Mar 172014

100 words: The overview

The March Hodderscape review project book is one of the Big Books from one of the Grand Masters of SF, Robert A Heinlein. It’s a biggie. It won the Hugo and the Nebula, and written and published around two-thirds of the way through the space race, and it’s a fascinating thought experiment of its time. It could at one time be found on any self-respecting bookshop shelf, but its complicated series of political lectures and our distance from the Cold War ear means that it’s showing its age, and it’s easier to see its flaws than to understand its impact.

100 words: What it’s about

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress supposes that the moon is a penal colony, an updated Australia where Transportation results in physiological changes – gravity – and there is no sneaking back. The Moon is run by a capitalist Lunar Authority, and the residents – most of whom are technically no longer prisoners – revolt against the Earth. The book contains a self-aware computer, engineering, political theory, and an ugly manual for revolution: not one of, by, and for the people, but a cabal with the good of the people masquerading as a revolution of the people. Despite some inherent difficulties, it remains compelling.

100 words: the context

Ten years after McCarthyism. Midway through the Space Race. The near peak of the Cold War. And the book, much to the dismay of adherents to New Criticism, only makes sense in context. Heinlein shocks the reader of 1966 with a well-thought-out series of political and social developments, from (shocking) sexual freedom and (shocking) race-mixing to his own set of long-winded political theory, called “rational anarchism”. Heinlein is writing a big, strong, American story, while putting the US well out of centre of that universe, lampooning in many ways the very culture with whom the story will resonate most strongly.

100 words: that uncle…

I, and most people I know, had someone avuncular growing up, who was pretty cool. A bit of a weirdo, but someone who knew cool stuff. Talked about sex. Could fix a car or a light switch. Had a handle on maths and physics. Knows how the world works, talks to you like you’re human. For a ten or twelve year old, that guy is pretty cool. The thing is, when you’re sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-five, you realise he’s actually a bit of a dick. That’s kind of how I feel about Heinlein. A lot of bad with the good.

100 words: the slog

You can read TMIAHM as satire, which I hope it is, but later Heinlein books suggest it isn’t. As compelling as the story is, there are pages and pages of political thought, where Heinlein seems to suggest that if a) the world is dangerous enough, that b) everyone would be more polite, and c) we would all sort of agree on right and wrong, d) NO TAXES, e) we’d all get to have sex with feisty women. Who are a bit… flat. Feisty! Intelligent! Equals! But also doing womanly things, like taking a long time in the bathroom. Gets old.

100 words: Overall

TMIAHM is dated, and hard to read. I think Heinlein was being fairly provocative and progressive for his time, which is a fairly damning indictment of America in the post-McCarthy Cold War Space Race. While it doesn’t ever drop to some of the rantings of his later works, it can be hard going. Particularly crazy theses like “I don’t want police, so I don’t want to pay taxes, so no one should”. It’s very “My way or the highway”. Glad I read it when I was 14, but at 41, I wanted to throw it across the room. Several times.

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