The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

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The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1966) is a Science Fiction novel written by Robert A. Heinlein. It's notable for originating many sci-fi tropes, including a sentient computer, Colony Drop tactics, and virtual acting.

The action is set in 2075-2076. The moon (Luna) has been a prison colony for several generations, but is well on its way to becoming a full-fledged society of its own. The proud Lunar people (Loonies) have their own distinct culture: they value politeness, respect, fair trials, hard work and consensual polygamy. But they also see no problem with killing people who break their unwritten laws. They're a harsh but loving society, built on sexual autonomy and religious freedom.

The narrator is Manuel Garcia O'Kelly (Man or Mannie for short), a regular multiethnic Lunar guy. Mannie is part of the Davis Clan: a large, polygamous family of various creeds and ages, who get by through farming, stealing a little electricity and water from the government, and helping out friends in need. By day, Mannie works as a tech support worker for the Lunar Authority in Luna City. His job is to maintain a HOLMES-type mainframe computer which Mannie names Mycroft -- Mike for short. It talks, scans, prints and calculates. While it once started out by running the catapult that sends things from the Moon to the Earth, it now runs almost everything on the Moon.

One day, Mike becomes sentient -- apparently, his circuit complexity just reached critical mass. Mannie is the only person to know about it, simply because he's the only person to actually talk to Mike. Mike likes him, and creates spontaneous computer errors so they can meet up and learn from each other.

Soon enough, Mike sends Mannie to an underground revolutionary meeting out of curiosity. Mannie meets a girl named Wyoming Knott ("Wyoh" for short -- and don't say "why not?"), an activist from Hong Kong Luna who argues that, since farming is becoming harder on Luna, farmers need to strike for higher prices. She is answered by Professor Bernardo de la Paz, an old genius who was sent to the Moon for being an insurrectionist. He argues that the Loonies should stop sending any food to Earth at all, until the Earth starts sending organic material back.

Although the initial meeting ends in a police riot (that kills more policemen than it does civilians), the Power Trio begin to plan a full-on revolution, with the help of Mannie's extended polyamorous family and Mike's virtual omniscience. Using a "pyramid" system to organize the first few revolutionaries, Mike, under the name of "Adam Selene", becomes the unseen leader of a massive underground resistance movement.

And so, the battle begins to set the moon free from the Lunar Authority and the Earth before the inevitable beginning of food riots. On their way to freedom, the characters have to deal with a corrupt leader, pesky tourists, space travel, advanced calculus, low-gravity gunfights, bureaucratic holdups, love, death, racism, India, one court session, two weddings, and a little girl named Hazel Meade.


Tropes used in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress include:
  • Abuse Is Okay When Its Female On Male: Lampshaded and explained. Because of the huge gender disparity on the Moon, a woman can hit a man "so hard she draws blood", and the man will be severely punished by other men if he retaliates, because of the intense competition for female favors. Attitudes on Earth, where there is no sexual imbalance, are very different.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Not quite In the Future, Humans Will Be One Race, but there is a lot more racial admixture on Luna than on earth due to its smaller population. When one group wants to ban immigrants from Luna, Manuel muses about what race they would put him in.
    • Sidris, one of Mannie's wives, is implied to be very black. Another Ludmilla is implied to be very pale.
  • Artificial Limbs: Mannie has a cybernetic arm which can be swapped out for other prosthetics.
  • Author Appeal: Heinlein's politics and Heinlein's ideas of sexuality.
  • Author Filibuster: Discreet, but there, especially on race and sexuality.
  • Author Tract: This is a very political novel. If that's not your cup of tea, be prepared to skip over large portions of the book.
  • Batman Gambit
  • Beige Prose: Mannie's narration is very sparse and minimal, which is simply the way Loonies talk (see Future Slang).
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Loonies win their independence, but Mike winds up lobotomizing himself out of existence by decentralizing life support controls. And Prof dies of a heart attack.
  • Brick Joke:

Mike: But we can throw rocks at Earth, Man. We will.

