The Prometheans: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

From 1978 we skip back to 1966, and to Robert A. Heinlein. The Prometheus Awards, when they were revived in the early 1980s, started giving Hall of Fame awards to past works of libertarian-tinged SF, as well as awards to the best works of the year in question. The first two such Hall of Fame awards were given to The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. We shall be looking at the Rand novel after the next award-winner proper, but right now we shall take a look at the Heinlein, which is by far the better of the two works.

And it is a genuinely good piece of writing. I should make this clear from the start, as we shall be encountering Heinlein a great deal in these essays, and never in a context which is particularly favourable to him. I shall, in fact, be dealing with some of his work with little mercy, because we’re looking here at the politics of these books as well as their literary qualities. And while Heinlein’s politics changed considerably over the course of his life (he was a democratic socialist until he met his third wife. Virginia, who converted him to the doctrinaire libertarianism he later espoused), they very rarely coincided with my own, and often embodied some of the worst aspects of the kind of politics we’re discussing here.

Not only that, but Heinlein himself has become a totem for the very worst people in science fiction fandom. The Rabid and Sad Puppies often made it one of their principal arguments that Heinlein would not win awards today, and that SF needed to return to Heinlein’s values. So I will, time and again, be attacking not only what Heinlein believed but what he has come to symbolise within SF fandom.

Yet it must be made very clear that there was a very good reason for Heinlein’s popularity and influence within the field. Of his generation of SF writers, he was possibly the only one who could be considered to have actual literary aspirations. There were many who came up after him who did so – Arthur C. Clarke and Fred Pohl, for example, are near-contemporaries and better writers – but he was the first person one can consider a real writer to make a career from the SF pulp magazines.

In many ways one can consider him the inventor – or at least the reinventor – of science fiction as a serious genre. While of course many SF writers had written stories that were political allegories or utopias, Heinlein was possibly the first writer to use the genre to talk seriously about the effects of technology on existing, real, societies. From his very first story, “Life Line”, he was writing not so much about the technology itself as about the way corporate and political vested interests reacted to and suppressed the technology. This was an utterly different focus from any that had appeared in SF to that date.

So when I criticise Heinlein, this should be borne in mind – many of his faults really are the faults of his time, not ones confined to the man himself. Many of his works are deeply racist and sexist in unusual ways, but precisely because he was trying to figure out what society would be like without the bigotries of his own age – in rejecting some of the assumptions of his class, race, and gender, and in writing about race and sexuality, he threw the assumptions he did not reject into sharper relief. He was, for a white straight man of his time, progressive on these issues, but anyone holding those views now would be the worst kind of reactionary.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a good example of Heinlein’s middle period, which tends to be the work of his that is most admired by the kind of Libertarians we’re discussing here, but least admired by me. His early work is inventive and comes up with many of the ideas that became the basis of much literary science fiction to this day, while his later work (when for much of the time the blood-flow to his brain was restricted by a blood clot) has an hallucinatory and unfiltered oddness to it that makes it fascinating, if not always actually good.

But his mid-period material, from the late fifties through the early seventies, is didactic and tiresome. Once he was established as the grandmaster of SF, and someone everyone else in the field looked up to, all Heinlein’s worst aspects came to the fore, and his books tended to consist of long speeches by middle-aged male writer characters called things like Hobert A Beinlein, explaining why capitalist libertarianism is the single best political system, why incest is a good thing not a bad one like you think, and why red-headed young women should have sex with older science fiction writers, with the other characters then commenting on how wise, clever, and sexually attractive these older writers are.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is not quite on that level, but it is an explicitly political work, and one which is clearly intended to teach a specific message. In this case, that message is “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”, abbreviated through much of the book as TANSTAAFL and used almost as a mantra. This is meant to be a great political and economic insight – that goods and services have to be paid for by somebody, even if they’re ostensibly free – rather than a fatuous, almost tautological, observation. Of course, for libertarians this observation is considered a good reason not to have the government, rather than to, for example, pay for government services using the “free lunch” money rent-seekers obtain by exploiting natural resources, monopolies granted by the state, or privileges they have inherited, and so examining the notion closely or treating it as a starting point rather than an end-point for analysis would not be in their interests.

