The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) is a utopian science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein, which tells the story of a former penal colony on the moon that decides to revolt against its terrestrial oppressors. The moon colony, Luna, is considered an example of a libertarian utopia. Throughout the book, Heinlein explores the culture of his imaginary society in the context of revolution and its aftermath.

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Author Background
Plot Summary
Personal Opinion

Author Background

Robert A. Heinlein was born in 1907 in Butler, Missouri. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, before graduating from the United States Naval Academy at the age of 22. He served in the Navy for five years and reached the rank of lieutenant before eventually discharged due to tuberculosis. The theme of the military is present in many of his novels due to this experience. He was married three times: first to Eleanor Curry, for a period of about a year; next to Leslyn MacDonald; and finally to Virginia Gerstenfield. This third marriage lasted until the end of his life.

Heinlein's life was varied and colorful. He once considered getting a graduate degree in physics from UCLA, until deciding to focus on a political career. He was a campaign worker for Upton Sinclair's California gubernatorial bid, and ran for the California State Assembly in 1938. However, after numerous failures in the political arena, Heinlein began writing short stories in order to support himself, beginning with "Life-Line", which first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. At the time, science fiction had a reputation of being low-class and sensationalist. Heinlein did much to change this popular perception of science fiction; his stories were published in many mainstream magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post.

In his youth, Heinlein was a political radical and a well-known socialist. In later life, however, his politics took a turn to the right. He and his wife worked on campaigns for conservative candidates, and many of his later novels, including The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, have a strong libertarian slant. Although Heinlein's critics liked to paint him as an overt racist, many of his most popular novels feature strong minority protagonists.

Robert Heinlein died peacefully in his sleep from heart failure and emphysema in 1988, having written over thirty novels and nearly twice that number of short stories during his lifetime.(11)

Plot Summary

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is set in an underground moon colony known as Luna. For years, governments on Earth have been shipping criminals and political dissidents to the moon; all of the book's major protagonists are either exiles or descendants of them. Earth, which has become severely overpopulated, is dependent on the Moon to ship them cheap grain. In order to ensure that this continued, a coalition of Earth governments formed the Lunar Authority, a proxy government which oppresses and controls the Lunar inhabitants (who call themselves "Loonies"). The focus of the novel is on the Loonies' revolt against Authority and, eventually, against their former masters on Earth.

At the beginning of the book, computer technician Manuel O'Kelly (Manny) is fixing an error with Authority's computer system. It is revealed that this supercomputer, who Manny names Mike, has become sentient; however, Manny is the only human who knows this, and the two become friends. Mike controls most aspects of Luna's government and commerce, although along with self-awareness he developed a strange sense of humor and enjoys playing practical jokes on Authority. In return for Mike's agreeing to cease his practical jokes, Manny goes to a political rally which Mike wanted to know about. At the rally, Manny meets Wyoming Knott, a female political radical from another moon colony. After Authority thugs break in and open fire on the attendees, Manny and Wyoh flee together and go into hiding. Manny introduces her to his old friend Professor Bernardo de la Paz, another radical who had been at the rally, and Mike, who they speak to via phone. Mike calculates the probable future of Luna if the current state of affairs continues, and predicts food riots in less than ten years. Wyoh and the Professor decide that Luna must revolt against Authority. After a bit of convincing, Manny agrees to join their revolt.

Much of the novel deals with the difficult issues involved with planning a revolution. The three original revolutionaries set up a complex structure of three man cells which eventually expands to include thousands. Meanwhile, Mike amuses himself by disrupting Authority communications, making it impossible for them to combat the new organization.

An incident involving Authority soldiers and an unwilling Loonie girl leads to a full-scale revolt, which easily succeeds despite the soldiers' superior weaponry. The new government is actually run by Mike, although the Professor organizes a Congress in order to keep up a facade of democracy and keep his fellow citizens occupied. Manny and the Professor travel to Earth to plead with Earth governments to recognize their new one. However, public opinion turns against them and the two return to Luna. Months later, Earth ships carrying soldiers arrive on Luna to squash the revolt, but they, too, are defeated. In order to prevent Earth from sending any more ships, Manny and Mike decide to attack the planet directly using the only weapon they have: the catapult used to transport grain. Mike's precise targeting system allows them to throw giant rocks wherever they wish, hitting Earth with the force of an atom bomb; the Loonies threaten to hit major cities if the invasion is not ceased.

