Study Guide

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

By Robert Heinlein

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Introduction

Ever stare up at the night sky and wonder what it would be like to live on the Moon? You know, just hopping around and seeing Earth when you crane your head back instead of a glowing white circle. It's been a cool minute since we first landed up there, and it kind of seems like we should be living, working, and vacationing in lunar locations by this point. Or so Robert A. Heinlein seemed to be thinking when he published The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1966.

Though released in the swinging sixties, the story is set in 2075. It follows Mannie, a Luna computer technician, and Mike, Luna's super computer who gains self-awareness. To promote Mike's study of humanity, Mannie attends a Sons of Revolution meeting and accidently becomes entangled in an insurrection when the Lunar Authority crashes the party to arrest the revolutionaries. Oops.

Mannie soon learns that Luna will exhaust its resources in seven years under the existing system, resorting to cannibalism shortly thereafter. Not down with that, he teams up with Mike and rebels Wyoming Knotts and Professor Paz to plan a revolution that will turn Luna into a free state. And the rest, as they say, is future history.

Harsh Mistress gained huge popular after its release. Science fiction fans found the novel's imagining of life on the moon fascinating, and the book was nominated for the 1966 Nebula Award and the 1967 Hugo Award. Although it did not win the Nebula, it did take home the Hugo, making it Heinlein's fourth Hugo win, an achievement not yet surpassed by any other author.

But Harsh Mistress also massed readers outside science fiction circles, too. With its exploration of laissez-faire capitalism, individualism, and insistence of extremely limited government, Heinlein's novel became a fan favorite for the libertarian movement. Other readers, however, have panned the novel for sugarcoating unrestrained capitalism, saying it glosses over such systematic pitfalls as monopolies and labor exploitation. Pretty different takes on the same book, right?

To this day, the novel remains a source of political controversy and has made Heinlein an author both praised and criticized in equal measure. So grab a copy and decide for yourself whether Heinlein is a visionary, a villain, or something in between.

What is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress About and Why Should I Care?

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress isn't really a novel. Sure, it has a plot and characters like a novel, and if novels quacked, it would probably quack, too—but Heinlein's work here reads more like a treatise than a novel true.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress's treatise topic of choice is political philosophy. This book imagines a hypothetical revolution that strives to assert personal freedom over law, banishing all forms of government in favor of individual choice—or, as it is labeled in the novel, "Rational Anarchism."

There's a catch to treatises, though: Only philosophy professors and students really dig these things, and few others think a treatise on electromagnetism or political philosophy make for a relaxing, poolside read. In other words, treatises don't usually hang out at the top of bestseller lists.

In a spoonful of sugar moment, Heinlein genetically spliced his treatise with the DNA of a science fiction novel. For us readers, then, this means we get all the mind-expanding exploration of a political treatise disguised with the engaging character relations, action-packed scenes, and suspenseful intrigue of a novel, helping us think about political philosophy without all the boringness of, well, thinking about political philosophy.

But likely the best reason to care about this novel is provided by Professor Paz in the novel itself. When Prof addresses the new Luna Congress, he asks them to "distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional" (22.39) and not to "reject the idea merely because it seems preposterous—think about it" (22.41). And we argue, dear Shmoopers, that anything granting us the opportunity to think in new and original ways is worth caring about. And if it's a political philosophy treatise dressed up as a sci-fi novel? That just means the medicine goes down that much easier.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Resources

Websites

Ad Honorem Heinleinum
In honor of the author, the Heinlein Society promotes scholarships, blood drives, and educational materials for teachers. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but it seems there are helping hands.

The List-o-Studies
Science Fiction Studies did a survey and found the most widely assigned science fiction books. You'll notice The Moon is a Harsh Mistress sitting pretty at number eighteen. Fun Fact: Shakespeare's The Tempest made its way onto the list.

The Big, the Bold, the Bibliography
The ISFDB gives us the end-all, be-all of Heinlein bibliographies. Don't break your scrolling button looking through all these titles.

The Heinlein ABCs
Need help remembering the whos, whats, wheres, and whens of Heinlein's multiverse of novels? Then we've found the website for you.

Articles and Interviews

Compare and Contrast Revolutions
Donna Williams compares the similarities and differences between Heinlein's lunar rebellion and the one found in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. The spoiler warning is in double effect.

Hugo FTW
Josh Wimmer takes readers on a tour of history's Hugo winners. If you look to your right, you'll see Heinlein's moon, which they say is a harsh mistress.

Rational Whatisit?
David Wright Sr. analyzes Heinlein's concept of Rational Anarchism, a great resource if you're still finding the concept a tad wonky.

Speech
Heinlein's "This I Believe" speech from 1952 as read by his widow, Virginia, when she received NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal for her late husband. She got a standing ovation when she finished.

Best of the 1960s
It's not a VH1 special, but io9's top 1960s science fiction books to read. Care to guess what novel made its way onto the list?

The World of Tomorrow…
… predicted yesterday. Check out Heinlein's predictions for the year 2000 made in 1952. The second item is particularly fascinating for showing just how forward thinking Heinlein was.

Video

Libertarian's Unite
Heinlein gives a lecture at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Wonder why they would want to talk with someone like Heinlein?

Crystal Balls and Space Travel
Heinlein is recognized as one of the prophets of science fiction, along with Mary Shelley, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Audio

The Moon's a Melodious Mistress
Jimmy Webb borrowed the novel's title for this song. Play on; play on.

Cover Me
Norwegian jazz singer Radka Toneff covers the Jimmy Webb song above. Is it one of those rare covers that's better than the original? You decide.

Images

The First of Many
The first edition cover of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It certainly is… um, stark.

Heinlein's Hancock
This cover features Heinlein's signature. Like most signatures, we'll have to take the author's word that it spells his name.

Modern Take
One of the more recent covers hanging around on today's bookstore shelves. For some reason or another, it prominently features the moon. We'll leave it to you to ponder why.

Flying the Colors
The Loonies' very own flag brought to life by fans. These colors sure don't run (and not just because running is super difficult on the Moon).

Big Book; Small Comic
Jason Turner created the hundred-page project, a chance for comic artists to take a snippet from their favorite books and create one-page adaptations of them. Lucky us, Jason Rainey joined Turner to share his take on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Large and in Charge
Gray Morrow's concept art of Mannie is an impressive bit of old-school science fiction artwork awesomeness.