It was Heinlein who popularised the phrase (though he didn’t coin it) and Milton Friedman (the right-wing economist who was so popular with Thatcher) was an admirer of Heinlein’s novel and used the maxim frequently himself.

But for those of us who aren’t libertarians, this particular message is so fatuous as to not need any further examination. We know that there are circumstances in which taxation of private wealth to pay for public goods is not only necessary but desirable, and indeed that there are many cases in which that taxation produces an overall increase in wealth, even benefiting those whose wealth has been taken.

But that is, for the most part, the message the book is trying to sell to us. While it’s not devoid of interest on other grounds (it’s written in a language not unlike Burgess’ Nadsat, which is an extraordinarily daring choice for mainstream SF in the mid-sixties), it’s not really a novel so much as a polemic. What plot there is is essentially a rerun of the American Revolution, but set on the moon.

And this is the one real point of interest here. This book is set in a future in which nation states as we understand them are largely obsolete, mostly replaced by continental megastates themselves overseen by the Federated Nations, and in a society whose inhabitants descend from many cultures but whose language and cultural references are largely Russian or Slavic. Yet as soon as one gets into the politics of the revolution, the characters start thinking like eighteenth century American colonists – right down to having their own Boston Tea Party and declaring independence on the fourth of July.

And this is something we will be looking at more as this series of essays progresses, because while the disease has metastasised and become a cancer on the British body politic, Libertarianism of the kind we are discussing is fundamentally an American cultural phenomenon, and is tied into America’s self-image and mythology, and in particular the way in which USians are encouraged to venerate the “founding fathers” and their constitution (along with a big dump of the myths of the old west and the frontier). Over and again one sees a desire to relitigate the arguments between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, always taking Jefferson’s side, and without any acknowledgement that political thought has progressed since the 1770s, and that political ideas are appropriate only to a specific time and place.

So we have a worldview that can encompass Lunar colonies, future nuclear wars, polyamorous marriages, and artificial intelligences plotting revolutions, but hasn’t yet fully grasped the implications of the Enlightenment, let alone any later intellectual movements, while still thinking it understands all the salient facts. A worldview, in short, that can see how science affects society, but can’t imagine that the humanities could ever affect anything. A worldview that can accept a surface-level distinction between cultures, but which nonetheless thinks that they’re all “really” just like America.

It’s one of the great tragedies of SF that Heinlein, who had such an imaginative mind, was so incurious. Had he realised that the humanities and social sciences had anything to teach him, the field – and the world – would be very different today.

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2 Responses to The Prometheans: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

  1. Nick says:

    One thing I’ve found from my experience of American politics is that there’s a certain subset on the right (overlapping but not completely coterminous with libertarians) that regard the Constitution as something akin to Holy Writ and the Founding Fathers as sages whose wisdom was for the ages. I think this is why you often get this ‘American Revolution In Space!’ trope cropping up in SF because there’s a complicated ‘revolutions are bad unless they’re ours’ idea circulating around in there. (Even the left aren’t immune: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Martian revolutions are nasty and messy things, but still end up with everyone sitting down to write a constitution based on separation of powers)

    And slightly related to this, have you read Paul Di Filippo’s story ‘Mairzy Doats’? It’s an alternate history tale where Heinlein was successful in politics and starts shaping the world to his vision.

    • gavinburrows says:

      True. But then I think a reasonable working definition of right wing libertarians is a group of people who believe in the inherent value of freedom, but don’t see that as a reason why it should be applied to other people. And they show the same cognitive dissonance over the Constitution as anything else. It upholds freedom of worship where Christianity is concerned, but that becomes freedom to ban, block and harass other people when it’s Islam.

      I think that’s part of the reason for the rise of the alt.right. They’re the right wing libertarians who have grown tired of pretending there’s something libertarian about them, and figure they might as well just become openly self-serving and prejudiced.

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