I started reading Robert A Heinlein when I found his ‘juveniles’ in our local branch library’s Junior section. Farmer in the Sky, Tunnel in the Sky, Red Planet and so on. There were also a couple of books by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke in there, ideal reading now that my appetite for SF had been whetted by Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO and other 70s television offerings. But there weren’t that many of them. In fact, about a year before I went to secondary school, it was apparent to me and the nice lady librarians that I’d read pretty much everything in the Junior section, many of the books multiple times. This posed a problem because I wouldn’t be issued tickets for the Adult section until I went to secondary school, according to the rules.
A good librarian knows when a rule is more of a guideline. We came to a gentlewoman’s agreement that I would be allowed into the Adult section to read SF. After all, if books by Heinlein et al were in the Juniors, that would be perfectly safe, wouldn’t it? Clearly none of them had ever read I Will Fear No Evil… Well, I certainly found that an eye-opening introduction to just how different the world could look from inside someone else’s head.
But of all the Heinlein I read, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the book that’s stayed with me. It was my first introduction to a writer using historical events as a basis for a science fiction novel. I soon spotted the parallels with the American Revolution/War of Independence and the Russian Revolution. The mentions of a radically different political situation on Earth fascinated me. I liked the depth and substance added by the digressions and discussions about self-determination, passive resistance and how to organise a subversive network in secure cells. All of which took place in a world where everything has be to paid for; air, water, food. Where people dig their homes out of the moonrock and live in all manner of family structures which weren’t happening in Dorset in the 70s. Or at least, if they were, I didn’t know about it. A dangerous world and not just because vacuum and radiation can kill you. It’s a world where blinkered thinking and selfish greed driving those in unearned authority prompts brutal opposition that leaves no room for compromise. Even the language this story was told in had its intriguing peculiarities. So much of what I’ve loved about recent SF reads, from Ian McDonald’s Luna, to Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden books, can be traced back to this story.
Forty or so years later, I realise this was where I first encountered all sorts of things that were solidly SF back then and are now part of real life. Virtual reality, as fake personalities are constructed from pixels within a computer to further the revolution and protect those really behind it. Think how close to such realism our computer games have become. Surrogacy. The notion of Wyoh, the professional host mother was astonishing to me as a teenager. Now? That would hardly raise an eyebrow, though there might be some medical concerns.
Which prompts further thoughts on Heinlein’s attitudes to women and their roles in society in this particular novel. He’s so often accused of being a reactionary, right-wing writer these days. Really? I’m not convinced there’s over-much evidence here. Yes, in many ways, it’s a book of its time, but not in the way that those who want to excuse old-fashioned misogyny use that phrase so often. This moon is also a racially integrated society, let’s not forget. Which isn’t to say that elsewhere in Heinlein’s books, his attitudes and ideas can be problematic, all the more so where his writing disappears down the rabbit hole of his personal obsessions. All of which leads me to conclude that it’s both difficult and dangerous to make sweeping statements about one author’s entire body of writing, especially when that work extends over decades. (And sees me extremely keen to read Farah Mendlesohn’s forthcoming work on Heinlein)
Then there’s Mike, the dinkum thinkum. The AI by accident. The computer who becomes self aware as more and more processing power is added on to his mainframe in haphazard fashion. Who decides what he really wants to know is what makes something funny. Who wants a friend. A benign artificial intelligence. So different from the eerie menace of HAL or the impersonal functionality of Star Trek’s computer. I loved Mike. I still long for some such discovery in a computer lab somewhere…