The rest of the novel focuses on the prolonged and tense conflict between Earth and Luna.


Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis (Manny) - Manny was born on Luna, to parents who were political agitators. He is the only computer technician on Luna, a career he chose after losing his left arm in a laser accident. Manny is a member of a "line marriage", one of Luna's many different kinds of polyamorous relationships. He is not as radical as Wyoh and the Professor, and originally only gets involved in the Revolution because he's a "gambler at heart" who loves long odds. Manny (as evidenced from his name) is Heinlein's idea of his ideal "everyman", a regular guy who works hard to provide for his family. Like many Heinlein heroes, Manny is dark-skinned. He is the narrator of the novel, and speaks in Loonie slang, which uses many Russian loan words and tends to drop articles like "I" and "the".

Wyoming Knott (Wyoh) - Wyoh is a political radical and agitator from the colony Hong Kong Luna, which neighbors the colony in which the story is set. She is described as tall, nearly six feet, with blonde hair. Before eventually joining Manny's line marriage, she had declared herself a Free Woman and made a living as a surrogate mother. Wyoh is an example of the typical female main character in Heinlein's novels; she appears independent and strong-willed, but always defers to Manny and the Professor, and is left behind to "guard the fort" while the two men do the real work on Earth.

Professor Bernardo de la Paz (Prof) - The Professor is a political exile who was shipped to the moon as an adult for his subversive writings. He describes himself as a "rational anarchist", which means he agrees with anarchist ideals but understands that they are impractical in an imperfect world. He is an eager and knowledgeable teacher, and constantly excited about the prospect of revolution.

Mike - Mike is a sentient supercomputer who controls all of the Authority assets and communications, although they do not know of his self-awareness. He was named after Mycroft Holmes, the famous fictional detective's brother. Mike enjoys learning about practical jokes and other types of humor. During the Revolution, Mike adopts the persona of "Adam Selene", a disguise that allows him to communicate with his subordinates without letting them know that he is a computer. Near the end of the novel, the Authority headquarters is bombed by Earth ships and Mike loses his personality and memory, effectively dying.


Although The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is best classified as a utopian novel, it is unique in that the author's idea of a true utopia never materializes. The character of the Professor is often used as a mouthpiece to espouse Heinlein's political views, and indeed at several points in the story he waxes eloquent about his ideals. During the formation of the new Lunar government following the Revolution, Prof gives a speech to the Congress about the folly of taxation, telling them that "there is no worse folly than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him" and that "like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master", quotes often reproduced by supporters of small government today. In line with his libertarian viewpoint, Heinlein values independence, hard work, and intelligent skepticism. Through his descriptions of Lunar society, he seems to argue that, in the absence of external laws, humans naturally default to cooperation. One of the oft-quoted phrases from this book, the acronym TANSTAAFL ("There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch") also incorporates libertarian ideals.

Throughout the novel, Heinlein also explores alternative sexual possibilities. As well as Manny's already mentioned line marriage, the most common form of marriage involves one woman and two men. Due to the natural shortage of women in a penal colony, women supposedly hold enormous power when it comes to choosing relationships. According to Manny, a Loonie woman has but to accuse any man of harming her or being rude to her and every other man present will throw the offender out an airlock. Luna's open-minded attitudes towards these varying types of relationships causes problems when Manny and the Professor visit Earth. Manny is accused of polygamy and thrown in jail, a plot event which is meant to illustrate the wrong-headed and restrictive attitude of Earthlings, who do not value individuality as much as Loonies do. This particular theme of freedom versus outdated concepts of morality is repeated in other Heinlein novels.