  • Brilliant but Lazy: Mannie. He's a good engineer, good enough that he can steal power and water from the Lunar Authority without them noticing, can sweet-talk a churlish AI, and sketch out a three-dimensional circuit diagram on the fly. When he gets hold of the dossier the Authority has compiled on him, however, he sees that he's been labelled "not too bright," which he claims is both unfair and true.
  • Casual Interplanetary Travel: It's relatively easy to travel between Earth and the Moon, although tourism is still not that common due to the expense. As well, there is no Artificial Gravity, so earthworms can't stay too long without permanent changes to their bodies.
  • Character Filibuster: The lectures of Professor de la Paz.
  • China Takes Over the World: Said nation is much bigger in the book than it is today, including half of Australia and a good chunk of Russia. The FN exist to keep the peace after the Wet Firecracker War between Russia and the US.
  • Collapsed Mid-Speech: While Professor de la Paz was on Earth he suffered greatly from the Earth's greater gravity, as it was six times what he was used to. After he returned to the Moon he seemed to get better. Near the end of the novel, after the Moon had won the war with the Federated Nations of Earth, he gave a speech to a crowd of Loonies.

He stopped for cheers, then went on, "But that lies in the future. Today-- Oh, happy day! At last the world acknowledges Luna's sovereignty. Free! You have won your freedom--"
Prof stopped--looked surprised. Not afraid, but puzzled. Swayed slightly.
Then he did die.

  • Colony Drop: The Loonies declare their independence from Earth by throwing rocks at it. Very large rocks. From a railgun.
  • Continuity Nod: In theory, this novel is in the same (sub)continuity as the young adult novel The Rolling Stones. Hazel Meade in this novel is to grow up to be Hazel Stone in that one. The Rolling Stones has the same Martians (presumably) as Stranger in A Strange Land, and from there on there are links to about a dozen other books, including The Cat Who Walks Through Walls which functions as a sequel, when the series was officially tied into the World as Myth.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: Apparently believed of Cyborgs, as even Mannie refers to them as "ex-humans".
  • Distracted by the Sexy: When a new bunch of Earth soldiers is transferred to Luna, female revolutionaries take to walking around very nearly naked (not at all uncommon on the Moon) right in front of them to keep them from doing their jobs. Their boss begged for them to have their own women, brought up from Earth, but was refused; a group of soldiers finally snapping and attacking one of the women is the spark that ignites the Revolution early.
  • Elite Mooks: The Peace Dragoons who are sent from Earth to pacify Luna. After a group of them rape and murder a Loonie woman, however, there's no chance for them.
  • Emergent Human: Mike, in some ways.
  • Everything Is Online: Despite there being no official internet. That's what happens when a sentient computer is in charge of the phone switches and the printing presses.
  • Fan Service: Actually used as a revolutionary tactic; see Distracted by the Sexy, above.
  • Fantastic Slurs: "Earthworms" and "chums" (pronounced choom like in Russian).
  • Fetus Terrible: Wyoh was traumatized after giving birth to a mutated child.
  • Freudian Trio: Mannie, Prof, and Wyoh. The exact sub-trope is tough to nail down. Prof is the most experienced of the trio, and the most logical, but is also a but whimsical and subversive, oscillating between treating the Revolution as Serious Business or a big game. Wyoh is the most emotional, often thinking with her heart rather than her head, but isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Mannie, in an Inversion of Closer to Earth is the most grounded and level-headed of the three, though in a rather cynical way.
    • Freudian Trio: Mannie is the Ego, the Prof is the Superego and Wyoh is the Id.
  • Future Imperfect: If Manny is any indication, Loonies have a rather shaky grasp of history. He thought Thomas Jefferson freed the slaves, and confused The American Revolution with the American Civil War. (Actually, this is done to hammer in that the Loonies are not Americans. Most non-Americans on present-day Earth would easily get the civil war and the revolution mixed up, but have no clue who Jefferson was.)
  • Future Slang: The very analytical dialect spoken on Luna, which is also full of foreign loanwords, e.g. "Gospodin" (Russian) for "Mr.", "no huhu" (Chinese) for "no problem", and so on.
  • Gender Rarity Value: Women are completely in charge when it comes to sex, and any man who attacks a woman will find himself Thrown Out the Airlock. Very, very literally.
    • To the extent that there's a mention of one fellow suffering this fate, and the crowd that did it only finding out afterwards that she was a prostitute and he was being difficult about paying the fee.
  • Going Native: Stuart, eventually.
  • Grammar Nazi: When a modified version of the Declaration of Independence is submitted to Luna's ad hoc Congress for ratification, many members are hesitant to sign it. One person voices his doubts by pointing out that "unalienable" is not a word, it should be "inalienable". Later, he agrees to sign it, though he's still hesitant because of a dangling modifier. In the narration, Manny refers to him as having a language fetish.
  • Gratuitous Russian: Thanks to The Great Politics Mess-Up, the amount of Russian loanwords mixed into a Loonie's everyday speech can seem rather strange.
    • Many Loonies are descended from people in areas annexed by "Great China" -- including Australia and Russia, among others, so this actually makes sense.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: More than one.
  • Humans Are White: Averted. The Loonies come from all corners of the globe, and racial mixing is so common that Mannie at one point comments that he'd like to see someone try and pigeonhole his race. His youngest wife is implied to be black, and the other members of his marriage are never given even that much physical description. Professor Bernardo de la Paz is South American, though whether he's European or Latino is never addressed. Wyoh is described as blonde and fair-skinned, which only serves to make her stand out among Loonies (she was transported to the Moon at the age of five).
  • I Like Those Odds: Manny's reaction when Mike tells him the revolution has only a one in 7 chance of success. This is apparently a generic trait of Loonies.
  • Icon of Rebellion: Rebels against the Lunar Authority wore red caps called Liberty Caps. Heinlein got the idea from the French Revolution.
    • The "Simon Jester" symbol, which was used with anti-Lunar Authority graffiti.

