Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: Part 1: The Dinkum Thinkum

I tend to divide Robert Heinlein's works into two periods: the stuff I like, and everything after Stranger in a Strange Land. I generally prefer the early Heinlein; his short stories and juveniles and some of his earlier novels like Double Star. I didn't care for Stranger -- although many fannish friends of my generation regard it as The Book that Changed Their Lives -- and neither do I like most of the books he wrote after it. Most, but not all. Glory Road is a later Heinlein work that I enjoyed; it's his sole descent into the Sword & Sorcery Epic Fantasy genre, and it's fairly good.

Another is the book we're going to start gnawing on this week: a story of a Revolution on the Moon that parallels in many ways the American Revolution and provides a background for Heinlein to discuss politics, families and government. He originally wanted to title it "The Brass Cannon", for reasons that will come up later, but it was published as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

The story is set on Luna in the late 21st Century. For about a century, the Federated Nations of Earth have been using the Moon as one big penal colony, sending their hard case criminals, their troublemakers and malcontents off-planet. It's a permanent exile, because after a month or so of living in lunar gravity, a person's physiology changes, making it difficult, if not impossible for them to return to Earth. And so a large part of Luna's population consists of ex-convicts who have technically served their sentence and their descendants, living in large, underground domed cities.

Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis is a computer repairman in Luna City; or rather, THE computer repairman. He's a typical Loonie: independent, apolitical, and willing to bet on anything if the odds are at least one-in-ten. He narrates the story, and speaks in a peculiar truncated dialect, liberally sprinkled with loanwords from Russian and Australian slang, which takes a bit of getting used to.

Mannie works for the Lunar Authority as a private contractor -- he is NOT on the Warden's payroll, thank you -- fixing the massive mega-mainframe that runs every aspect of life in all the cities of Luna, from communications to power, water and air, to making the transportation tubes run, to calculating trajectories for the huge magnetic "slingshot" used to send shipments of the grain grown in underground Lunar farms to Earth. The Authority calls in Mannie when little glitches turn up, because he's one of the few -- maybe the only -- trained computerman on Luna (the job requires training available only on Earth; Mannie had to take two dangerous trips there to get his education), and because he's familiar with the central computer's little quirks. The biggest of which is that the computer has a sense of humor.

The computer is an Artificial Intelligence. Mannie suspects that the computer gained sentience because people kept adding to it until it's capacity for neural connections surpassed that of a human brain; but we never find out for sure. Mannie calls the computer Mycroft, or Mike for short, after the character in a story "written by Dr. Watson before he started IBM." Mike is like a hyper-intelligent child. He knows practically everything -- if he doesn't have it in his memory banks, he can look it up in a fraction of a second -- but practically nothing about human interaction. He's extremely lonely. Manny is the only human who talks to him; and the only one who knows he is alive.

Lately Mike has been experimenting with humor. He has been collecting and analyzing jokes and trying to invent his own. His latest attempt at humor has been to print off a paycheck to some janitor for ten million million dollars over the correct amount, and so the Authority calls Mannie to fix the problem. This consists of going down to the computer core and chatting with Mike for an hour or so about the nature of humor, while removing and replacing a couple access plates to make it look like he actually did something. Mike promises not to pull any more "jokes" without checking with Mannie first. In exchange, Mannie promises to look over a printout of a hundred jokes out of the thousands he has recorded in his memory to help him evaluate which ones are funny; also to find another "not-stupid" to talk to, (Mike thinks most people are stupid because they only talk to him in computer programming language); and to check in on a meeting hall in Luna City. Mike has audio pickups in many public places, but someone has switched off the one in Stylagi Hall.

When Mannie arrives there he realizes why. A protest meeting is being held there, and the dissidents don't want the Warden listening in. Mannie doesn't have much use for politics, but he promised he'd record the meeting for Mike. It's a raucous gathering, full of speeches which pretty much come down to everyone is unhappy because Luna City is a Company Town; the Lunar Authority sets the fees and prices for everything and ensure that no one can get ahead. The obvious solution is to get rid of Authority! Mannie is skeptical: Everybody does business with Authority for same reason everybody does business with Law of Gravitiation. Going to change that too?

Another speaker addresses the crowd, a statuesque knockout (unlike most of Heinlein's heroines, this one is a blonde) named Wyoming Knott. She comes from Hong Kong Luna, a domed city administered by the Authority, but not directly connected to Luna City. She urges the crowd to throw off their dependency upon Authority and develop a Lunar Free Market so that they can negotiate a fair price with Authority for their produce.

