The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Robert A. Heinlein
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Cover

Classic, but I still had problems


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an excellent book. I can see why it stands out among Heinlein's novels as well as why it has endured as a popular science fiction novel more than 50 years after its initial publication. The story of the revolution of the Lunar penal colony against its Terran oppressors is compelling on both an intellectual and emotional level. The character of Mike, the sentient computer, is fascinating and still feels original even after it has been copied many times over by other authors.

Lloyd James does amazing narration for the book. I love his voices for Mannie and Mike and his female voices match the pitch and tone that I imagine for those characters (i.e. a bit of a caricature of real people).

I have complex feelings about the book, as I do many books of this era, because of their casual treatment of violence against women. If it were a theme of the book, rather than a scene or two that most people could ignore, I don't believe it would continue to be the classic that it is. And yet, the power of women is a theme of the book. In Heinlein's Lunar colony, the relative rarity of women gives them a different status in society. It's presented as a feminist utopia. Women can choose as many mates as they like and have sex with anyone they want. If someone is bothering them they have the protection of every man. For example, when a tourist dares to hit on a young woman (rather than the other way around) the men around her rage with possessiveness. They very nearly throw the tourist out an air lock, but cooler heads prevail (thanks to the protagonist) and everyone settles for the punishment of the beating they had already administered and a fine. Heinlein seems to think that because anyone who doesn't treat a lady well is put to death, that it is the women in control instead of the men. I can't help but get the feeling that at any time the men could change their mind about how things work and the women would find that they had no power all along. A woman has no choice in being protected and I suspect she has no choice but to be available to men either as a "slot machine type" (Heinlein's phrase) or as a wife. If the men stopped getting the hope of access to a woman they would stop giving the women a choice about the matter.

The other scene where it becomes excruciatingly clear how Heinlein feels about women and their power is when Wyoming, the female protagonist, first meets Professor Bernardo de la Paz. She is in a hotel room with Mannie, the narrating protagonist, and he does something to irritate her. When the professor enters the hotel room, Wyoming jokes that Mannie raped her. Throughout the conversation she reiterates her minor irritation with Mannie by calling him "rapist". Heinlein has written a world where a woman would lie about rape in order to punish a man for a slight against her. In this world the punishment for him is summary death and the punishment for her lie is negligible. This is such common knowledge in the world, that it is a joke to everyone when a woman pretends to exercise this power knowing that it won't be taken seriously this time. It's a threat joke. It's Wyoming telling Mannie that if he ever did get out of line she would have him killed. But it's also a threat joke from Heinlein. He's telling male readers that women in our society fake rapes to get men punished and even in a situation where women already have all the power, they will be petty with it. Though some will argue that he wasn't "meaning to say this, this is how systematic sexism works. Regardless of intent, the harm is still done. It's all so disconnected from the reality of rape and societal power, especially in the 1960s but even true today, that it made me feel sick listening to that scene.

In all, I liked The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, but even reading the book "in context", even with this book being "not as bad" as other Heinlein books when it comes to misogyny, I am reminded of what my place in this imaginary world would be and it taints the fun of escaping into the story.