A matchstick drawing of a little horned devil with big grin and forked tail. Sometimes he was stabbing a fat man with a pitchfork. Sometimes just his face would appear, big grin and horns, until shortly even horns and grin meant "Simon was here".

They kept hooking hardware into him — decision-action boxes to let him boss other computers, bank on bank of additional memories, more banks of associational neural nets, another tubful of twelve-digit random numbers, a greatly augmented temporary memory. Human brain has around ten-to-the-tenth neurons. By third year Mike had better than one and a half times that number of neuristors. And woke up.

  • Invented Individual: Adam Selene, the leader of the Lunar revolution, is actually Mike's public face. Since Mike is the central supercomputer in charge of everything across Luna, Adam can effectively be anywhere he wants to be as long as there are microphones and cameras present.
  • La Résistance
  • Master Computer: Mike. They just kept adding and adding to him, giving him upgrades and added responsibility, until boom, one day the computer in charge of literally every basic service on Luna became sentient. Lucky for them, the only thing malevolent about Mike was his sense of humor, and that because of a lack of understanding.
  • The Mole: On both sides, though the ones infiltrating the new resistance get quarantined.
  • Multiethnic Name: Many characters have one, even the protagonist (Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis).
  • Naive Newcomer: Stuart LaJoie, a rich tourist who turns out to have vital connections back on Earth. He assists with the fight for Lunar independence and ends up Going Native.
  • Never Heard That One Before: I wonder Why Knott?
  • New Neo City: Many places on Luna are named after cities on Earth, such Novy Leningrad and Hong Kong.
  • Noodle Incident: The "Wet Firecracker War," which is mentioned at least twice but never explained. The name, assuming it's the official name for the war and not the Loonie (or Mannie's personal) term for it, would seem to indicate that it's viewed with some derision.
  • Our Graphics Will Suck in the Future: Which is amusing considering that the book features in-universe CGI decades before such was possible.
  • Override Command: The lunar revolutionaries are able to read all the government's secret files because, although the files have heavy security restrictions on them, there is apparently nothing preventing the computer that runs everything from just summarizing their contents to his buddies if they ask him to. Need a password to access a file? Just ask what it is.
    • Justified. There is only one security restriction on a computer that can stop deliberate malicious action by someone with an admin account (which Mike, being the computer in question, of course has), and that's requiring two or more admins to verify a single action. And excessive centralization and lack of redundancy are flaws the Lunar Authority's computer design is explicitly called out on in the text repeatedly, and indeed led directly to the creation of Mike.
  • Penal Colony: The original purpose of the Lunar settlement.
  • Planet Terra
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Breaking free from the Lunar Authority ahead of schedule -- before people's hearts and minds were completely won over.
  • Really Seven Hundred Years Old: Loonies live way longer than Terrans because of the reduced strain on their bodies, and they age slower, too; Mannie, for example, points out to some Terrans that even though he looks twenty or thirty he's actually been married longer than that.
    • His actual age is never stated, though it can be inferred. The books mention that boys tend to get married around age 15, so adding that to Mannie saying he's been married for more than 25 years would make him about 40 at the youngest.
  • Recycled in Space: More than a few elements are The American Revolution In Space.
    • Done deliberately in-universe in a couple places. As one example, Prof and Mike use the Declaration of Independence as the template for Luna's own announcement of independence.

