The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

posted June 9, 2005 by Jer

JerI just finished reading "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A Heinein. It is a god damned amazing book. It's definitely Sci-Fi, but the meat of it was an analysis of the nature of politics, government and revolution. Entertaining to the last.

The story is told by Manual Davis, a middle aged computer technician living on the moon and charged with the programming of super-computer entitled "Mycroft Holmes," named aptly because of job description: "to sit and think." Through customization and constant adding-on of extra hardware, Mycroft, later nicknamed "Mike," wakes up into self awareness. The trouble begins with the fact that the moon is a future-day Australia - a penal farming colony charged with catapulting grain back down to Earth, and the fact that Mike has made his first step into sentience by experimenting with childish humor. While the first trouble begins to lead towards riots and open revolt against Earth, the second leads to Mike printing worker's paychecks 10,000,000,000,000,000 L$ (lunar dollars) too much - a gag he thought to be a real hoot. Manual keeps Mike's self awareness a secret, (Upon questioning why Mike only talks to Manual instead of other humans, Mike explains "Because they're stupid!") but problem one is taking root into a true organized effort to rise up from the oppression of Terra, introducing Mike and Manual to the talented social instigator Wyoming Knott and the elderly scholar of social studies Professor Bernardo de la Paz.

The story is about libertarian revolution. To me, it explained what is needed for a people to revolt and what is needed for that revolt to succeed. To fight totalitarian control, you need to instigate opposing totalitarian control. For that control to be better than the old, it must be done with selfless compassion (good luck with that). The major motif in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is that everything has it's cost. The "Loonies" have a word for it: "Tanstaafl," an acronym for "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." There were several other themes I rather enjoyed, such as "everyone wants the change the system, but few have the stomach to actually revolt," and "If a government holds its own well-being in higher regards than the well being of it's people then that government must be overthrown," to name a couple. Most of all it explained to me why America will never change. Our country will continue to be run by politicians with an agenda, because the only way to fight them is to play their game better than they do, and for the most part anyone who cares to do so is too optimistically ideological to actually enter the political structure they seek to dismantle.

Through all the political crap there was Mike. I liked Mike. Mike signed on to the revolution because he wanted to show off what he could do, but all he really cared about were his friends and his jokes. Through the story, we watch as Mike evolves from a computer who simply slips the words "Please" and "Thank you" into his output routines to a digital person whom those he speaks with could never guess they were talking to a machine. "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" was first published in 1966, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Mike was a direct influence on the character Data from "Star Trek The Next Generation," especially in the aforementioned evolution towards humanism. Most of all, I loved Mikes attitude. His philosophy that all humans are stupid coincides with mine that people must all prove themselves not-stupid. Mike even refers to the people Manual chooses to introduce to him as "not stupids." Mike has style, more than Data, Hal and Skynet put together. Mike was the man.

"The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" gets two espresso shots for the multitude of late nights I stayed up reading it. Go read it, especially if you're stressed about the state of politics here in the real world. The major message relating to the United States' political conundrum: Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, but things have to get worse in order to get better. In a weird way, I find that comforting.

Rating: 2.0 espresso