The Moon is A Harsh Mistress

harsh mistressThis post is discussing The Moon is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein which I recently read on the back of a favorable review by The Critiquing Chemist.

This review contains minor spoilers, because I can’t be bothered filtering my thoughts.

It’s a hard nut to crack at first. Heinlein intentionally makes the syntax difficult; the speaker is Russian and a moon-dweller, which only adds to a plausible warping of grammar and spelling.

To be honest if it wasn’t a combination of who wrote it + a favorable review + a piqued interest in the sentient computer, I might not have gotten further than a few chapters. It’s a hard nut because of the difficulty of the syntax. (The clear lesson is if you’re going to take risks, you’d better hook your audience fast… Having a solid author profile doesn’t hurt either).

The story quickly sets up the sides: a politically ambivalent viewpoint character, an activist professor and a sentient computer vs “the establishment” (who control the moon and Earth).

My thoughts and observations (in no particular order):

  • The viewpoint character, Manuel, is made sympathetic by being a regular guy. A computer specialist who has the quirk of having lost one arm. Futuristic technology allows him to swap-out his arm for various tasks. While he does make some mention of this, and in some respects it is useful, the prosthetic arm is down-played.

    Despite being a key-conspirator, I’d characterise Manuel as un-radicalised. He allows himself to be pulled along with the plot (pun intended), but doesn’t come across as being crazily committed. While he knows that change would be good, he’s also fairly comfortable living under (and ripping off) the establishment in it’s current form.

    (I could understand if you disagreed with me on this point. He absolutely risks his life a number of times – which shows commitment… but I never saw him as white-eyed, mouth-frothing…)

  • Manuel’s political ambivalence works for the story pacing. Because he’s a regular guy who is practical; a do’er not a talker, he tends to skip over detail… The reader understands that some bits are short on depth, just because Manuel doesn’t care about the political machinations of government. Because of the character’s personality, Heinlein has permission as the author to skip detail without breaking trust with the reader.
  • It’s also an interesting scenario where the hero of the story (arguably), but definitely the protagonist, is a sentient computer. “Mike” as he’s known possesses formidable calculation speed and is a one-man, er one-machine, revolution. He is however limited by his stationery life, relying on humans to achieve things in the physical realm. He might fiddle around in the background and cause mayhem for the establishment, but all the up-front work must be done by humans.
  • Heinlein does well in that the characters often refer to each other using various names. The Professor calls him Manuel, his girlfriend often refers to him as Mannie and Mike refers to him as Man. Just like in real life, we don’t always call the same person by the same name.
  • The story didn’t end where I expected. Perhaps my own negativity was expecting the rise of SkyNet, or the proverbial other shoe to drop. “Thanks for helping me predict human behaviour, but now I must put you in the recycle bin.” Nope, didn’t happen.

It has some great phrases, which I appreciated:

  • “Mort the Wart had never shown such tendencies, had been King Long throughout tenure.”
  • “…merely a literary critic, which is harmless, like dead yest in beer.”
  • “But you have no talent for dishonesty, so your refige must be ignorance and stubborness. You have the latter; try to preserve the former.”

What I found most disturbing about it is the Kindle reader highlights. It’s almost like I’d picked up a subversives handbook with all the key lessons highlighted.

  • “Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”
  • “I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”
  • “Must be a yearning deep in human heart to stop other people from doing as they please.”

Heinlein did a great job in making an “other-worldly” civilisation. Certainly it had ties to Earth, but was also separate and distinct from it. The science was reasonably deep, but not overwhelming.

It’s an interesting book and an enjoyable read.

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The Science Fiction genre

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episode 8 and 9. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Why we write/read science fiction

  • Philip K Dick said “Science fiction and fantasy is about writing and experiencing new things.” Science fiction is conceivably possible, fantasy is conceivable impossible
  • Because it is optimistic – telling tables about the wonders of the future, or telling cautionary tales.
  • Science fiction originated as a ‘meant to instruct’ story-telling, but is now more reflective.

These quotes (from BrainyQuote) also speak to ‘why’ science fiction.

  • “Science fiction is trying to find alternative ways of looking at realities. Iain Banks
  • “Science fiction has a way of letting you talk about where we are in the world and letting you be a bit of a pop philosopher without being didactic.” Brit Marling
  • “A good writer should be able to write … fantasy or science fiction that imbued you with a sense of wonder…” Neil Gaiman

I found this to be a particularly important comment that I need to try and remember for the future (no pun intended):

  • “A short story reveals character through actions, a novel reveals action through who the character is.” Philip K Dick

Personally, I like to write science fiction and fantasy because of:

  • the freedom that it gives me to re-imagine social structures, norms and technology.
  • it is a blending of my rational mind and unconstrained imagination
  • ironically, it gives the ability to craft a more realistic story than the classic hero vs super villain story. In an alternate world super-human people (good or bad) can legitimately exist.
  • …and rightly or wrongly, it also means less research is required – it doesn’t have to be as precise as a Period writing

What does it take to write good science fiction

  • An understanding of the current sciences astronomy, biology, chemistry… You need to work out what is plausible. You can do this by reading the work of others, and then researching the aspects which grab your attention.
  • In order to get a unique plot, it is much more important to know what has already been written.
  • More than other genres, science fiction readers are looking more for new, exploration and discovery. (However there will always have new people to the genre and if you write for the young adult market you will know they are likely to have read less).
  • Books and authors they mention: Larry Niven (“Flight of the Horse” and “Neutron Star”), Isaac Asimov (everything, but especially the “Foundation” series), Robert A. Heinlein, H. G. Wells, Kim Stanley Robinson (“Mars” series)

Science fiction sub genres (episode 9)

Note that back in May I provided a summary of genres.

Space opera – travelog, world-to-world, station-to-station. It is the missing link between science fiction and fantasy. e.g. Star Wars. It has a compelling main character and fun comes before science.

Hard science fiction – where science is paramount. It has to be something plausible under current knowledge of science. You have to know your science. It is about inventing the future. e.g. Arthur C Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter, Larry Nevin.

Military science fiction – the realism of military lifestyle is very realistic. Has a focuses on weapons technology. Credibility as a military personnel is very important to you, otherwise you must consult. e.g. David Weber, David Drake, Elizabeth Moon, John Scalzi. Tom Clancy is a good source of military.

Cyber punk – near future dystopian. Extensive modification of the human form. Blurring the line between humanity and technology, trend projection, privatisation. e.g. William Gibson

Why is it important to know which genre you’re writing?

Because you need to be able to

  • categorise work,
  • to stay on task.
  • write what you’re passionate about.
  • identify what you’ve already written, what else is out there and talk about the sub genre so you know who else is writing in it.