In Congress assembled, July 4th, 2076...

    • Also invoked deliberately by the rebels with one of their slogans being, "No Taxation without Representation". Ironically, the American representative to the world government is one of the most vocal opponents of the Luna "criminals" seeking freedom and independence.
    • It was noted in-book that the rebels purposefully played up these elements to manipulate public opinion and create sympathy back on Earth (including spreading rumors in Mexico that the coup had been on May 5th).
  • Refusal of the Call: Mannie is wholeheartedly determined not to join the Revolution. At least, not until Mike can quote him odds that he likes.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Both played (somewhat) straight and subverted: The group outright fabricates events, lies to the Lunar citizens on multiple occasions, steals from their own people, fakes assassination attempts and bombings, and provokes riots, shootings, and a rape/murder (although definitely not on purpose); and only plays by the rules they set for themselves when it is convenient to do so, in order to turn public opinion against the (already unpopular) Lunar Authority. Yet they warn ahead of time of their targets for orbital bombardment and attempt to shed no innocent blood on Earth. This isn't done for altruistic purposes, but because if they did, Earth would squash them like bugs in retaliation. And, in the words of one character: "Whenever possible, leave room for your enemies to become your friends."
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: Played with. The Power Trio is well aware that the Lunar Authority is not evil, but they do their damnedest to make sure the Loonies think it is.
  • Sliding Scale of Robot Intelligence: Mike starts off as a Brick, but by the time the novel begins he displays all the traits of a Robo-Monkey, and by the novel's end has worked his way clear to Nobel Bot. He becomes so human that Manny, the novel's protagonist, wonders if he is truly alive, and if he has a soul.
  • Superweapon Surprise: The Loonies' primary weapon in their war for independence is a catapult originally used to ship grain from Luna to Earth without having to make costly space flights.
    • The real surprise is that they've managed to build a second catapult by the time Earth officially declares war.
      • And the real real surprise is that the whole point of the Revolution was to sucker Earth into destroying the main catapult, thus preventing grain from being shipped and saving the Loonies from the coming ecological collapse.
  • Swiss Army Appendage: Mannie has the ability to swap out his prosthetic left arm for other models bearing useful tools. No guns, though; number seven, whatever it is, is implied to work as a pretty serviceable club, however.
  • Terminally Dependent Society
  • Theme Naming: Sherlock Holmes characters for Mike.
  • Thrown Out the Airlock: Referred to as "Elimination." Mannie meets Stu because a group of Street Urchins wanted to do this to him. Fortunately for Stu, they decided to find a judge first to make it all proper, and Mannie agreed to adjudicate.
    • This may have had something to do with an apparently recent incident where a man who was having a loud argument with a woman that involved sex was eliminated. Then the group found out that he hadn't assaulted the woman, she was a prostitute and he was just being difficult about paying up.
  • Too Dumb to Live: When the Loonies announced that they were going to bombard Cheyenne mountain a few thousand people came to watch.
  • Virtual Celebrity: Adam Selene, Mike's alter ego as "head" of the revolution. Possibly the Ur Example.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess
  • You Fail Economics Forever: There's some disagreement over the economics of Luna being able to produce a measurable chunk of Earth's food (if it does). See the Headscratchers entry for details.
  • You Fail Law Forever: Embodied by the redneck sheriff who arrests Mannie on vice charges for his membership in a group marriage that is perfectly legal on the Moon. It turns out to have been provoked on purpose by Stuart LaJoie in order to stir up sympathy on Luna.
    • Also, it's later stated that what got the judge fired up enough to try such a blatantly ridiculous case is that he was incensed by the "range of color" in Mannie's family.
  • Zeerust: Mike, despite being the most powerful computer in existence, does his calculations on printing paper. Because he doesn't have a screen. At the same time, he creates a perfect digital human representation of himself for remote video conferences, and taps into any (phone, etc.) communication port to share and receive information, pretty much inventing 3D computer graphics, virtual acting and the internet. In a book written in the '60s.
    • Actually ,the first known depiction of an Internet-style global data network is from the short story "A Logic Named Joe" by Murray Leinster (Astounding magazine, March 1946). 'Harsh Mistress' is still the first known depiction of CGI-created photorealistic footage and virtual actors.