Once in a Very Harsh Moon
Reading the classics
I have never been a big Heinlein fan. I had an external hard drive named Valentine Michael Smith when I was eleven because I read the first forty or so pages of Stranger in a Strange Land before losing interest, and I loved the name. I loved Have Spacesuit, Will Travel and had my requisite twelve-year-old-boy experience of Starship Troopers, but that’s about the shape of it. If you asked me to list ‘science fiction writers I liked, who I first read before I was 20,” I’d have to burn through a dozen names of Star Trek and Star Wars tie-in authors alone before it occurred to me to list the Dean of Science Fiction—I’m not saying that to be mean, that includes stuff like Peter David’s Vendetta and Q Squared and Margaret Wander Bonanno’s Probe and Zahn’s first Thrawn trilogy, which were all formative. I haunted used bookstores looking for Roger Zelazny novels. I knew there was more Heinlein out there, and that was fine.
I recently read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress for the first time. One reason I did, was that ‘the internet’ had recently been struck by another wave of the “should we read the classics” debate, and Heinlein features largely in those. The “should we read the classics” debate, in its most extreme form, wears me out fast, since there are lots of bad arguments on both sides and I don’t have enough time to suss out the good ones. It’s easy, for example—especially given a certain sort of artistic-progressivist stance common to SF, in which we assume that present or future artistic work ‘builds on’ past work in the way modern theoretical physics ‘builds on,’ say, quantum mechanics or general relativity—to claim that ‘we’ (who’s ‘we’?) don’t need to read the classics because they have been superseded by the obviously more advanced work currently being written. I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s also easy to put forth the claim that the “classics” are the giants upon which the modern field stands, and in failing to read them, ‘we’ (who’s ‘we’?) forget ‘our’ (whose?) roots and repeat work (why is that a problem, exactly?), and so on. I don’t hold with this belief either.
I do like reading classics, though—because you can’t trust people.
Let me unpack that a bit. One of the great sayings about manuscript feedback, which I first heard from Mary Robinette Kowal, is that even a novice reader knows that they like a particular story or book or event in a story—you can trust their reaction on that level. But most don’t know why they like things, or even what it is about those things that they like. For a film comparison: someone might like, say, the Neo / Mr Smith fight in the first Matrix movie, and, when you ask them why, say, because it’s badass. Or even something more specific, like: the fight choreography is so good. But they might miss other necessary underpinning techniques—like, say, the delicacy and care with which the first movie underlines, again and again, Neo’s powerlessness against this class of enemy, the fact that no one has ever beaten an Agent in single combat. Or the camerawork, or the editing, or the shot composition, or subtleties in the acting…
Developing a sensitivity to your own reactions, and to their underlying logic, takes time and practice—critique groups are a good way to do it, but by no means the only way. But that’s a subject for another time. All I’m trying to say here is, when we come to a work with a history of reception, the nature of that reception, the way people talk about the work, does not always have much to do with what’s actually going on there. People have emotional reactions, and when they reach for words to express those reactions, they tend to talk about what other people are talking about. That’s how Proust becomes the madeleine (well, that and the fact that people like to talk about Proust way more than they like to read Proust), that’s how Moby Dick becomes Captain Ahab and the whale “and a bunch of boring whaling chapters” (the whaling chapters are by far the best part of the book), that’s how Hamlet becomes “indecision” (arghffvkaa%$±VVC) and maybe “to be or not to be”, etc. The smile eats the Mona Lisa.
Accepting that ‘canonicity’ is a tricky concept in an ultimately folk-art kind of genre like SF—I do find myself wondering: what’s actually going on, in ‘the classics”? Readers connected with these books deeply enough that they’ve been passed on through a few generations now. To what are they connecting?
When I sat down to read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I had a few Mona-Lisa-Smile impressions as to what I might encounter in this, my first grownup, that is, non-Starship Troopers, non-juvie Heinlein. I expected to meet the stereotype Heinlein Girl, all-curves-no-breaks-and-three-PhDs. I expected righty politics, given Starship Troopers’ whole thing about the military and suffrage and who gets to be a citizen. I expected a bunch of “good ol’ days Science Fiction”—you know, the kind of book where, to borrow a phrase, men were real men, women were real women, and small fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri. I expected work long on strength and math and manhood and short on feelings. Certainly Heinlein gets held up as an idol by some folks—the model for science fiction, or what it used to be, before it got all literary and soft and weak and baroque and, well, you know the list of adjectives, they’re the ones strategically deployed by people who want to sell you a program, or supplements (or, these days, encourage you to subscribe to and watch their seven hundred hours of ad-supported youtube content) about how to not be those things. I expected simple sentences. Hewn from granite. Windowpane prose. Show, don’t tell. And especially show the math. The math must be right. And rocket ships and ladies must be equally pneumatic.
