Friday, October 21, 2016

Volumes- The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

Volume Book Cafe, the new joint in Wicker Park, has been killing it with events—I really liked their recent talks & readings by Fran Wilde & Ada Palmer—and they've also started a science fiction book club. I joined them last month for a discussion of Heinlein's 1966 classic, "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress".

The novel, written before the Moon landings, envisions Lunar penal colonies that have developed into their own cultures, rather like Australia. With the assistance of newly-awakened AI, a group of "Loonies" decide to lead the colonists in declaring their independence from Earth.

It remains a very readable novel, and a very influential one, albeit one with problems both glaring and covert. Discussion notes and possible spoilers below:

Two things struck me on re-reading this that I had completely forgotten in the many interverning years, and the rest of the group commented one these points, too. The first is the style—our narrator, Manny, and many of the other Loonies talk in a sort of broad caricature of Russian-influenced English, frequenly omitting articles and pronouns and interjecting odd bits of phonetic Russian. It's startling because it's consistent throughout the book, and also kind of disappears as you read, despite being such a big affectation. Really interesting stylistic choice on Heinlein's part, and made me think of "Nadsat" in Burgess's "A Clockwork Orange" (1962).

The other thing! Whew, gotta say this one loud: this book is sexist. I haven't reread any Heinlein novels in quite a while, and so haven't had to think about that aspect of his fiction. But dang. Pervasive, unavoidable. There's some casual racism here, but it's nothing on the the sexist attitudes. Have to kind of acknowledge and bracket that to continue to talk about this.

That aside! We also talked about how this book always comes up in terms of revolutionary or libertarian SF, which is apt, but rarely in conversations about AI. In many ways, TMIAHM (not to be confused with TM&A) is all about Mike, the Lunar AI who springs into being and enables the rest of the story. We talked a bit about Heinlein being influenced by Marvin Minsky (some Minskian humor as well as computational ideas here), and how interesting it is to see an AI represented as fundamentally likable and basically amoral, rather than as godlike or demonic.

We did to
We did also have to note that Mike's emergence (a strong, human-like AI in the classic sense) is pretty ludicrous, and also that he's kind of a magic wand, because without Mike none of the political shenanigans work. We noted that his amoral nature means that things would have gone totally differently if he'd just woken up around someone else (talked about "Red Son", the Superman alt-history where he landed in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas) and also noted that Mike is the invisible hand personified.

Because yeah, let's talk politics! In many ways, the best way to describe "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is "Ayn Rand, but readable". The political ideas here, when you think about them, are just as morally repugnant and practically unfeasible, but this a much snappier read than "Atlas Shrugged" (1957) etc. We noted the shout-out to John Galt here, as well.

A couple other little references, as well—the Scarlet Pimpernel, quite a few Holmes references. (Odd note but I feel like references to Mycroft—Mike's namesake—are proliferating, having Palmer's "Too Like the Lightning" on my brain, and also Kowal's "Ghost Talkers"). And lots of American Revolution-era thinkers and players, Jeffersonian rational anarchy, references to the Swamp Fox, and more.

We talked a bit about science-fictional takes on revolution and independence before and after this, noting some similarities in the Lunar Colonies of PKD's "Time Out of Joint" (1959) and the politics and revolutions of Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe. I also found myself thinking a lot about KSR's work—the Mars trilogy and "2312" for different takes on extraterrestrial independence and political systems.

We also had a fairly lengthy comparison/contrast with Herbert's "Dune" (1965—though pretty close in composition/publication date, and with a shared interest in political experimentation, they're wildly different in tone and focus. In contrast to Herbert's ecological consciousness (or,to be anachronistic, KSR's aesthetic appreciation of Mars & other planets), Heinlein here is strikingly landscape-less. There's zero discussion or description of the Moon and its cities. It's not that he doesn't do setting well, he just doesn't do it all.

Not so with characters, and we talked for a bit about the core cast, kind of groaning about Wye Knott (which is like sub-Bond-girl punny), noting the Heinlein-stand-in Professor, and comparing Manny's prostheses to "Ghost in the Shell".

We were more interested in some of the social concepts than anything else, particularly the line marriages. Fascinating idea but we kind of wanted to know more about them to figure out how much we're skeeved out by them—seems to be skirting incest & pedophilia depending on how you read it. But we did like the idea of a village-esque system to make sure children are taken care of, as well as the idea of the line-family as this kind of repository of diplomatic, community-based wisdom, while also noting that it sort of stands as a hypocritical rebuke to the larger anarcho-libertarian capitalism championed as the ideal social system.

Also must note: we really like "bog" for some reason, and noted its cult status, kind of like "grok".

Fun discussion, and good to read this even with all its problems—interesting to see the extent of its influence, and also to think about Heinlein generally as encapsulating the best and worst of old-school SF. I also strongly suggested checking out McDonald's "Luna: New Moon" (2015), which is a direct reply to Heinlein half a century later, spelling out a richly-detailed and far more indicting vision of a capitalist lunar anarchy-cum-oligarchy. KSR's "2312" (2012) also seems like it's taking up a lot of the same issues—interplanetary freedom, novel family arrangements, rogue AIs, small extraterrestrial civilizations dealing with Earth. And we also noted previous replies to Heinlein, like Haldeman's "The Forever War" (1974) as a reply to "Starship Troopers" (1959), and VerHoeven's film adaption of "Troopers" (1997) as a brilliant subversion of the original text (just makes the fascism recognizable).

Volumes has been doing a ton of cool events—there's a local author event with Mary Robinette Kowal, Wesley Chu, and Dan Wells coming up, and they're also hosting the newly-announced Chicago Review of Books Awards. Their next SF meeting is Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale", November 3rd.

No comments:

Post a Comment