Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein are considered by many to be the defining triumvirate of early science fiction. While the three of them, together, pushed the use of science and technology beyond their earlier status as mere narrative devices to a level on which they could set the parameters for high-minded thought experiments, Heinlein has always been somewhat of an outlier. He was, after all, the only one of the three with no formal scientific training. It is perhaps this fundamental truth about him, that writing was his primary concern and vocation, that enables him to cut to the heart of human truths in ways his contemporaries sometimes couldn’t. Nowhere is this fact better on display than in his magnum opus, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).
When Heinlein’s sci-fi classic opens with a supercomputer (HOLMES IV — affectionately dubbed ‘Mike’ after Sherlock’s brother Mycroft — who essentially manages the technical infrastructure of a 21st Century moon colony) becoming self aware, it almost functions as a sort of bait and switch. Where Asimov would likely have dwelled on the destructive capabilities of a sentient supercomputer, Heinlein opts for a less alarmist route, depicting the supercomputer’s budding friendship with protagonist Mannie and its eventual support of the colonists’ efforts. In this way, we know right from the beginning that we are faced with a unique piece of writing.What follows is a depiction of this moon colony's (populated with the undesirables from Earth) attempt to overthrow the Lunar Authority that keeps them locked in a mercantile system on the road to starvation and death. Broadly, the action unfolds like that of the American Revolution (a parallel so pronounced and so conscious that Heinlein has the ‘Loonies’ secede on July 4, 2076, the tricentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence), with the colonists eventually fending off Earth’s attempt to reclaim their home.
While the action is harrowing, much of the book’s staying power has come from its concurrent examination (common to works like Friday (1982) and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)) of Heinlein’s libertarian, bordering on Randian, philosophy. The society in which the Loonies live resembles the Old West more than it does the 13 colonies and, as such, is mired in talk of self reliance and a wariness (not unwarranted) of government intervention.
The reader gets the sense that individuals, for Heinlein, make up the only building blocks a society needs, and adding a cumbersome government infrastructure would only be a hindrance to a functional society. But unlike Ayn Rand, for instance, Heinlein’s book does not go so far as to advocate libertarianism, per se.
Instead, it treats the politically ideal lunar society as a kind of pre-lapsarian state. The principal characters lament the fact that, post-revolution, the moon ends up with a somewhat bureaucratic government, but they do so with a sense of resignation. A less than ideal government structure is the necessary human response to the Loonies’ crisis. That, ultimately, is what separates Heinlein’s writing from that is his peers: his ability to show us the inescapable humanity of technologically advanced futures.