This, to be clear, is the general gist of Heinlein I had gathered from folks who claim the genre would be better if everyone read him—it has seemed to be the sales pitch, even if it was not what I remember liking about Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. It’s also, roughly, the vision of Heinlein put forth by many who dismiss him. I haven’t read a stridently argued separate view, though of course I haven’t read the whole internet.
With that preamble, here follow some interesting, and I’ll admit, contrary, takeaways from a first read of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The plot, for those not familiar, is basically this: Manny, or “Man,” is a computer mechanic on Luna, the moon, which is in this particular future a somewhat self-run prison colony that grows grain for export back to earth. He discovers that the supercomputer which runs most practical stuff on the moon has become sentient, and becomes friends with the computer, teaching it how to tell jokes and so on. Not long after, Manny learns that, if the Lunar prison colony doesn’t stop shipping grain back to Earth and become independent very soon, they’ll run out of food within a decade, and the society he loves will devour itself in riots and civil war. So Manny, his computer, and a couple friends (notably Wyoming Knott, a labor organizer and surrogate mom, and Professor de la Paz, an exiled political dissident) have to save the moon.
Tell, don’t show. A lot more of this book is ‘told,’ that is, related by our narrator Manny, in a breezy and voice-heavy summary, than is ever ‘shown,’ that is, presented in dramatic scenes. Such dramatic scenes as there are, are critical—it’s important that we experience Manny’s anger and humiliation before (what amounts to) the UN Subcommittee for the Management of the Moon firsthand. It’s important that we feel Manny’s shock and fear, and see his gumption, when riot police break up a political meeting and a friend of his gets chopped in half by a laser. But scenes like this, of clear and dramatic action and consequences, are separated by tens if not hundreds of pages of Manny chatting in a lighthearted, funny way about the organizational structure of their revolutionary system, about the kind of pranks and civil disobedience he’s embroiled in. This is a brilliant take on a key problem I’ve heard more-or-less lefty writers bemoan: it’s easy to show Big Heroes Fighting the Evil Guy, and really hard to show massive distributed collective action networks engaging in targeted civil disobedience building to change. That is: if you want to show every damn subcommittee meeting. But if you give the readers a voice they like listening to, they’ll listen to the story of how things come together, and they’ll listen all day long. (Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother uses this technique well.) It’s striking the extent to which this is a novel. The prose isn’t ‘windowpane’ at all in the sense of trying to present a clear picture of dramatic action—it’s not a television screen. It’s textured and rich and load-bearing.
The World Isn’t Hard All Over. Okay so, somehow at some point in the fictional 21st century it’s cheaper to grow wheat underground on the moon than it is to, you know, grow wheat on Earth. We’re not talking value added crop here—the thing the Earth wants, and the only thing, is staple grain. You have to ask: if you can grow wheat in tunnels underground, couldn’t you, you know, do that on Earth? Without the whole “sending people to the moon” thing? You might say, ah, but it’s grown using convict labor and that’s cheaper—though it’s not like plenty of actual 21st century crops aren’t already grown, harvested and prepped using convict labor on Earth without the added expense of sending people to the moon. For that matter, we’re asked, here, to believe in a future Earth with recognizable totalitarian tendencies, that really wants certain people to disappear forever—and for that purpose, it’s willing to pay gobs of money to send them. To the moon. And keep them alive! On the moon! And their children! Forever! What! We could, I’m sure, come up with some wild theories to justify these moves (cheap propellant?), but that’s not how Heinlein does it. He relates the facts of the world to us, in Manny’s charming and self-assured voice, and we don’t question them, until we’re writing essays later. There is, to be sure, some fun trig at one point in the book, as Manny and the Professor are trying to sell Earth nations on the notion of building mountaintop railguns to deliver freight to the moon—but what’s happened there is, Heinlein has presented us with a problem he dreamed up to solve, and a solution he thinks is cool. When he doesn’t want to solve a problem he just doesn’t present it to the reader as a problem.
The Main Character Doesn't Have to Do Much, Really. Manny, our narrator, is a pivotal character—but he’s not the ‘protagonist’ in any formal way. He’s not the one who suffers. He rarely solves any problem by himself. He’s no Haggard-esque adventurer. But he’s a fun guy to talk to, the way you feel, reading Doyle, that Watson is a fun guy to talk to. People like him, and like explaining things to him. I think Manny is intentionally a “camera” for most of the story—he’s a witness and a participant but rarely the principal actor, that is—precisely because Heinlein knows that when it’s timefor Manny to be all alone, and taking action, as he does in a few critical moments especially toward the end of the novel, we’ll be all the more struck by the fact that he doesn’t have any backup, that it’s just our buddy out there in danger.
