Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Since this is a book chosen for my book group, this blog entry will be less involved than usual, focusing on a single aspect of the book rather than an overall review.

One of the critiques of Robert Heinlein is that he can be preachy. I generally hear this claim especially about Starship Troopers, which, granted, has a number of monologues by people in authority….like teachers. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein discusses some pretty controversial ideas, a lot of which might be completely new to the reader—a reader that Heinlein saw as a juvenile, since ST was intended for his younger audience, so he spends time building the background to those ideas. Those ideas ask a lot of readers, especially young readers, as they center on issues like patriotism and service. In many ways, Starship Troopers is a primer to Heinlein's ideas about the relationship between the individual and the state.

If Starship Troopers is the primer, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the advanced text. Rarely do the characters in Moon feel as "preachy" as they do in Troopers, but just as much information, if not more, is delivered regarding Heinlein's thoughts on the role of the individual in a society. But in this case, it's practical information, since the main characters of the novel are attempting a coup, releasing the Lunar colony from the oppression of an Earth-based government.

The novel balances a fine line between two competing goals, ones that a lesser writer might find himself lost in; on the one hand Heinlein must describe the culture that has grown up on the moon during its evolution from primarily being a penal colony to a colony of a more traditional sort. At the same time, however, Heinlein must describe the grievances this colony has against its government and then provide a practicum for rebellion. And then, interwoven into this mix, Heinlein also provides an intriguing range of characters including the world's first AI and his best friend. As a result, unlike segments of Troopers which involves students actually sitting in a class and being lectured, the characters in Moon must learn on the fly and the readers' education is more Socratic, based on conversations more than lecture.

It being a Heinlein novel, the characters on the "right" side of the rebellion are profoundly capable, never really placing the outcome in doubt. But of course, the devil is in the details, which provides the most entertainment as the history unfolds. And also, of course, one of Heinlein's strengths is in his character development and interaction—we like the people we meet, almost intuitively, and we enjoy seeing them work together, even if one of them is a computer. The result is a near-painless exploration of ideas that might have been somewhat radical when the book was published, but actually have some bearing on current political conversations in the US today.

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