The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress Critical Context - Essay

Robert A. Heinlein

Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

With Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, and a handful of others, Robert Heinlein is a writer whose career has spanned the decades from science fiction’s golden age to its flourishing state in the 1980’s. Heinlein’s career can be divided into two sharply distinct phases. In the period from his first published story, in 1939, through the many stories and novels that followed up to 1961, Heinlein was (in the words of Algis Budrys) “a crisp, slick wordsmith of uncommon intelligence and subtlety.” In 1961, Heinlein published a different kind of book, Stranger in a Strange Land. This novel, which became one of the cult classics of the 1960’s and eventually sold in the millions, set the pattern for such subsequent works as Time Enough for Love (1973), The Number of the Beast (1980), Friday (1982), and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985): novels constructed to permit Heinlein ample opportunity to discourse on his favorite topics, particularly the natural aristocracy of genius.

Not all readers share the generally low critical estimate of the “new” Heinlein— indeed, most of his later novels have been best-sellers—but few will deny that there is a definite dividing line in his career. In this neat schema, however, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is something of an anomaly. Although published after Stranger in a Strange Land, it has many of the virtues of the “old” Heinlein, including superb pacing and a carefully worked-out account of a future society. It argues many of the ideas that are the raison d’etre of the later novels, but it does so in the context of the story: The action is not a pretext for philosophizing. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was awarded a Hugo for Best Novel, and many critics regard it as one of Heinlein’s finest works.