The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

The science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, was born on July 7th 1907. Together with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, he was one of the best-known SF writers who were the “big three” of the golden age of hard SF writing that featured accurate and realistic future science. They lifted SF out of its space opera phase of death rays and tentacled aliens, and into works that explored how scientific progress might shape future societies and future attitudes. He was the only one of the three I never met in person, but I am told he was as boyish and optimistic as Asimov and Clarke undoubtedly were.

Heinlein explored social and political ideas, bringing to bear his own libertarian views and his emphasis on self-reliant individuals who were competent enough to stand up to and to deal with whatever fate and circumstance might throw at them.

His libertarian masterpiece, “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” (1966), deals with the rebellion of the lunar colony against the oppressive rules imposed from Earth. The freewheeling and freedom-loving lunar settlers parallel the early American colonists in their own struggle for independence. Its central thread is the close friendship between the human and a lunar computer that has had so many subsystems tacked on that it has achieved consciousness, and with that a personality of its own.

The flag the rebellious colonists adapt features a cannon, with the letters TANSTAAFL superimposed, standing for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” It was a phrase Milton Friedman later adopted. The book regularly features in lists by libertarian and neoliberal thinkers of their recommended top ten reads for would-be acolytes. It helps that it is superbly written and action-packed in and among the thoughtful insights that run through it.

Heinlein at one stage wrote a series of SF books for young adults, with teenage protagonists facing up to and overcoming the challenges of space with the resources of character and self-reliance that his adult heroes exhibited. His “Space Cadet” (1948), has teenagers training in space, and manning the monopoly of destructive weaponry that the world has entrusted to their keeping. Again, resourcefulness and confidence abound as his cadets face their fears and limitations and surmount them. A minor point of interest is that its opening chapter features mobile phones some 45 years before their actual appearance.

In a letter Heinlein described himself. "As for libertarian, I've been one all my life, a radical one. You might use the term 'philosophical anarchist' or 'autarchist' about me, but 'libertarian' is easier to define and fits well enough."

He was fairly radical in his vision of future sexual mores, with group sex, multiple partner marriages, and even incest, making appearances. It was all treated in a laid-back way as nothing remarkable. The same can be said of his imagined future political and social arrangements. He had been ‘liberal’ (i.e. left) in his youthful views, but came to hold that motivated individuals treating each other decently made for a surer societal base than collective action.

Elon Musk says a part of his own inspiration was sparked by Heinlein's books, and of the many honours awarded Heinlein both before and after his death, the one he might have liked best was that the International Astronomical Union named the Heinlein crater on Mars in his honour in 1994.