Nearly four years ago I reviewed Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”, and ended by noting I planned to compare his later “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” or Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”. I ultimately picked the former, figuring that would be immediately comparable to Troopers while the latter would mostly be of interest compared to the former. Now that comparisons between Dune & Foundation or Stranger in a Strange Land are in vogue I feel behind in my classic scifi.

I noted in my review of Troopers that it was a book intended for juveniles who wouldn’t be expected to question the civics lessons Heinleins delivers via the in-book lessons taught to its protagonist. Moon is certainly a more “adult” novel in that the protagonist is not undergoing any coming of age, and it contains things like continuously expanding “line marriages” contrasted against old-fashioned norms in North America, but in many ways its as much of an adolescent power-fantasy as any comicbook superhero story. One-armed computer technician “Mannie” has the super-power of being (at least at the start of the novel) the only friend of the mischievous super-computer MYCROFT (aka “Mike”) who runs essentially all the infrastructure of the penal colony of Luna. In contrast to James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”, which held up communists like Rosa Luxembourg and Alexandra Kollontai as examples of people who understood that revolutions unfold through their own unpredictable logic (as, more recently, do riots) rather than anyone’s plan, the revolution here follows the plan of Mike and the “Rational Anarchist” Professor de la Paz. I don’t know if the Professor was inspired by Murray Rothbard (rather than the pacifist Robert Le Fevre, as Brian Doherty claims), but Rothbard was both a professed anarcho-capitalist and a “Leninist” who thought a “vanguard” of dedicated revolutionaries would need to guide the revolution. This Professor is the opposite of Murray Bookchin in equating anarchy with democracy, far from wanting a “big talky collective” at even Dunbar’s scale of a forager-band he thinks even 3 people verges on impractical and the ideal is a single person acting unilaterally (perhaps “dictatorially). Thus the hero of the book overthrows the government and creates a new order via practically omniscient & omnipotent means that nobody else has a chance of doing anything about.

I say there’s no “chance”, but the book does explicitly have Mike assign very low numerical odds to the revolution succeeding initially, but the initial core of revolutionaries proceed optimistically and seemingly without any doubts because these hardy prisoners (and descendants of them, like Mannie) just love gambling and hate authority (and the specific “Authority”) so much. In theory Eliezer Yudkowsky should like that it explicitly frames things as probabilistic, but basically everything proceeds according to plan and so even when there should be higher stakes due to the Federated Nations on Earth becoming the new antagonists after the incompetent Authority is gone, the much higher odds for success now given remove the tension that would normally be there. This later section where they were on war footing reminded me of Starship Troopers for emphasizing how military leaders shouldn’t be distracted/obstructed by democratic politics and how a viable society must come together to defend its existence to the death, but there is a sop to anti-authoritarianism in that they don’t actually force the evacuation of an area that Mike (correctly) predicts will be successfully attacked by the FN. As with the Earthlings who flock to empty sites bombarded as demonstrations by Mike, those who ignore the warnings of danger are deemed to deserve their deaths.

The book doesn’t actually contain much beyond the conflict between the forces of “Free Luna” and their old rulers, so there’s only a smattering of how an idealized anarchy would work in practice. Perhaps it’s because utopia is boring and Heinlein doesn’t think there’s as much interesting to say once the ideal society is already achieved (although there is enough cynicism in him that the inhabitants of Luna don’t have the Professor’s hypocritical purism and seem apt to follow the same path as the US colonies that inspired them). It just seems really lucky that Mannie had no interest in holding power and Mike was (while being the closest thing to God on the moon) a Miltonian rebel who never threatens to actually become a Singleton.* Culturally speaking, there is an odd mesh of Lunar society developing norms (like polyandry & throwing nuisances out airlocks) well-suited to their situation, and de la Paz saying “the traditional way […] should be suspect, considered guilty until proved innocent” and the norms of Earth looked down on as not even serving that planet well. The book is from the 60s and perhaps Heinlein was high enough on the cultural tumult to disregard inherited “metis” while also thinking people (such as himself) were finding better ways of living.

*This is where a comparison to Dune is relevant, since in the series as a whole Herbert intended a harsh Nixonian lesson on “heroes” and the wars they might start, with an actual God-Emperor getting millennia to ensure the galaxy never makes that mistake again.

I had recently been alternating between fiction & non-fiction, but I plan to make an exception with E. O. Wilson’s only novel (at least as far as I know) next as a means of easing away from recent popular social science and back toward some older controversies I planned on delving into over a decade ago, alternating between those and more of the classic scifi I’ve referenced here.