Page by Daniel Pearlstein


Plot Summary

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein, is a science-fiction (or, as he referred to it, speculative-fiction) novel about Luna (a prison colony on the moon), and its revolution headed by a sentient computer. The main character Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis, or simply "Mannie," is a freelance computer mechanic on the moon, and takes pride in the fact that he is not on the payroll of The Authority, the Earth-based (Earth will be referred to from now on as Terra, as it is in the novel) government of Luna. When Mannie discovers Mike’s sentience, he becomes friends with the computer and the reader learns that Mike has been given almost unlimited control over the various systems of Luna, which puts Mike in an excellent position to lead a revolt. Manny's friend and mentor is an eccentric erudite and erratic man known as Professor de la Paz, or simply Prof. The third and final head of the revolution is a woman by the name of Wyoming Knott, or "Wyoh." For a much more extensive plot summary that includes spoilers, click here.

Author Background

Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907-May 8, 1988) was born in Butler, Missouri, but spent his early years in Kansas City, Missouri. As a child, he loved astronomy and learned as much as he could about the subject. When he graduated from high school, the caption in his yearbook said "He thinks in terms of the Fifth dimension, never stopping at the Fourth" (Heinlein, 2004, p. 327). The two greatest influences on his writing were his childhood and his service in the U.S. Navy. Anything else that I could say in this section can be found in the Wikipedia article.


Most of Heinlein's ideas in the book come from Professor de la Paz's eloquent conversations with the other members of the revolution and the congress assembled for the governance of the new free Luna. Notably, the society that emerges out of the revolution does not follow all of the ideas mentioned in the earlier parts of the book.


Many of the characteristics of the society presented are either directly or indirectly related to the lopsided ratio of males to females living on Luna (which has many more males).

Marriage and Family

One of the most striking differences between this society and our own is the difference in marriage customs. The most thoroughly explained arrangement is the so-called "line-marriage." The idea is that two people will marry each other, and then if they both agree, they may decide to propose to a third person, and a fourth, etc. In this way, the family can continue to grow to become very large. This can result in marriages lasting for unheard of amounts of time (Mannie's is supposed to be over 100 years old). This arrangement is well suited to the environment on Luna, as if one or more adults in the family are killed in accidents or die some other way (which is more common on Luna than on Terra), any children will still have several parents left to take care of them. These marriages, because of the much larger number of males than females, usually involve around twice as many males as they do females. There are other types of marriages mentioned, such as the "clan marriage," or the "troika" (which involves three people, but it's not clear how), but there are no detailed descriptions of them.
Unlike the rest of the society, which is very patriarchal in nature, the family is governed by the head wife (in Mannie's family affectionately called Mum), with the head husband serving as a figurehead. Women are always treated with the utmost respect and kindness, and if a man assaults a woman or something like that, he is usually promptly eliminated by other men.


Luna is governed by a Terra-based government called "the Lunar Authority," which, by selling the grain grown on Luna to Terra and not getting very much that is usable in return, is bleeding the moon white, so to speak, of water and nutrients. The head of the Authority is known as the Warden, who stays holed up in the Authority complex virtually all of the time. When he does come out, it's merely for the purpose of greeting important tourists from Terra who arrive on Luna for tours.

Law Enforcement

In this novel, Heinlein lays down his ideas for a utopian society in which there is little in the way of central government and no government law enforcement at all. If a citizen does something that is against the “unwritten laws,” he/she is put on trial by whoever happens to be around and both willing and competent to serve as a judge. A jury is then assembled from whoever else happens to be nearby. The judge then hears cases from the two or more parties involved, listens to the recommendations of the jury members, decides on a verdict and, if necessary, punishments, and then collects his/her fee and everybody is done. This process is gone through once in the course of the book, and takes about 10 minutes to settle out. This process is remarkably fast and efficient compared to our own, but if the judge is corrupt, then it can lead to serious problems.
The punishments range from small fines to large fines to beatings to so-called “eliminations,” which consist of throwing the person to be eliminated out the nearest airlock with no pressure suit. This results in a quick death by explosive decompression, and is the only capital punishment on Luna.


Causes of The Revolution

The economy on Luna is driven by the growth of crops and their sale to Terra. Water is found in the form of pockets of ice under the surface, which are mined and used by the populace and for crops. In the novel, Mike projects that if this arrangement persists, there will be food riots within seven years and cannibalism within nine. This is because with every shipment of grain to Terra, water and nutrients are shipped. Because of the moon's position at the tap of Terra's gravity well, it is cheap to send stuff to Terra, because the cargo only has to escape the relatively weak gravitational pull of Luna, and can coast the rest of the way. Going the other way is much more expensive because cargo has to get out of Terra's comparatively enormous pull. This means that no price that Terra is willing to pay for the grain is high enough, because unless Luna can afford to ship from Terra the grain's mass in water/nutrients, Luna is losing resources. It is for this reason that Professor de la Paz declares that Luna must cut off grain shipments until either Terra decides to send up water/nutrients of equal mass, or Luna becomes independent.

Success of The Revolution

Luna's revolution results in Terra recognizing its independence and Luna ending grain shipments. The revolution largely succeeds for reasons similar to the reasons for which America won its revolutionary war. The absentee government decided that it wasn't worth the necessary effort to put down the revolt, and realized that the only way that the revolt could be effectively put down was by a very expensive full scale invasion of Luna, or by the total annihilation of every Lunar city, which would get them back to square one. A smaller-than-full scale invasion was tried, but was unsuccessful because the Terran troops were unprepared for fighting in the underground warrens that made up Lunar cities. The Lunar resistance was successful mostly because every Loonie had a stake in the outcome, and they are naturally rowdy and territorial people who were used to fending for themselves.


