The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

by Robert A. Heinlein
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932

Heinlein received his fourth and final Hugo award for The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Though the work is a masterpiece in every way—scientific background, plot construction, setting, characterization—it is usually remembered for the brilliant characterization of “Mike,” the supercomputer that develops a personality. Though Mike receives the most attention, all the major figures are among Heinlein’s most completely realized characters. Mike’s first friend, the computer technician Manuel Garcia O’Kelly (“Mannie”), is the narrator of the novel. Born free, but the son of criminals transported to the moon when it was a prison colony, Mannie shows the cautious independence of an ex-con in a repressive system.

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Mannie’s narration is a stylistic masterpiece in itself, for Heinlein has created, as he does in no other novel, a version of the streamlined language a moon colonist (or “Loony” as they proudly call themselves) might speak in the year 2076. Because, as Professor Leon Stover observes in his book-length study of Heinlein, there is little stylistic play in Heinlein’s fiction, it is worth looking closely at his only stylistic experiment in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. It is a fair extrapolation of what might someday be spoken on the moon, as it amalgamates Russian, Chinese, and Australian and American English. As all four nations are potential colonizers of the moon, one should not expect pure English among the settlers.

Even the English is mutated. Articles are used rarely, perhaps under the influence of Russian, and personal pronouns are often dropped when they appear as subjects. The expletive “there” is dropped in the phrase “there is”: In the opening paragraph of the novel, Mannie observes, “I see also is to be mass meeting tonight.” Many other words are dropped if they can be supplied by context. Thus, one finds Mannie saying, “Won’t worry about what can’t help,” and asking, “Matters whether you get answer in microsecond rather than millisecond as long as correct?”

Mike’s only other friends are a tall, beautiful, blond woman, Wyoming Knott, and Mannie’s old mentor, Professor Bernardo de la Paz. The professor is a typical Heinlein mentor character, yet his seemingly Marxist politics have puzzled critics who had typed Heinlein as a right-wing fanatic. A close study of the political theory laid out by the professor in chapter 6, however, will help the reader to square it with Heinlein’s theory of citizenship discussed above. The professor places the welfare of society above his own, which is Heinlein’s definition of patriotism, yet does not identify his current corrupt government with “society.” Wyoming Knott, or “Wyoh,” is a feminist and political activist, well-read in revolutionary political theory, but from Mannie’s point of view naïve about the real world. The second human being Mike meets as a self-aware personality, Wyoh immediately helps him to create a female persona, “Michelle,” to become her computer friend.

Mike’s personality is the main attraction of the novel, as well as one of Heinlein’s most masterful technological creations. The theory of artificial intelligence in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, written long before “AI” was a common term in computer science, is proposed by Mannie in the opening chapter. Mike was designed to draw conclusions on limited data, an inductive method foreign to computers but very human. On top of that, other computer systems were linked to him as the lunar complex grew, until he had more circuits than the human brain. This large number of connections, Mannie guesses, is what made Mike “come alive”:Somewhere along evolutionary chain from macromolecule to human brain self-awareness crept in. Psychologists assert it happens automatically whenever brain acquires certain very high number of associational paths. Can’t see it matters whether paths are protein or platinum.

Whether or not Mannie’s theory is correct—and he admits in the epilogue that it remains only a theory—Mike is as human as most Loonies, and is as scornful of the moon’s dependence on Earth.

Another bit of scientific background in the novel is an exercise in interplanetary ballistics, worked out (quite accurately) only a few years before the first moon landing. The Loonies, though exploited by Earth, are reluctant to rebel because of Earth’s superior firepower. When someone laments, “What can we do? Throw rocks?” Mike suggests exactly that. Because the moon rides on the “top” of Earth’s “gravity well,” it is simple to catapult large pieces of lunar rock. If directed to enter Earth’s atmosphere obliquely, the rocks can hit with enough impact to cause an explosion, like striking sparks on flint. As Mike had been Luna’s ballistic computer, making the needed calculations is an easy task for him: The Loonies win their independence by throwing rocks.

It is no accident that Heinlein gives so specific a date for the setting of this novel—something he rarely did. The Loonies declare their revolution on July 4, 2076—on the tricentennial of American independence. This date, chosen by Professor de la Paz (with his devotion to political history), highlights a connection Heinlein made consistently in his fiction between the spirit of independence that forged the American nation and that same spirit in the future colonizers of space. Almost twenty years earlier, Heinlein had explored the theme in Red Planet, wherein Martian colonists fight for independence from Earth. Recognizing that the pioneer spirit is flagging in the land of his birth, Heinlein urges readers, through his fiction, to see that they need to recapture it if they want to participate in the bonanza of outer space.

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