Saturday, July 28, 2007

Robert Heinlein's "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (novel): Overthrowing a repressive imperial government

Quote from the novel Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert HeinleinThe only thing wrong with this book is its title, & the cover art!

In spite of an Asimovian robot/computer at its heart, & a novel perspective on moon that leads to invention of a new kinds of very potent weapons, this is really a general interest book on politics. It would have done far better business on non-sf shelves, may be after some relatively minor editing to cut out jargon.

The book also has some speculation of the kind of society you will get when you have far more males compared to females - something government of Punjab might find interesting. But that is a minor subplot here.

As usual, Heinlein provides a lot of interesting quotes.

Story summary.
The story is set in late 21st century. Moon is inhabited by humans, & is primarily being run as a penal colony administered by a local Warden who represents Lunar Authority. Authority has its monopoly sanctioned by Federated Nations (FN), a more powerful successor to UN - which means considerable backing of military & other resources in case of trouble. To me, the whole arrangement sounded like East India Company granted monopoly by English Crown.

There are several cities on moon, among them Luna City aka L-city - where most action happens.

Lunar Authority provide local government & currency; is a monopoly trade middleman in essentials like farm harvest, water mined from ice, air; run essential infrastructure of underground cities; ...

While the moon was originally colonized with criminals & undesirable exiled from earth, those days are now past. Most lunar population is now local born, & they resent this profit- & power-seeking government imposed from outside. That provides the seeds for movement seeking independence - the main theme of the book.

I found the economic rationale of the colony - to grow grains to feed earth - rather bogus. But that part can be ignored.

On a separate track, Mike is a central computer that runs most lunar infrastructure - air pressure, telephone switching, currency, ... One fine day, it develops consciousness that makes it almost a human personality. In a very Asimovian fashion, it gets bored doing its many routine jobs, & begins playing pranks - like adding a few billion dollars to someone's salary!

Story is a first person narration by Manuel Garcia O'Kelly, a private contract programmer maintaining Mike on behalf of Lunar Authority. Manuel is the first person aware of Mike's consciousness, & the two become friends. They can talk over voice circuits in computer room, or over phone.

A third track that will come in handy later in story is a magnetic Catapult. A device that literally throws containers filled with Lunar grains with Moon escape velocity, so they fall to earth. Story will later use this device as human transport, & also for throwing rocks on specific targets on earth - in lieu of bombs!

It is in the resent-filled environment of L-city that the 3 key protagonists meet: Manuel, Wyoming Knott aka Wye, & Prof Bernardo de la Paz. They will provide the revolution its leadership, & later, the first government of free Luna. They will also enlist the support of Mike, whose motivations for support are an escape from boredom, & returning the companionship these three humans provide.

Of the triad, Prof provides the brain, Wye the revolutionary passion, & Manuel the sundry skilled services. They organize resistance in the form of 3 person cells in a structure that is designed to recover from compromise with minimum damage. Public face of revolution will be Adam Selene, an avatar of Mike. Officially, top 3 report to Adam. And only they know Adam is not human.

After some very interesting drama & then bloodshed, local government is overthrown, & free Luna is declared. The only problem now remaining is getting recognition from earth - a process guaranteed to involve a military attack on moon to get rid of revolutionaries.

While the revolution was being planned, our friends worked out a novel weapon to fight FN's far superior military might. They realize that moon is like a huge mountain to earth; with relatively small escape velocity, you can literally throw things down at earth!

This will be their weapon - throwing huge rocks at specific targets on earth, with the effect more devastating than bombs. Not only will current grain-exporting catapult be used, another is also built at a secret location - in case first is compromised. Mike will oversee to actual throwing at specific targets.

Rest of the story is diplomacy & propaganda at earth to Lunar cause, military attack by FN on Luna, Lunar reply that pretty much cripples earth, & eventually a Lunar win for their freedom.

Beautifully told, & extremely riveting.

Other major characters & names.

  1. Mike has many names: Mycroft Holmes aka "High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV, Mod. L" (HOLMES FOUR) aka Señor Holmes aka Michelle (female avatar) aka "Dr Adam Selene, Chairman of the Provisional Committee of Free Luna." of Selene Associates aka "Simon Jester"
  2. Ursula - Adam Selene's secretary - a fictitious "person"
  3. Albert Ginwallah - Adam Selene's confidential assistant - a fictitious "person"
  4. Mortimer Hobart aka Mort the Wart. Former FN Senator. Warden of lunar colonies at the beginning of story. Officially called "Protector of the Lunar Colonies by Appointment of the Lunar Authority". Top administrator representing Lunar Authority on moon. Deposed after revolution.
  5. Wyoming Knott also has many names: Wye aka Wyoh aka Wyma Beth Johnson. From Hong Kong Luna aka Kongville, rather than from L-city.
  6. Shorty Mkrum - Wye's friend killed early in the story. He is the one who introduced Wye to Manuel.
  7. Lord Stuart - earth man on the side of revolutionaries. Provides earth side propaganda support; immigrates to move later in story.
  8. Loglan - a computer programming language for programming Mike that provides fine control, though he can normally be programmed simply in ordinary English.
  9. Grand Hotel Raffles, Room L: Headquarters of revolutionaries (The Emergency Committee of Free Luna)
Fact sheet.
Moon is a Harsh Mistress, novel, review
Rating: A
First published: 1966
Winner of Hugo Awards 1967
Hugo Award nominee in 1966 & winner in 1967 in novel category

See also.
  1. Arthur Clarke's very good short story, "Maelstrom II", is about an accident during launch from moon to earth of a human passenger in a freight box via an electric catapult.
  2. All Hugo Award stories.