The Hugo Project: 1967 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

24 Jun

Previously on the Hugo ProjectSand, Gender Essentialism, and More Sand.

I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. This week we swing back homewards for a visit to the Luna penal colony under the direction of our dear old friend, Bobby Heinlein. Please check your p-suits before venturing onto the surface as we continue our sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Robert A. Heinlein
serialized in Worlds of If magazine Dec. 1965 – Apr. 1966
complete novel published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1966


In the twenty-first century, the Moon – or Luna, as she’s known to those who live in her – is a penal colony, a dumping ground for the undesirables of the Federated Nations, who produce much-needed grain for a starving Earth. Loonies have their own customs suited to their circumstances; life in the Rock is harsh, but decent enough, and nobody raises much fuss. Or nobody did, until a professor, an activist, a mechanic, and a computer with a sense of humor suddenly find themselves fomenting a rebellion…


Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!

This is the fourth and last of Heinlein’s Hugos (not counting the Retro Hugo awarded to Farmer in the Sky), and it’s nice to see Bobby going out on a high note. Having read some of his later works and been…not entirely impressed, I was a tad worried, but this one is good.

It’s not as amazing as Stranger, of course, which will always be the gold standard for me. But incredible, all the same. Problematic, of course – have I found a Hugo yet which isn’t? And this is Bobby, after all.

So, why was it good?

First of all, it was compelling – it did take me a bit to get into, but once I did, I always wanted to know what would happen next. I cared about the characters a lot, or about Mannie at least, and the storyline kept me guessing. It was fun to read.

It was also very detailed, in the way that can be distracting if done wrong and invaluable if done right. Of course I’m a sucker for any novel that expects its audience to deal with physics (Everyone should be able to deal with basic physics. Don’t get me started on math anxiety and the rest of our species’ perverse aversion to thinking logically.) There were also a lot of details and arguments about politics and economics and the like which I found less exciting but was still able to follow (take that, Frank).

What really made me love it, though, was the fact that it finished strong. Heinlein’s novels have a bad habit of fraying a bit towards the end (in his earlier works) or falling apart completely (The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, anybody?) but this one stayed coherent right to the end, and I actually loved the characters more in the last thirty pages than I had before.

In Mannie – Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis – Heinlein created his most likeable and sympathetic narrator-protagonist. Like Lorenzo Smythe and Johnny Rico, he starts off as as an eccentric everyman, but Mannie is a little older, a little more mature, and a lot less prone to bravado. He’s deeply loyal, intelligent, capable – and completely human. During the final conflict, which lasts for more than a week, we see him tired, sad, angry, exhausted, in tears…he still got the job done, but he wasn’t running on pure adrenaline or shoving everything down out of the way.

I suppose I should talk about Mike, too. I liked Mike well enough, although I didn’t trust him and was sure he was going to pull a HAL until the third part of the book, at which point I did find a sort of tragic love for him. What I find more interesting is that Mike was just another character – an character with an odd personality and an incredible skill set, but an ordinary character nonetheless. I guess the evil supercomputer trope had to wait a couple more years for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Onwards to social justice!

Race: Better than average, certainly; as a penal colony for the entire planet, Luna has a very diverse population. Of course, the only named Black character dies on page 26 (of 302). And then Wyoh (blonde, understood to be code for White) dons blackface for a few months and the descriptions of how they kinked her hair to look like “unsuccessfully straightened” natural hair had me squirming in my privileged White woman seat. Still, our protagonist is mixed-race but definitely brown, and the wide range of colors in his family (more under Gender/Sexuality) is used to poke fingers at the racism of future-USA.

Gender/Sexuality: Godsdamnit, Bobby Heinlein. On the one hand, we have an incredibly sensitive male narrator, a decent treatment of Wyoh’s motherhood/lack thereof, and innumerable family structures mostly tending to the polygamous and polyandrous. Oh, and a man randomly knitting on page 29. But the exciting family structures are still heteronormal – many men and women may all be married, but each women sleeps only with one of the men at a time, and never with the other women, (and the converse for the men) so far as can be discerned. Not to mention all this fun playing with relationship structures is due to the relative shortage of women – not an invalid plot device; Sheri S. Tepper used it well in Six Moon Dance – and women are still treated as a commodity men need. Objectification Ho! Wyoh is apparently the only woman on Earth or Luna who has a voice in government; a few other female characters are granted minor agency but generally women and girls exist to be looked at by men. Oh, and catcalls etc. are apparently respectful, and page 55 has a delightful extended farce about rape. Also, rape never happens in Luna because women are so valued that men will always rush to their protection if anybody tries anything. STFU, Bobby.

Other: Mannie lost his left arm at the elbow prior to the start of the story; he has several prosthetic arms for various functions. He’s rather blithe about the whole thing (except when he suddenly finds himself trying to maneuver in darkness in zero-g with no prosthesis), and I think Heinlein does a good job of making Mannie a capable and admirable hero while avoiding super-crip territory.

In the end, the combination of hard SF and sensitive protagonist won me over easily. This is another one for the re-read shelf; I wonder how well it will hold up the second time around. Definitely recommended, though, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

OVERALL RANKING: 9 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).


All quotes and page numbers taken from the 1983 Berkley edition.

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Posted by on 24.6.2013 in Books


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