Thoughts on Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

by Jason Voegele

I came into my reading of Robert Heinlein's novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, with rather high expectations. Heinlein's esteemed reputation in the science fiction field is by itself justification to garner such exceedingly high expectations. Aside from this though, I've heard from many sources that this is Heinlein's masterpiece, better even than his world-famous (although I think somewhat overrated) Stranger in a Strange Land. In fact it was even voted to be the greatest of all sf books to ever win the hugo award, beating out Frank Herbert's Dune, the aforementioned Stranger, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, respectively. Hmm. Seems to me that Heinlein has beat out some pretty stiff competition. (As to the reputability of the voting audience, it is rather varied. Harlan Ellison did very well in the short story category, winning three of the top five positions in that area, and Daniel Keye's also took a top prize. But also among the top vote-getters were Anne McCaffrey and Isaac Asimov. But I digress.)

After reading the novel, however, I think it fails to live up to such an honor, and is, I believe, the inferior of the works of the other author's mentioned. Not that it was a bad book, really. Heinlein has done a masterful job of showing us how a revolution such as he describes might actually take place, and on this level I think the book is thoroughly believable and works very well. His technical descriptions of life on the moon and the AI known as Mike show that Heinlein knows his stuff as far as science and, to a certain extent, sociology are concerned. All this leads to a book that is both enjoyable and thought provoking. Why, then, my disappointment? Well, if you look at those other books which Heinlein's book beat out in the ballot (disregarding Stranger), they are books that are filled with humanity. They have something to say about people, both as individuals and societies. They are, indeed, what we might call literature, or at least attempts at literature: what we might call serious fiction. You can probably understand now why I came away from the book a little disappointed. I went in expecting a true piece of art (for how else could it be said to be better than, say, Le Guin's novel?) and came out with the realization that this is nothing more than a good book (what a shame!). It does have a few fresh insights, but nothing as far as symbolism or depth of characterization that we see in the other works. It is what we might call popular fiction. All in all, it was an enjoyable book, but not what I would call the greatest sf novel ever.