#ANewChapter: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

It is a tale of revolution, of the rebellion of the former Lunar penal colony against the Lunar Authority that controls it from Earth. It is the tale of the disparate people—a computer technician, a vigorous young female agitator, and an elderly academic—who become the rebel movement’s leaders. And it is the story of Mike, the supercomputer whose sentience is known only to this inner circle, and who for reasons of his own is committed to the revolution’s ultimate success.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is one of the high points of modern science fiction, a novel bursting with politics, humanity, passion, innovative technical speculation, and a firm belief in the pursuit of human freedom.

In reading all the 1940s-1960s novels for #ANewChapter, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress took me by surprise in just how contemporary it felt. Unlike I, Robot or 2001: A Space Odyssey, which puzzle through the possible repercussions of technological advancements without ever really considering how human behavior itself might change, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress takes its “what if” (“what if there was a penal colony on the Moon?”) and carries its resulting effects through to just about every possible aspect of human behavior: language, clothing, relationships, attitudes about gender and race, currency, economics, politics… the list goes on.

Although the book has its weaknesses—such as the self-insert character who’s mostly there to explain why Heinlein’s political beliefs are the best ones—it largely manages to surpass them through its better qualities. Mannie’s narrative voice is energetic and engaging, a regular guy sucked into leading a moon revolution by being in the wrong place at the wrong time (and by being a supercomputer’s best friend). The world of Luna is a fascinatingly detailed one, slowly unfolded across the book as more and more of Mannie’s life comes into view. The novel also provides exacting-but-understandable discussions of physics and mathematics, for the hard sci-fi fans among you. Overall, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress offers a clear look at why Heinlein was considered a pioneer of the genre and why his books left a lasting mark.

Discussion questions below the cut!

For Educators

Discussion Questions: PDF | Word Document

Reading Quiz: PDF of Quiz | PDF of Quiz Answers | Word Document

Discussion Questions

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Question 1

Science fiction is often split into two main categories: hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. Robert A. Heinlein is considered a pioneer in hard sci-fi because he heavily emphasized accuracy and detail in his stories when it came to physics, math, and other “hard sciences.” However, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress also established Heinlein as a leader in soft sci-fi, since the novel examines how a Lunar penal colony would change society when it comes to politics, psychology, language, and other areas of the “soft sciences.”

  • Consider the level of detail with which Heinlein describes each step of the Lunar revolution. As a reader, did you feel he gave the right amount of detail for hard sci-fi topics, such as how Mike functions, the revolution’s math-based organizational structure, and the physics of throwing rocks at Earth? How about soft sci-fi topics, such as the social organization of Lunar families, the propaganda used to turn Loonies into revolutionaries, and societal beliefs like TANSTAAFL? What level of detail do you think was necessary in order for Heinlein’s story to work?
  • If forced to choose, would you call The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress hard sci-fi or soft sci-fi? Feel free to compare the novel against other science fiction books you’ve read in order to justify your answer.

Question 2

Published in 1966, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress set itself apart from other sci-fi books of the time by having its sci-fi premise affect every part of society, including language. Mannie speaks using a creole, which is a new language with its own vocabulary and grammar formed from the mixing of different languages over a short period of time.

  • Based on the way Mannie speaks and the vocabulary he uses, what different languages do you think helped create this Lunar creole? What do the grammar and vocabulary of Lunar creole tell you about Lunar society?
  • Did you find Lunar creole difficult to understand, either initially or throughout the book? Did you notice any particular strategies Heinlein used as a writer to make it possible for you to understand Mannie? Can you think of any additional ways he could have made it easier for you to understand Mannie?

Question 3

Science fiction scholar Gary Westfahl stated, “Heinlein is a problematic case for feminists; on the one hand, his works often feature strong female characters and vigorous statements that women are equal to or even superior to men; but these characters and statements often reflect hopelessly stereotypical attitudes about typical female attributes.”

  • Consider various female characters in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, such as Wyoh, Mum, Sidris, Ludmilla, and Hazel. How are these women characterized? Are they individuals with their own interests and goals or are they defined entirely by their relationships to male characters? Do they have power of any kind or are they powerless?
  • In what ways do you see these female characters supporting a feminist viewpoint—specifically, the belief that all genders should be recognized and treated equally in all areas of life?
  • In what ways do you see these female characters working against that feminist viewpoint? In what ways do these characters and the world of Luna “reflect hopelessly stereotypical attitudes” regarding women and femininity?

