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I was mildly surprised a few years back to read an essay by Ken MacLeod praising Heinlein as the pre-eminent political writer of science fiction - my memories of Heinlein at that time shaped by his later more degenerate works. But Ken was right, and this I think is the novel where it all comes together, against which other depictions of politics in a future society must be measured.

Heinlein is clear that his Luna isn't necessarily an ideal society (clearer than in some of his other books) but also clear that he wants us to think about the practical consequences of not having much in the way of government, and also to think beyond the Cold War divide which dominated political discourse at the time he was writing. His occasional use of Russian vocabulary is a) generally idiomatic, though one might quibble about the pronunciation and b) a challenge to readers wallowing in the comfortable dichotomies of their own day.

I loved the bits where the central characters plot the revolution - fairly standard revolutionary practice, of course, but interesting to see it so positively portrayed in a mainstream sf novel. My favourite parts, however, are on Earth, the manipulation of the F.N., Heinlein's successor to the U.N., by the Lunar delegation which includes the narrator. In the 1960s, after the U.N. intervention in Congo, it was possible to imagine that a future world government would dispose of coercive military power. It seems pretty improbable now, and indeed Heinlein points out some of the reasons why it is improbable. It's a nice touch to have a small African country be the only one to recognise the Luna government at first, rather as only Nicaragua and Russia now recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The political discussion is supplemented by one of the great artificial intelligence characters of science fiction. Mike / Adam Selene could have been yet another irritating Heinlein know-it-all character, but here that role is split between him and the intellectual Professor Bernardo (himself rather modest as Heinlein intellectuals go) and the book is much the better for it. So we have a self-aware computer trying to get to grips with the weirdness of humanity, and by reflection showing us ourselves, yet at the same time in innocence providing the strategic leadership of the revolution. It stands the tired old Asimov laws of robitics on their head.

Heinlein's ideas of sex on the moon are, alas, rather less convincing. Sure, gender issues will be rather different with institutionalised polyamory, but he rather over-eggs the benefits of his preferred arrangement, which in his account has no apparent drawbacks (or homosexuals) at all. Stranger in a Strange Land was less pleasant but more realistic on this subject.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1967, the year I was born, beating two exceptionally good books which I have read - Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany and the full-length novel version of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes - and three others which I haven't heard of - Too Many Magicians by Randall Garrett, The Witches of Karres by James H. Schmitz and Day of the Minotaur by Thomas Burnett Swann. When I reread Stranger in a Strange Land I said I thought it was the best of Heinlein's Hugo-winning novels; I have changed my mind.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
bellinghman
Jul. 13th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)
For what it's worth, and these are my opinions rather than objective fact: To Many Magicians is a good romp, but nothing particularly deep, and while I enjoyed The Witches of Karres, I'm rather surprised to hear that it made a Hugo shortlist.

I don't remember Day of the Minotaur, though I suspect it was a retelling of legend.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 13th, 2009 10:41 pm (UTC)
It is and it isn't. Thomas Burnett Swann was a classics scholar and worked at the University of Florida. But he tended to look sideways at legends, rather than just retelling them. Minotaur is about the Minotaur as a humane and human creature, and his discovery of the nature of normal humans. He was also a wonderful clean stylist with the ability to tell a complex story in maybe 50k without skimping. He's one of my writing heroes. Of course, he's been out of print for nearly 30 years, but some of them are still quite easy to find (there are one or two that are tricky and take determination. The marquis and I both have the complete set, but we started in the late 70s.) He's worth tracking down and reading.
omegar
Jul. 13th, 2009 09:39 pm (UTC)
I agree that Moon is a harsh Mistress is better than Stranger.

i think that comes from it being much "tighter" in storyline. Stranger seems to meander through the plot, where as moon is very straightforward. This of course is personal opinion. However i think i have read moon more than any other of Heinlein's stuff

There is just something about the characters that draw me back.

It also has a fitting point about how government drifts from the ideology that created it.
scott_lynch
Jul. 13th, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC)
I really adored this one, much more so than Stranger in a Strange Land, which I found to be stifled by the insufferable Jubal Harshaw, Phenomenon-at-Law, and the disappointing air of pure woo-woo that hung over everything connected to Mars and the powers of Valentine Smith.

I always get a giggle out of Book-a-Minute's ultra-condensation of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress:

http://rinkworks.com/bookaminute/b/heinlein.mistress.shtml
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 13th, 2009 10:35 pm (UTC)
've actually read all of that list, and they're all good in their own ways. The Witches of Karres has perhaps aged less well than the others, and Minotaur wasn't perhaps Swann's best book, but is still a good example of his spare, clean style. While the Garrett is a well-constructed alternate history which is something of a cult book. All recommended. I would probably have given the Hugo to Delany, out of that selection, but Swann richly deserved to be feted, Garrett was a ground-breaker and the Schmidt is a lot of fun. (I love the Heinlein, too. I was never that keen on the Keyes.)

Edited at 2009-07-13 10:36 pm (UTC)
geekosaur
Jul. 14th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
no apparent drawbacks (or homosexuals)
Hm, must reread it. There wasn't much mention, but I thought there was a line somewhere or other about not caring who was sleeping with whom which, given the context of line families, suggested homosexual relationships to me.
seawasp
Jul. 14th, 2009 01:04 am (UTC)
Interesting you've never heard of Witches of Karres, one of James Schmitz' best works (along with The Tuvela/The Demon Breed). I don't agree it didn't deserve the shortlist; it's an excellent book in many ways.

I also agree with your assessment of Moon VS Stranger. I don't particularly LIKE Stranger; it shows the first symptoms of RAH's eventual downfall.
vasha7
Jul. 14th, 2009 03:17 am (UTC)
Witches of Karres
"The Witches of Karres" was a book that I read many times over when I was about 10. It's very much a children's book, and I don't think I could appreciate it now. It has some memorably scary aliens.
glorioushubris
Jul. 14th, 2009 06:48 am (UTC)
I agree with the people who say that THE WITCHES OF KARRES is a children's book. It was the second SF book I ever read (when I was around 7 or 8), and if it were written today it would definitely be marketed as YA.
glorioushubris
Jul. 14th, 2009 06:52 am (UTC)
Ach. Hit send too soon. Also meant to mention that the full text is available online: http://jiltanith.thefifthimperium.com/Collections/TheWitchesofKarresChapters/TheWitchesofKarres_Link.php

Also, the recent sequel, THE WIZARD OF KARRES, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and David Fleer is extremely not worth reading.
raycun
Jul. 14th, 2009 07:08 am (UTC)
I got about 50 pages in before throwing it at the wall
You'd think a novel about revolution would be right up my street, but I like my novels to be novels. Character A lectures Character B on X, then Character B lectures Characters A and C on Y, then Character C lectures.... Plato gave me a permanent aversion to that 'dialogue' model, but at least he was never interested in writing fiction.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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