We don’t need no stinking dramatic choices. This is an extension of a few previous points but I think it bears its own bullet. A lot of writing advice derives from the analysis and criticism of time-linked visual media—drama, say, or television or film. In 2022 I don’t think that’s a bad thing, because the average reader of any book so fortunate as to sell broadly (i.e., outside the market of fine and upstanding folks who subscribe to writers’ newsletters) has likely watched more films and episodes of television than they have read books, and their expectations have been shaped accordingly. For that matter, so have prose writers’ storytelling instincts. (You will, for example, see ‘pipe laying scenes’—expository dialogues explaining some salient feature of the world in the context of character drama—in books, which technically don’t need them. A book can just tell the reader what she needs to know! If the book cares to, of course. Looking at you, Gene Wolfe.) But if you wander through writing advice circles, you’re likely to hear something about how your stories should be dramatic, which means that characters should make dramatic decisions between options that code for the values in narrative tension, like in Casablanca when (spoilers) Rick decides to give Ilsa and Laszlo the travel permits. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of storytelling of course. But the action and tension in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is hardly choice-driven at all, at least not in the dramatic, suspenseful, time-locked what are they going to do nowsense. Manny narrates most of the rebellion in retrospect: we did this, then we did this, then this happened, rather than wasting time with drama. When Heinlein wants a dramatic scene he provides one, but there are only a handful in the novel.
Voice Voice Voice. I’ve talked about Manny’s voice before—his idioms, his word choice, what he chooses to describe and how long he spends on it, his rhythm and his sense of humor and his charisma—but it deserves its own whole entire bullet point, especially since I tend to associate Heinlein booster-ism with a loyalty to “windowpane prose” or whatever. Maybe that’s wrong, because—this ain’t a windowpane. There are regular chunks of untranslated phonetic future space moon Russian slang that you’re just supposed to get them from context. I mean, we’re not reading A Clockwork Orangehere, but the specificity of Manny’s voice, how rooted it is in Luna, lends him a profound authority, so much so that when he presents us with an aspect of Heinlein’s worldbuilding that is obviously mental—apparently women are extremely free and liberated on Luna, and sexual and romantic relations and authority privilege women, because there’s a 2:1 men:women ratio, so all men are competing for women, so they’ll respect them more, because if they don't other men will kill them, because they want to be with the women instead, and respect them, which… I mean… as the lady says, I’m not sure I agree with your police work there—well, anyway, when Manny goes against our common sense, it’s a powerful record scratch. The voice is so compelling and complete that it takes this level of nonsense for us to disagree with it.
Relationships Relationships Relationships. This isn’t a book about lunar revolution so much as it is a book about parenting. Manny raises the universe’s first sentient computer, “Mike.” Mike starts off asking questions about the sky, and what jokes are funny. He (sort of) experiments with its gender (and Manny’s supportive). Mike experiences a political awakening. He becomes a poet, a leader, a prophet. Mike outgrows Manny, in many ways—and he feels that, and we feel it, the pain and the excitement of losing the jokester kid for the politician, for the genius. And in the end, they still work together, to save the world. I said it wasn’t a book about a lunar revolution—but really it is a book about revolution as parenting, about raising a person and raising a society, and losing it. While Manny raises Mike, he’s being raised himself—he becomes a politician through his relationship with Wyoh, and with Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who I haven’t mentioned much at all, and won’t here, because this is already too long, but each of them stand out in their own ways. These people are all dramatically concerned with the fate of Luna, but the book’s particular driving power comes from the ways their fates—moving from isolation to family, from childhood to adulthood, from manhood to seniority, from exile to political power—parallel the growth of Luna herself.
There’s a lot more to write, I hardly talked about Wyoh, and I didn’t get into the ostensible politics of the narrative—but that’s in part because so little of the actual engine of the book comes from its political theory, which needs to be internally consistent in the invented world, and sound cool to an ostensible fourteen year old reader (“everyone’s very polite to everyone else because if you’re not they space murder you”), more than it needs to be complete or accurate or advisable. And that is another essay. But these points have been on my mind for a few months now, and I thought they deserved writing-down. There’s a lot here. It’s not what I expected—and not what I was led to expect. Read whatever you want, for whatever reasons, of course, but if you don’t read books, you run the risk of letting other people read them for you.