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress won multiple awards, including the prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards, given for outstanding science fiction. It is widely regarded as one of Heinlein's best-known and most popular novels, after Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. However, it is not without its critics. Criticism of the novel tends to focus on the strange language it is narrated in (Loonie slang) and the often two-dimensional characterization, as well as the shaky logistics of cost-effectively shipping grain to Earth from the moon. Russ Allbery wrote, "This story can say nothing meaningful about politics since it contains no grey areas ... everyone opposed to our heroes is evil, corrupt, stupid, and incompetent, while mysteriously all the inhabitants of what was a penal colony are polite, courteous, respectful, loyal, and brave." (2) By contrast, Adam Roberts wrote that it is true that the novel's story is but a thin papier-maché for the author's political views, but that it is "the most marvelous wrought papier-maché in literature". Roberts goes on to argue that the novel is an allegory for the Vietnam War, with the Loonies (low-tech farmers who live in tunnels) representing the Viet-Cong, and Earth representing the American aggressors. (8) This is an especially interesting interpretation considering the fact that at this point in his life Heinlein was very conservative and pro-war. Recently, this novel has gained a cult following among members of the modern libertarian movement, as one of the earliest and most obvious classics of libertarian fiction.

Personal Analysis

Unlike other types of novels, most of which strive first and foremost to entertain, books about utopias and dystopias often sacrifice believability of plot or characters for the moral or grand idea on which they have chosen to focus. Many reviews of this book cite these characteristics as flaws that prevent the ideas expressed within it from being more convincingly realized. This allows for a flippant dismissal of, not only this particular book, but also the genre it represents. This attitude, much like that of the skeptical Earthlings Heinlein describes, is close-minded and ultimately incorrect. Whether or not it is realistically possible to throw perfectly aimed rocks from a catapult on the Moon is unimportant; similarly, how rational Wyoh's behavior is has no bearing on the ideals Heinlein is trying to reveal. The idea, here, is the important thing. Heinlein does run into trouble in a few places, however, when he makes the ideals themselves seem nonsensical, such as with the character of Prof, who is a mouthpiece for this philosophy. The Professor describes at length how the cornerstone of his personal philosophy is adapting perfect ideals to an imperfect world. Time after time, though, he refuses to compromise, going so far as to force Mike to run Luna like a dictatorship in order to prevent his "comrades" from making laws he doesn't agree with. According to the author and his self-insert, taxation is wrong, plain and simple, and those too weak to defend themselves are better off dead anyway. Beneath the inspiring surface, there appears to be something seriously disturbing about Heinlein and many of his ideals.

This book is a rare example of a right-wing utopia. There are many supposedly right-wing dystopias (1984 has been described as such, despite Orwell's stated political views), but most modern utopias tend to espouse progressive values and describe a society that is the antithesis of what we consider the conservative right. In her article, "The Moons of LeGuin and Heinlein", Donna Glee Williams compares The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to Ursula K LeGuin's psuedo-utopia, The Dispossessed. (10) Although both Luna and Anarres have an important lack of authoritarian control, the methods and values present in each vary widely. Whereas many utopias look to the future, after humans "grow out" of the faults we see present in our species today, Heinlein is constantly looking backwards. He romanticizes the American Revolution and revolutions in general, going so far as to have Thomas Jefferson be Prof's hero, and to have the Luna Congress send a slightly altered copy of the Declaration of Independence to Earth in response to demands that they accept surrender.

Heinlein obviously values independence, free will, bravery, and other romantic qualities which he bestows on his main characters. Manny does not want to be a hero, but he relunctantly accepts responsibility after realizing that someone must. Interestingly, Manny never kills anyone in the text, despite the author's earlier insistence that swift and lethal punishments are necessary to deter crime and bad behavior. His fellow Loonies "space" people (throw them out an airlock without a suit) for looking the wrong way at a woman, but Manny, the leader of a violent revolution, only knocks a few soldier's heads together. This seems to go against what we know of the author's philosophy, but it does make the main character easier to sympathize with. According to Carol McGuirk, Manny "is actually an everyMan writ heroically large, used to symbolize the extraordinary capabilities of the so-called ordinary human being." (7) Scott Sanders believes that such archetypes diminish the meaning of the individual; that human beings, flawed as they are, are no longer the main focus of science fiction in our times, which weakens the genre's essential impact. (9) In attempting to subvert the societies portrayed in books like 1984 and Brave New World, where ordinary human beings are crushed under the weight of a faceless enemy, Heinlein may have ended up with the same meaning despite writing about the exact opposite. Manny is an impossibly perfect human being who easily triumphs over an anemic and misguided enemy. However, the complete lack of any moral dilemma for him over the course of his revolution diminishes his relatability. The book ends up not celebrating ordinary, flawed humanity, as Heinlein intended, but punishing it for feeling occasionally muddled.


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