Back to the Moon

By William H. Stoddard

Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a classic of libertarian science fiction; along with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, it was the first winner of the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Hall of Fame award in 1983. Many science fiction fans, and not only libertarians, regard it as one of his best novels. But for nearly half a century after its original publication in 1966, it inspired no obvious imitators. Now, that’s started to change, with the appearance of multiple novels that explore the idea of a “free Luna” in the near future.

In 2015, Ian McDonald published Luna: New Moon, followed in 2017 by Luna: Wolf Moon; as of the time this is written, a third volume, Luna: Moon Rising is shortly to appear. In 2017, Travis Corcoran published the first volume of his Aristillus series, The Powers of the Earth, winner of the Prometheus Award for best novel, followed in 2018 by Causes of Separation. Also in 2017, Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, published Artemis. All three novels or series have important elements in common with each other and with Heinlein’s novel — but at the same time, they develop them in significantly different ways.

What did Heinlein do that these later writers have found worthy of imitation? He portrayed the lunar environment as harsh and indeed potentially lethal (his original title was The Moon Is a Harsh Schoolmistress). Despite this, he showed it as having potentially permanent human communities of some size, including Lunar-born inhabitants. He envisioned these communities as multiethnic and culturally hybridized. He imagined them as supported by a largely unregulated economy. His storyline focused on a lunar struggle for political autonomy against Earth’s much larger states and population. A further element was the presence of a fully self-aware computer that became involved in the human struggles.

Heinlein’s lunar environment was potentially threatened by vacuum, and offenders against its customary law were likely to be thrown out an airlock without a space suit; but his characters were much more hindered by having adapted to low gravity, to the point where returning to Earth left them disabled and at risk of death. McDonald picked up on this point in a major way, with visitors from Earth carefully monitoring how long it would be before they couldn’t return. But he also makes a point of confrontation with vacuum, both in a brilliant early scene where lunar teenagers show their bravery by walking on the surface without vacuum gear, and in a later one where two young lunar inhabitants make a desperate journey with the air in their suits running out—one that recalls another Heinlein novel, Have Space Suit—Will Travel. Corcoran also emphasizes vacuum in multiple scenes, starting with a tourist from Earth taking foolish risks in exploring the lunar surface. And Weir’s dramatic climax involves both a journey on the Moon’s surface and a threat to the lunar air supply.

Only Corcoran picks up on Heinlein’s having a self-aware computer as a character. His character Gamma carries forward Heinlein’s effort to show how such a being’s mentality might differ from a human one, with the benefit of decades of advances in both artificial intelligence and cognitive science to inform his portrayal. He also provides a vehicle for Corcoran to acknowledge Heinlein’s work — and argue with it — because Gamma has read Heinlein and has opinions about why some of his ideas wouldn’t work; the scene where he explains to Max, an uplifted dog, that “throwing rocks” will only make the situation worse is both well reasoned and hilarious.

Heinlein’s Luna was a prison colony for the major nations of Earth, and thus multiethnic, with such cities as Novy Leningrad and Hong Kong Luna, and his viewpoint character’s descent was racially mixed: white American, Hispanic American, black South African, and Tatar. One minor incident has him jailed in North American because he’s revealed that his Lunar marriage includes spouses of diverse races — Heinlein wrote only two years before Loving v Virginia did away with American miscegenation laws, and assumed they would still be in force a century later. Corcoran shows major American, Chinese, and American populations, and one of his best drawn characters is a preadolescent Nigerian girl. McDonald goes even further, with the five corporations that dominate the Moon’s economy being Australian, Brazilian, Chinese, Ghanaian, and Russian. Artemis has a viewpoint character of Arabian descent, a colonial administration established by Kenya, and the air supply controlled by a Brazilian firm. None of these authors envisions a purely American future in space!

However, all of them portray a relatively unregulated economy that reflects libertarian ideas about free markets; and most of them also envision stateless legal systems—The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was one of the main inspirations for the anarchocapitalism of David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. (The exception is Artemis, in which there’s an appointed “city administrator,” an arrangement somewhat like Hong Kong under British rule.) Heinlein’s Loonies are left free largely because of the general indifference of the Lunar Authority to most of what they do, and their arrangements tend to be small-scale and informal. McDonald’s lunar society is governed entirely by contract law, having no criminal law and no government capable of imposing it; it reads like an attempt to envision the kind of society Friedman wrote about in anthropological terms — in many ways it’s the most alien of the various fictional worlds — with an emphasis not on ethical principles but on the grungy realities of how markets actually work. Even so, he portrays a society that has both freedom and opportunity, as well as hardship and conflict. Corcoran’s Aristillus is more focused on ethical and legal principles in its portrayal of a society founded by a libertarian visionary; however, he doesn’t hesitate to explore its failure modes, from difficulties in establishing clear title to real property to the challenge of funding collective goods such as military defense. Taken all together, these four authors thoroughly explore the idea of a free lunar society —and the challenges of defending it.

One of the appeals of science fiction, for many decades, has been its character as an ongoing dialogue about ideas. After a long gap, we are now seeing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress inspire such a dialogue — explicitly for Corcoran, implicitly for the other two. Happily, Heinlein has found worthy successors: All of these books were worth reading. Having them all come out close together was a fortunate coincidence—or, possibly, a reflection of a new hope of establishing a human presence in space.

2 thoughts on “Back to the Moon”

  1. Very enjoyable comparative review column, full of (accurate) insights that make me want to read (or reread) the novels compared.
    Establishing a permanent human presence on the moon sure seems to be suddenly moving a lot closer than it seemed for the past several decades!

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