Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I read a lot of science fiction in high school. I was deep into teenage angst, certain that my life was "the worst life ever!!!" and therefore sought escapist literature. Although my homelife was indeed worse than most, entering adulthood, I discovered that one could escape the shackles of a dysfunctional family and establish healthier relationships with other people. I put aside science fiction for more "grown-up" books on history and politics.

When Goodreads offered Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in a giveaway, I entered on a whim. I had read his Stranger in a Strange Land so many years ago that I barely remembered it other than the fact that he was a fabulous writer.

Excellent writing aside, one of the entertaining things about revisiting science fiction written in the 1960’s, is seeing how the writer envisioned life more than a century hence in 2075. The author in this case was surprisingly prescient creating a world where China is a superpower, surrogate motherhood is routine and Artificial Intelligence in computers is possible. Of course, he did get some things terribly wrong. Instead of cell phones, there are landlines with very, very long cords and typewriters instead of printers.

One non-technical detail that was also off was language. In the story, the moon is a penal colony for planet Earth. The convicts sent there are from all over the Earth and should have been speaking different languages. Instead, everyone speaks English. Studies have shown that in the situation where a society is made up of peoples with mutually unintelligible languages, a new language is born composed of words and phrases from all the languages present. I learned that in a linguistics class in the 1970’s although if I recall correctly, the original studies were done the previous decade so the information should have been available to Heinlein.

Science fiction is and was never primarily about technology, however. It is social commentary, positing different cultures and traditions, some improvements and others degenerations of the cultural norms we know. In all cases, the purpose of the story is to allow us to consider issues without the distractions of our own societal rules and laws. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the story of a rebellious colony fighting for independence and the effect of that rebellion on all of the participants including a computer that has "come alive", speaking and acting seemingly like a human being.

Heinlein is pitch perfect. His story, his characters, and their motivations all ring true. The ending is satisfying. I enjoyed this book so much that I want to re-read Stranger in a Strange Land. I’m sure that I will appreciate it much more as an adult than as my former "angst-y" teenage self.

Review copy courtesy of Tom Doherty Associates

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