Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

I've been dabbling in science fiction for a while now, dipping into space opera and campy stuff, spending time with some classics, just generally appreciating it. Hard to explain quite why, except to guess that in response to contemporary crises of ecology and finances and political structures, I'm looking for the kind of thing that it turns out Ursula Le Guin referred to as "thought experiments." Realist fiction gives me a good look at the crisis; poetry, well, it's poetry, so even at its most potent and insightful and trenchant, I'm still always distracted by questions of form; nonfiction makes me either sad or angry, rather than helping me think.

So, science fiction.

Robert A. Heinlein is obviously a classic, a giant in the field. I'm not sure how much of his stuff I've actually read over the years, but certainly a few novels and a bunch of short stories, but he's been off my reading list for more than a decade. Coming back to him through The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress might not be the best option, but whoa, I'm not sure what else I'd want to read, because this book was terrific. (If you're looking to me for advice about Heinlein, you're probably in the wrong place, but welcome anyway!)

Things I liked especially:
  1. the lack of fixity among characters, the way that they change appearances and somehow also essences while remaining themselves
  2. the way that Manny, the main character, so often has no real idea what's going on around him, even though people look to him for direction, and
  3. Heinlein's emphasis on what the lunar environment would mean for people living there.
There's more to it, and more reasons to appreciate this novel, but those are enough for me. I really liked that people didn't expect to remain the same, and that others didn't expect them to stay the same, and yet somehow they remained the same through all their changes (in body, in family allegiance, in politics, and so on). I kept laughing about how often Manny - the narrator and putative protagonist - was kept in the dark by other characters, and about his comfort with being manipulated for positive ends by his friends. (Help yourselves, folks. I won't mind.)

And I was fascinated, above all, by Heinlein's attention to the influence of place and environment on the political and bodily realities of his characters. Air isn't free, if you have to manufacture it; that's obvious, but Heinlein does a great job of demonstrating the impact that this change would have on your relationship with your environment. Bodies work differently at different gravities, too, and they suffer through a raft of complex changes when gravity is either stronger or lighter than a body expects it to be, and again, Heinlein explores all kinds of ways that gravitational pressures make bodies function differently: the even sexier walk that a woman can manage with reduced gravity, differential abilities at hand-to-hand combat, and so on. It's brilliant, it is, and that's even before you get into the political complexity of an off-world non-planetary nation, or the cybernetic philosophizing made manifest in the character (?) of Mike, the super-computer that basically runs Luna.

New books are worth reading, and authors writing now both deserve and need our support.

But the classics ... are classic. We need to read them, because we are poorer intellectually if we fail to do so.


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