Question 4

Philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler created the concept of gender performativity, which argues that gendered behaviors are not a natural occurrence that we inherit biologically. Instead, we perform specific actions and behave in certain ways in order to express a particular gender (female, male, or nonbinary). We also police our own gender performance and the gender performances of others in order to support our society’s ideas about gender, defining what certain genders are by controlling which actions and behaviors we connect to those genders.

Near the end of Chapter 4, when Wyoh asks Mike his gender, Mike decides “he could be either one.” From then on, when interacting one-on-one with Wyoh, the computer identifies as Michelle and performs a female gender. When interacting with anyone else, the computer identifies as Mike and performs a male gender.

  • According to the text, what actions and behaviors does Michelle use to perform a female gender? What actions and behaviors does Mike use to perform a male gender?
  • On the one hand, Wyoh’s questions about the computer’s gender and her encouragement for Michelle/Mike to identify as both female and male can be seen as supporting what we might call a genderfluid or genderqueer identity. On the other hand, Wyoh’s argument that “Mike is a she” based on which jokes the computer finds funny can be seen as gender policing—trying to force Mike to fit into certain societal expectations of gender. How do you yourself see Wyoh’s actions here? Are her actions positive or negative?
  • By including a nonbinary character, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress could be seen as a surprisingly forward-thinking novel for 1966. However, the nonbinary character is a computer, not a human being. Additionally, aside from this first establishing scene, we almost never see Michelle’s female gender performance for the rest of the novel. Do you think Mike “counts” as a nonbinary character? Why or why not? If someone was looking for a book with strong nonbinary representation, would you suggest The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress? Why or why not?

Question 5

When Mannie explains Lunar culture regarding women to LaJoie, he says, “… aren’t enough to go around—that makes them most valuable thing in Luna, more precious than ice or air, as men without women don’t care whether they stay alive or not. Except a Cyborg, if you regard him as a man, which I don’t.”

  • Consider Mannie’s definition of a “man,” based on this quote. Who does he include in his definition? Who doesn’t he include?
  • When discussing how easy it is for Lunar women to find husbands, Mannie says, “… even homely ones could get husband or six. (Correction: Are no homely women. Some more beautiful than others.)” Based on this quote, what do Lunar men consider valuable about women? What do Lunar men not consider valuable about women? What kinds of women would have no value at all, according to Lunar men?
  • When Wyoh describes becoming a host-mother, she states, “That’s when I started living, Mannie; I studied politics and economics and history and learned to speak in public and turned out to have a flair for organization. It’s satisfying work … Only—Well, it would be nice to have a husband to come home to … if he didn’t mind that I was sterile.” Based on this quote, what does Wyoh see as valuable about herself? What does she see other people valuing about her?
  • Consider Wyoh’s story over the course of the novel. What role does she play in the Lunar revolution? What is her “happy ending”? What does that “happy ending” suggest Wyoh needed at the beginning of the novel and has now found?

Question 6

Although the book is set in the year 2075, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was published in 1966, near the end of the civil rights movement in the United States. When discussing North America in 2075, Mannie states, “Is mixed-up place … they care about skin color—by making point of how they don’t care. First trip I was always too light or too dark, and somehow blamed either way, or was always being expected to take stand on things I have no opinions on. … Think I prefer a place as openly racist as India…”

  • Consider the United States today and the way different people who live there talk about race. Do you agree with Mannie’s description? Why or why not? Feel free to use examples from your own life to explain your answer.
  • Why do you think Mannie prefers an “openly racist” country as opposed to one that pretends not to be racist?
  • Heinlein painted his portrait of a future Earth based on the Earth he knew in 1966. How do you think this portrait might change if Heinlein were writing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress today? Explain your answer.

Question 7

Heinlein’s writing typically features the “competent hero” character archetype: a strong-willed and confident person with an extremely wide range of life experiences and skills. The competent hero may face obstacles but never gives up and will eventually overcome them.

  • Which characters in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress fit into the competent hero archetype?
  • Do you find the competent hero archetype to be a realistic character type? Why or why not?
  • Do you personally find the competent hero archetype satisfying as a reader? Why or why not?
  • The Mary Sue character archetype describes a young woman who is inexplicably competent in every situation, liked by most other characters, and unrealistically free of weaknesses or flaws. To call a character a “Mary Sue” is usually an insult that suggests poor writing and an unbelievable character. Although the Mary Sue archetype can also apply to male characters, people rarely point out or complain about male examples of this archetype.

    What do you think makes the difference between the competent hero archetype and the Mary Sue archetype? You might consider character traits, story genre, author identity, and audience.

Question 8

In Chapter 1, Mannie says, “Am not going to argue whether a machine can ‘really’ be alive, ‘really’ be self-aware.”

