When I was a kid, I wasn’t a fan of sci-fi books. I found them dense, poorly written, and full of stuff I didn’t care about. I liked sci-fi for the fantasy element–people going to strange places to have interesting adventures. Sure, science was cool but I didn’t want it to get in the way of awesome people doing cool things. Most of my sci-fi exposure was through movies like Star Wars and TV like Star Trek, neither of which let scientific implausibility get in the way of the story.
Remember, this was before the Internet, where hundreds of boards exist filled with people who can’t wait to tell you a great sci-fi book to read or Amazon with its recommendation engine ready to tell you that “Other customers who enjoyed this also enjoyed…” I had a small circle of friends with whom I shared relatively few out of the mainstream tastes and the occasional BBS to dial into containing literature far more concerned with the Illuminati and illicit copies of the Anarchist’s Cookbook.
So, needless to say that all of this conspired to keep me from reading Heinlein until recently. And even that was a fluke. A friend of my girlfriend’s took a risk and bought The Moon is a Harsh Mistress for me hoping that I might like it based on what I’d told him about the URS storyworld. It sat collecting dust for maybe two years and then, last week, I ran out of other stuff to read and picked it up, not having the scratch right now to go out and get the new Alex Delaware novel at the moment.
At first, my reaction wasn’t much different than with a lot of sci-fi I’d tried to read. The narrator, a moon resident with the improbable name of Manuel O’Keefe Davis, spoke in a kind of lingo that must have been peculiar to those who lived there, a species of mishmash with halting sentences and a vaguely Russian hint to it, describing what his average work day was as a computer technician. “Ugh,” thought I. “I’ll give it twenty pages.”
But something clicked in my head and soon I was reading it with a terrible Russian accent and the lingo faded into the background. Then I was introduced to Mycroft, “Mike” to his only friend, the moon’s super computer that had accidentally become sentient. He had started as a targeting computer for the catapult that sent grain from the moon’s underground farms back to Earth but, as people do, they began attaching more components to him and assigning him more responsibility until, after achieving a sort of mechanical evolutionary complexity, he awoke.
I was hooked. And that was before the book even got into its central story, one of achieving political freedom for the former penal colony of Earth.
“Hmm…,” I thought when it started getting into the thick of it. “This is vaguely familiar…”
Yeah, it wasn’t just vaguely familiar, it was totally familiar.
I’m not saying this in any way to compare myself to Heinlein but we basically both did the same thing. We went back to events we wanted to use as source material and based our works on that. The major difference though, is that even though I’d never read him until now, I don’t think anyone can work in the sci-fi genre and not be inspired by Heinlein because whatever your inspiration was, was undoubtedly inspired by Heinlein at some point.
He basically hit all the points that I want to achieve with the URS storyworld: a story about freedom, about independence, about war, about politics, and eventually how, despite all that, people end up making the same mistakes again and again. Of course, he did it in a relatively concise, extremely well written book. But his characters were strong and believable and carried the whole plot while, at the same time, exploring some of the more hard science aspects of what life on the moon might be.
I could go on and on but there’s not much of a point. Heinlein is a master of the science-fiction genre, if not the master. And The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a perfect example why. It may have been written in the 60’s, which means some of the dates read as hopeful today, but the story and the science and the setting remains just as relevant today, if not more so, than it was then. Even the technology, where a computer is expected to take up an entire room, doesn’t really feel at all dated because of the way it fits into the story.
But, most of all, despite everything else Heinlein wanted to accomplish with the book, explore a basically libertarian society, what the true cost of freedom might actually be, and how humans might one day live on the moon, he never once sacrificed his characters or their actions in service of those things. He knew the secret that I feel some authors never do–write about what you want, but don’t ask readers to come along if it isn’t fun.
For everything else that happened in the book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was fun.