Praise for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, has come from many quarters: Stephen Dawson, a Libertarian, says "I rate his [Heinlein's] best work, though, to be his 1966 rebellion novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (Dawson). He says "This potentially didactic piece is packaged in one of the most concise pieces of prose I have read, and makes a compelling read. Would that all writers could do their job as engagingly as Heinlein" (Dawson, 1998).
Adam Roberts says in his review: "It [
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress] is a utopian satire, and a much more sophisticated text than most readers give it credit" (Roberts, 2002). Though Roberts clearly enjoyed this book, he does raise interesting questions about its credibility. For instance, he says: "He posits a male-female imbalance in Luna society with twice as many men as women, which is perfectly plausible in a penal colony. But from this he extrapolates a society with an exaggerated respect for women . . . In effect Heinlein is saying 'when a commodity is scarce, people compete to share that commodity out as fairly as possible', when experience might suggest that 'when a commodity is scarce, the rich hoard it and the poor do without'" (Roberts, 2002).
He also points out that the loonies can be easily seen as analogous to the Viet Cong. He says:

"We might take this further, a note the many parallels between the 'Loonies' and the Viet-Cong. Heinlein may have been a pro-war signatory on the famous Galaxy double-page Vietnam advertisement, but his sympathetically portrayed, anti-American Loonies, who are essentially farmers, and who live in elaborate tunnel-systems that prove impossible for invading troops to infiltrate, have much in common with the South-Eastern enemy. More to the point, the whole scenario of a war between Earth (a large, populous, technologically-advanced world) and the Moon (a small, technologically-backward nation of farmer struggling for independence) presents a penetrating commentary upon the international events of 1966. Viewed this way, the book becomes strikingly prescient. The Loonies never doubt that Earth, enormously richer and more capable, can beat them in the war, provided that Earthers are prepared to pay the price; but they calculate that the price will be too high" (Roberts, 2002).

This is a very astute observation, and one that is very interesting to ponder because Heinlein was in favor of the Vietnam War but seemed to know that the United States would not win it for the same reasons that Terra failed to squelch the Luna rebellion.


In His Books

For Us, The Living

In Heinlein's first novel, For Us, The Living, which was found and published posthumously, he puts forth a different form of utopia: one in which there is a fairly strong government, but that leaves people to their own devices. The main character is a naval airman named Perry Nelson who in 1939 is involved in a car accident and wakes up in somebody else's body in the year 2086. Much of the rest of the story is also implausible, but the ideas presented make the suspension of disbelief bearable. In this fictional society, there is a very interesting economic system and what amounts to a lecture and demonstration of the flaws of capitalism and the society of 1939 America. The utopian lecture part of this book is very thinly veiled behind a rather uninteresting and not very exciting story (much like in Bellamy's Looking Backward), but the ideas more than make up for it. At the time, however, the ideas too radical and the book was unpublishable.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

In contrast, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an anarchocapitalist lecture entwined with an interesting and engaging story. The ideas are almost as intriguing, but they are expressed much more effectively by this book, partly because the characters have more depth and humanity associated with them, and also because the struggles they face are much closer to home, paralleling the American war for independence. In The Robert Heinlein Interview, Heinlein lays out his personal political views, and they are very similar to those espoused by Professor de la Paz. de la Paz calls himself a "rational anarchist," saying "A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame . . . as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world . . . aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure" (Heinlein, 1966, pp. 83-84).
Starship Troopers
Additionally, in one of his most well known and controversial books, Starship Troopers, he favors a society in which only those people who have served their terms in the armed forces of Earth and her colonies are allowed citizenship and voting rights. He argues that this means that only those who have proven that they are willing to volunteer to sacrifice their lives for the good of the state (pay the ultimate price) can have control over their government (accept the ultimate responsibility). While nonveterans can't vote, they can still become very rich and successful, and most feel that voting isn't worth the personal risks associated with service. He also advocates corporal punishment such as paddling for children and flogging for adults, saying that societies that don't do this are ignoring a survival system that has been perfected by millions of years of evolution.

Outside of His Books

In The Robert Heinlein Interview, nine years after writing The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he says about government: "I would say that my position is not too far from Ayn Rand's; that I would like to see government reduced to no more than internal police and courts, external armed forces -- with the other matters handled otherwise. I'm sick of the way the government sticks its nose into everything, now" (Heinlein, 1999, 114). This is largely reflected in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, except that by the time of the interview, he seems to have re-evaluated his position on police and courts.


Dawson, Stephen. The Vision Thing. Sept. 1998. 6 Mar. 2009 <>.

Heinlein, Robert A. For Us, the Living. New York: Pocket Books, 2004.

- - -. Interview with J. Neil Schulman. The Robert Heinlein Interview. By J. Neil Schulman. Mill Valley, Ca:, Inc, 1999. 1-200.

- - -. Starship Troopers. 1959. New York, NY: Ace, 1987.

Roberts, Adam. "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: SF Masterworks VII." Rev. of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A Heinlein. Infinity Plus. 13 July 2002. 6 Mar. 2009 <>.