  • Would you consider Mike to be alive? Why or why not?
  • When giving Mike instructions, Mannie states, “… was safer to use Loglan. If you spoke English, results might be whimsical; multi-valued nature of English gave option circuits too much leeway.” Do you think this problem is unique to Mike as a computer? Or do you think humans also have this problem?

Question 9

In discussing Mike’s role in the revolution, Mannie states, “… no human being can be trusted with anything—but Mike could be trusted with everything.” Do you think the revolution is only possible because of Mike’s participation? Why or why not?

Question 10

Describing the Loonies’ situation at the beginning of the novel, Mannie states, “That we were slaves I had known all my life—and nothing could be done about it. True, we weren’t bought and sold—but as long as Authority held monopoly over what we had to have and what we could sell to buy it, we were slaves.”

  • Do you agree with Mannie’s statement? Why or why not?
  • Consider the convicts who are shipped up to Luna, never able to return to Earth. Some of these convicts must also do forced labor. Would you consider these people to be enslaved?
  • How do you personally define an enslaved person?

Question 11

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress seems to celebrate the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson, as seen in the Loonies’ use of the Declaration of Independence, which Prof describes as “the most beautiful rhetoric ever written.” 

  • Pretend that Thomas Jefferson is writing the Declaration of Independence for the first time today. Do you consider the first two paragraphs of this document to be true and relevant in our current world? Use examples from the Declaration to support your answer.
  • Do you feel it was appropriate for the Loonies to reuse the Declaration of Independence or do you think they should have crafted their own document? Explain your answer.
  • In regards to Thomas Jefferson, Mannie states, “Freed slaves, nyet?” to which Prof responds, “One might say he tried but failed.” Prof is likely referring to Jefferson’s support for gradual emancipation and his description of slavery as a “moral evil.” However, Jefferson was mostly silent on the issue of slavery during his presidency and he himself enslaved approximately 600 people over the course of his lifetime, never freeing most of them.

    When reading, we need to be able to separate the beliefs of specific characters from the beliefs of the author. Sometimes the two things are one and the same, but other times they are very different. In this case, do you think Prof’s words express only Prof’s beliefs? Or do they also express Heinlein’s beliefs? How can you tell?

Question 12

The main characters of the novel do not hesitate when it comes to spreading lies in order to gain support for their Lunar revolution.

  • Do you feel the characters are justified in lying? Why or why not?
  • Prof is adamant that there be “no coercion,” stating, “… we will continue with persuasion, not force.” However, coercion is typically considered a form of persuasion, one that uses force or fear to influence a person’s actions. Do you think the main characters’ lies count as coercion? 
  • At one point, Prof asks Wyoh, “Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?” Wyoh doesn’t give an answer, but what would you tell him?

Question 13

Heinlein considered himself a libertarian throughout his life, supporting a political philosophy which prioritizes individual freedom. The Libertarian Party in the United States lists the following core beliefs:

Libertarians support maximum liberty in both personal and economic matters. We advocate a much smaller government; one that is limited to protecting individuals from coercion and violence. Libertarians tend to embrace individual responsibility, oppose government bureaucracy and taxes, promote private charity, support the free market, practice tolerance of different ideal conceptions of the good life, and defend civil liberties.

  • Which characters do you see supporting libertarian beliefs in the novel? Provide examples from the text.
  • Which characters do you see not supporting libertarian beliefs in the novel? Provide examples from the text.
  • In Chapter 22, when Prof speaks to the Congressmen regarding the new constitution, he says, “Comrades, I beg you—do not resort to compulsory taxation. There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.” Later, when speaking with Mannie, Prof acknowledges that the only way to pay for the costs of the revolution is to continue stealing money from Lunar banks, stating, “At least, in stealing, we have not created the villainous precedent of taxation.” Do you agree with Prof’s statements here? What are the possible benefits of taxation? What are the possible downsides of taxation?
  • How do you yourself feel about libertarianism? Who benefits the most from the beliefs described by the Libertarian Party? Who loses the most?

About #ANewChapter

For February 2023, the Imagine Society, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and the Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center have partnered together to create a science fiction reading club for teens—and I wrote the discussion questions for all nine books! If you are a teen—or know a teen—who would be interested in exploring some classic and/or contemporary sci-fi, please check out the Imagine Society’s event page. Participation can come in many forms!

If you are able to do so, consider supporting Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center’s young men by donating to their ongoing library book drive. Librarian Julie Forbes works incredibly hard to encourage a love of reading among her students and these donations are extremely important when it comes to achieving that goal.

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