conflict exists and thus to extend any conflict when one arises.

That bit of cynicism is more mine than Rico’s, but led me to believe that Heinlein was presenting a somewhat extreme scenario – a veiled dystopia – to show one potential outcome of contemporary social and economic trends. While Heinlein seems to come down on the side of harsher discipline of errant children, he also clearly presents the one-world government as one that sees war as the answer to many questions, and thus is somewhat unable to find non-conflict resolutions. If Heinlein is praising the military at all, it is for the way that such experiences can shape the character of an undisciplined young person or one who feels no sense of personal responsibility – although in Rico’s case, it wasn’t so much a lack of discipline or responsibility as a case of teenaged rebellion and a lack of motivation to work because of his father’s wealth. The world of Starship Troopers is hardly utopian; while individuals have a wide degree of personal liberty, the lack of the franchise is a significant debit, and the war-torn world where Buenos Aires and San Francisco are “smeared” by alien attacks is hardly one to appeal to any readers and make them want to sign up for the space marines.

If anything, Starship Troopers comes across as lighter fare than the discussion around its themes might indicate; Heinlein gives Rico a colloquial tone and matter-of-fact delivery that breezes through the philosophical lectures and lets the tension of the book’s few military encounters take over. There isn’t a single central narrative; the plot is the memoir itself, rather than a single military mission or even a story of the war with the Bugs. You could just as easily read the book without worrying about whether Heinlein was promoting fascism or capital punishment or revoking most citizens’ right to vote.

Next up: Still slogging through William Faulkner’s A Fable.