The Moon Harshed My Mellow: more of why I love sf/f
Last week I mentioned that Heinlein’s later writing, when compared to his earlier writing, was like a completely different man. That was both true, and misleading. Heinlein’s writing career spanned from the 1940s into the 1990s, and society underwent more than a few changes as to what was allowed in mainstream publications during that time. Through most of the 40s and 50s, for instance, anything remotely sexual was almost completely taboo in fiction, while racial topics could usually only be broached in metaphor. Then there was the legendary John W. Campbell, who edited the magazine Astounding Science Fiction (now known as Analog) from 1937 until his death in 1971. Campbell allowed absolutely no sex in stories he published. Campbell also insisted that humans always be superior to any aliens they met. Campbell seems to have been slightly more racist than the average white american during the 30s—which did not change at all even though he lived through the civil rights movements of the 60s.
Topics that had anything to do with how society treats people of various classes, or how either sexism or sexual relationships determine outcomes in our society were therefore omitted when Heinlein was selling stories to mainstream publishers of any sort in the 40s and most of the 50s or to Campbell. Heinlein also wrote a great deal of short and long fiction specifically for the juvenile market (a lot of the short fiction for Boy’s Life which was aimed squarely at Boy Scouts and their parents), which especially in the 40s and 50s meant leaving all of those topics out.
So in 1961 when Stranger in a Strange Land was published, it more than slightly blew the minds of a lot of Heinlein fans. It centers around the only survivor of a failed mission to Mars—a baby born during the original flight to Mars and has been raised by the Martians. He has strange psychic powers, creates his own church which actually encourages open sexuality, gambling, and addiction. He begins teaching his followers how to do the various psychic things he can do, and before dying sets them on a path to transform the species into superior beings. It comments less than favorably on the most common beliefs of the time regarding religion, sex, money, marriage, and even the fear of death. So it was not only Heinlein’s fans whose minds were blown.
I don’t remember seeing my mom (who was a big Heinlein fan) reading Stranger…, nor is it one of the books that she specifically told me I had to wait until I was older. But based on some of her comments when I did find and read it as a teen-ager (in the mid 1970s) it was clear she had read it and was at least slightly concerned with the topics it covered. Mom wasn’t the only one. One of the associate pastors I knew at the time was convinced that reading anything written by Heinlein after about 1958 would cause a person to become an atheist and a drug addict. So it’s possible Mom’s apprehensions weren’t entirely her own. In any case, she was far too late, because it wasn’t Stranger in a Strange Land that made me harshly begin questioning religion, monogamy, and the nature of intelligence. Heinlein had already done that for me with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
I found Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress on the shelves of the public library in the middle of seventh grade. It was therefore only a few months after John Varley’s “Picnic on the Far Side” had introduced me to the idea that the sci fi community might not be as homophobic as the rest of society. …Harsh Mistress is narrated by Mannie, an inhabitant of one of several lunar colonies who discovers that the main computer has developed self-awareness. He befriends this artificial intelligent and names it “Mike” after Mycroft Holmes. Soon Mike convinces Mannie that the current exploitation of the Lunar colonies (most of which were founded as prisons, and are still run like them, even though there are multiple generations of native born inhabitants, now) will lead to food riots in a few years. Mike creates the fictional leader “Adam Selene” to be the leader of a rebellion against Earth.
The story involves intrigue, action, attempts at diplomacy, arrests, escapes, battles, and eventually the liberation of the moon (the inhabitants declare their independence on July 4, 2076, which is the event that kicks off the actual war). When described this way, it sounds like a fairly ordinary space opera sort of adventure.
But because of an ongoing gender imbalance in the population (because Earth keeps shipping mostly male prisoners to the colonies), several alternative structures of marriage have evolved. Polyandry is common, but so is a multi-generational line marriage, in which the wives control all the finances and make decisions about the families’ property. Mannie thus has several senior husbands and wives who function more like grandparents or aunts and uncles, and other husbands and wives who function socially more as siblings. The actual sexual relationships are less important than maintaining the continuity of the family.
Heinlein wasn’t content to challenge the institutions of justice, marriage, and religion. An important plot point in the story is the incredibly casual attitude that the Lunar inhabitants have about race. Early in the story, when there are still attempts at a diplomatic solution in place, Mannie is arrested under the pretext of being a bigamist, but what really set the judge off was the variety of skin colors in Mannie’s family photo. The fact that it is a polyamorous marriage isn’t what gets people up in arms, but rather that it’s an interracial marriage.
The book is full of lots of other questions about society, and it demonstrates several absurdities of the various ways we currently handle the economy, interpersonal relationships, and justice over the course of the plot. In the end, while the revolution succeeds, the new system of government that the Lunar citizens enact appears doomed to repeat the mistakes of many of the societies before it. A lot of characters that the reader came to love and care about during the story don’t survive to the end. The narrator, Mannie, is poised to relocate to the outer solar system frontier, having become convinced that organized human societies and legal systems are inherently flawed.
There were several ideas the narrator espouses during the course of the book that I disagreed with, but a couple of Heinlein’s notions did completely change the course of my thinking. For one, I came away convinced that the societal idea of marriage, or more specifically, the conservative Christian idea of what a marriage was supposed to be and as the fundamental building block of society was complete hooey. I wasn’t certain that a line marriage such as Mannie’s could actually work, but it gave me a model for imagining how a marriage could be more than just a man who calls all the shots and a woman who takes care of the home.
My other big take-away was that artificial intelligences didn’t always have to fall into the two categories that most sci fi had previously relegated them to: subservient and benign helpers, or the evil architects of humanity’s extinction. To be fair, Asimov’s robot stories had already primed me for this idea, but Heinlein’s super computer took it to a whole new level. An AI was a thinking being just like any other. If it truly was intelligent, it would have to have free will. It could choose to be kind, or it could choose to be vicious.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress opened my mind to many possibilities of what not just the future of mankind could be, but what my future could become. My life didn’t have to be limited to the roles and restrictions spelled out by my family, my church, or society as a whole. I could, like Mike, transcend my origins. I could, like Mannie, embrace love where I found it. Like many of the characters in the book, it might be possible for me to rewrite all the rules. There would be consequences to my decisions, but those decisions ought to be mine to make.
And that was both an incredibly liberating and intimidating epiphany for a 13-year-old, closeted queer kid being raised in a Southern Baptist family.