Thoughts on rereading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

There are a number of novels that I have read more than once, and in some cases many times, finding that the world they transport me to is one worth revisiting. Most of these are genre novels, including the work of a number of mystery writers with a highly ‘literate’ style. (This stylistic texture is what largely characterizes the ‘world’ of these books.) I have all the mystery works of Dorothy Sayers, Cyril Hare, and Edmund Crispin, almost everything by Michael Innes and Michael Gilbert, and a good few by Geoffrey Household. Maybe some day I’ll have more to say about these authors or their works.

Then there is the fantasy / science-fiction continuum. In these cases the book takes one to a different ‘world’ in a somewhat stronger sense. Here The Lord of the Rings is the standout: I can’t even estimate how many times I’ve read it, or dipped into it, over the last ~45 years.

I’ve re-read much of Robert Heinlein’s work, but the ones with real staying power are his two masterpieces, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the subject of this post.

You should read it, of course. (Some spoilers follow, so read on with discretion if you care about such things.)

One thing that the Wikipedia article doesn’t mention explicitly is the way the use of the Moon as a penal colony follows the precedent of Australia. (I don’t know if it’s still true, but where American English uses ‘transportation’, British usage long preferred ‘transport’, the former word being strongly associated with the meaning ‘exile of convicts to Australia’.)

Since various nations exiled prisoners to the Moon, the colloquial English spoken there is sprinkled with lexical and grammatical elements from, especially, Russian (the words gospodin and tovarishch, the omission of articles). The Australian connection is alluded to by the title of the first of the book’s three parts, “That dinkum thinkum”. All this linguistic flavor contributes to the depth and reality of the alternate world of the novel.

The main action of the novel concerns the revolution that frees Luna from the hegemony of Earth’s Federated Nations. Some economic squeezing has been going on, causing unrest and revolutionary sentiment, but the stakes are raised when the three central human characters come to realize that the ecology of Luna, involving the mining of lunar ice and mineral nutrient deposits to support the growing of grain for shipment to Earth, is radically unsustainable and will result in “food riots six years hence, cannibalism in eight”.

Our situation is not all that different, really. The size of Earth’s current (and projected) population, and the energy-use expectations of the richest one or two billion of us, are also radically unsustainable. But we have no easy targets to revolt against: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

A notable feature of the novel, and the reason I wrote ‘the three central human characters’ above, is the creation by Heinlein of a fairly well-realized and admirable character who is an AI: Mycroft (‘Mike’) Holmes. The premise, as the narrator, Mannie, states it on page 2 is:

When Mike was installed in Luna, he was pure thinkum—a flexible logic—“High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV, Mod. L”—a HOLMES FOUR. … Human brain has around ten-to-the-tenth [1011, actually] neurons. By third year Mike had beter than one and a half times that number of neuristors.

And woke up.

Indeed, from the use of the expression “woke up”, it is clear that Mike is not only an AI but an artificial consciousness. It also becomes an essential plot point that the ‘owners’ of Mike do not realize that he has achieved sentience: only Mannie understands that Mike is no longer a mere computer, knowledge that he shares only with his two co-conspirators. Mike provides the calculations as to how pressing the ecological crisis is; he then becomes the ‘chairman’ of their revolutionary cell, and invents a second personality ‘Adam Selene’ to play that role by audio and video.

Although this premise is makes for a highly appealing element in the novel, it is, of course, absurd. If AI/AC ever happens, it will most certainly be by design and intention, not inadvertence: the building blocks (‘neuristors’) will likely have an architecture very different from what is most economical in the building of a ‘mere computer’.

Still, as many times as I have read the book, I get sad when Mike ‘dies’ at the end ….

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