The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein (27/107)


I’m always apprehensive when I pick up a book and all the blurbs are effusing about how Important this book or this writer was — not about how good it is. Oh gawd, I think to myself. Strap your asses in, noobs, it’s time for Literature.

Except Heinlein is good, with all the big ideas that make science fiction powerful and relevant, but he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that no one cares if there aren’t people involved, and accordingly, his world is strongly filtered through the personalities of his viewpoint characters.

In this book it’s a computer engineer living on the moon, who talks like a Russian and has the unlikely name of Manuel Garcia O’Kelly, because Heinlein likes the idea of cultural blending in his futures. The moon is a territory of earth that was created as a prison colony and has since become a vital grain supplier to help earth’s overpopulation. Manuel falls in with some revolutionaries almost by accident, and together with a bored and lonely (but mostly bored) AI, they engineer a revolution.

And “engineer” is the word for it, because they’re not just waiting to see what happens and responding to events as they come up; they have their game plan from the start and are nurturing it as carefully as the con in Ocean’s 11. It’s fascinating in it’s own right, like any sort of caper plot, and great fun when seen through Manuel’s dry humor.

I like Heinlein’s lunar society & culture a lot; it feels very plausible, in a genre where a lot of other futuristic human societies come off as gimmicky and one-note. Most of Luna’s residents are not actually prisoners anymore (Manuel himself is a third-generation Loonie, as they’re called), but they share the anti-authoritarian culture and DON’T WANT GUVVERMINT ALL UP IN MY BUSINESS that you’d expect from a partial prison colony. No one’s very enthusiastic about being subject to overlords from earth, but at the same time, no one’s filled with revolutionary fervor either, because what are you going to do about it, right? Throw rocks at them? Not to mention that Loonies don’t have a lot in the way of patriotism, since every resident or their ancestor was at one point an unwilling transportee.

Let’s talk about polyamory!

Other people have mentioned the polyamory in TMIAHM, a subject I’m always chary of in scifi because it tends to get played as (1) titillation (dude has a harem! and all his ladies are perfectly happy and not-jealous about being one of his many ladies!) or (2) author politics bleeding through (“Look how awesome and perfect polyamory is! See, everyone would be happier doing it this way!”)

In this case it’s neither, and Heinlein does a very deft job showing that it’s both a logical outgrowth of his world — being a partial prison colony and still drawing a large percentage of its population growth from (unwilling) immigrants rather than births, Luna is a society where men outnumber women 2:1 (a ratio that’s been as high as 10:1, historically) — and making it plausible from a human perspective. A “line marriage” on Luna, what Manuel has, is a multi-generation family group much like the ones that have existed throughout human history, except men and women are not paired off in sexually exclusive couples, and men tend to outnumber women.

I’ve got nothing against polyamory. (To use the phrase — I have friends who are. Frankly, monogamy doesn’t work for a lot of people, and the sooner they figure that out and start finding other accommodations, the happier everyone is going to be.) But it does seem to have a higher failure rate than monogamy, if for no other reason than that every new person added to the mix complicates things exponentially. That said, the places where it runs into trouble are where polyamory comes up against the expectations and values that even the most poly-minded person has had pounded into them since childhood… so what if those were missing?

What if you didn’t have society telling you that love and marriage was exclusive to two, or that you should feel threatened by the thought of sharing your spouse? Jealousy is the fear of losing what you have, so if marriages were agglutinative, would you necessarily feel jealous if your spouse expressed an interest in bringing another person into the marriage? If romance were not a zero-sum game? (Which is not to say that jealousy wouldn’t exist — Manuel mentions that one of his wives is always jealous of women who are not in the family — but no one feels threatened by affection divided among other family members.)

It’s not a harem, for men or women, and Manuel endorses the system because it works for his family and he has a happy home life, but there are other characters who feel differently and you don’t get the sense that Heinlein is privileging one opinion over another.

Because that’s not his style.

Much like with Starship Troopers, a liberal person reading Heinlein isn’t going to get a confirmation of their beliefs, but it doesn’t chafe the way clumsily-written politicized fiction does. Again, he seems like a person you could sit down and have an intelligent conversation with, because he’s not approaching it dogmatically at all, it’s more like, “When I look at society, this is what I see, and this is one idea that I think might work.” He has an excellent grasp of human nature, both individually and in groups, and maybe things wouldn’t work out the way he predicts, but the points he makes are worth taking into consideration, no matter what you believe.

(And despite writing in the sixties, with sixties-era sexism in the water, he still beats the pants off most modern male authors when it comes to writing women with agency and individuality.)

***

In other news: Judge Dredd! Why had no one told me about this movie before? It’s the scifi-action movie that would be made in a parallel universe in which there is no sexism. It was on the strength of Hello Tailor‘s recommendation that I watched it, and I was not disappointed.

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