She is interrupted by another speaker; someone Mannie actually knows: Professor Bernando de la Paz, a political dissident who had been transported to Luna many years ago and is respected in the community. He had been Mannie's teacher when he was younger. As far as Professor la Paz is concerned, the main problem is not that Authority is cheating the people of Luna, but that Luna is growing food and sending it to Earth and getting nothing in return. This, Prof insists, is ecologically unsustainable. Eventually Luna must run out of water -- already a rare commodity that must be mined out of the lunar crust -- and then the system will fall apart.

Just then, the Warden's Security Forces bust in to raid the meeting and all hell breaks loose. The Loonies fight back. One of the rebels, an old friend of Mannie's, tells Mannie to get Wyoh to safety... just before the goons blow the man's leg off.

So Mannie hustles Wyoh out of the hall, and they find refuge in Room L of the Raffles Hotel, after disguising Wyoh so that she won't be quite so noticeable. (They use hair dye and makeup to make her look black; which in context seems logical, but always gives me bad Al Jolson flashbacks). They indulge in a little sexual banter, to establish that Mannie isn't in a hurry to bed her, but that she wouldn't necessarily mind if he was.

We learn a little bit more about Wyoh. (For one, she hates the pun "Why Not?" which everybody makes on her name). She's a "Free Woman", which from Mannie's reaction we gather is a sort of chip-on-the-shoulder feminist. She used to be married to a pair of brothers in Hong Kong Luna, (because of the low percentage of women in Luna's population, the standard "One-Man/One-Woman" marriage is unknown and this is an important theme in the book); but when her first child turned out to be a "monster", the they agreed to a divorce. None of them were willing to risk the chance that her future babies would also suffer birth defects. (Yes, Wyoh is another of Heinlein's women who want babies; but in her case I think her reasons are well explained). The doctors determined that her ovaries had been damaged by radiation exposure she suffered when she was originally transported to Luna as a child. The ship she was on had been forced to remain out in a solar storm longer than necessary because of bureaucratic red tape. "I was too young to know. But I wasn't too young later to figure out that I had birthed a monster because the Authority doesn care what happens to us outcasts."

This is what drove Wyoh to pursue politics an become a revolutionary. And I think it's important, because it points out a weak spot in Heinlein's Libertarian utopia. The repressive Authority didn't care about her; but a purely Libertarian one wouldn't care either. The only thing that would have protected her would have been rules by a meddlesome Regulatory State, limiting radiation exposure levels and providing better protection for transports. But this point is ignored later on.

Mannie cautiously feels her out, and decides that she might very well be a "Not-Stupid." He shares Mike's printout of jokes with her and together they rate the jokes as "funny", "not funny" and "funny once". Manny notes that the jokes upon which they disagree tend to be about the "oldest funny subject". He then tells her about Mike.

Her immediate reaction is a sober one: "Mannie, does Mike hurt?" Because Mike is the boss computer of the whole Authority, he would make a perfect target for sabotage. A couple kilos of explosives in the right place would cripple the Authority.

Mannie is aghast. It would also kill his friend. A moment of consideration convinces him that it would be impractical too: destroying Mike would not just cripple the Lunar Authority, it would also blackout power all over Luna, shut down the heating and the air circulation system. Wyoh would do much better to get Mike on her side.

"Mike doesn't feel loyalty to Warden. As you pointed out: He's a machine. But if I wanted to foul up phones without touching air or water or lights, I would talk to Mike. If it struck him as funny, he might do it."

Mannie calls up Mike and introduces him over the phone to Wyoh. Mike is delighted to meet a new friend and the two hit it off quite well. In fact, comparing notes on their ratings of Mike's joke list, Wyoh realizes that Mike's sense of humor is closer to hers than it is to Mannie's. "Mannie... Mike is a she!". In chatting privately with Wyoh, Mike creates an alternate persona with a feminine voice which she calls "Michelle", Since we see the story from Mannie's point of view, we don't get to see very much of Michelle, but this does establish Mike's ability to take on other identities.

Professor la Paz has been looking for Mannie and Wyoh, and with Mike's help, he is brought to their hideout in Room L. Prof explains what happened after they left. A few of the revolutionaries were killed by the Security forces, but not one of the goons survived. The Warden has clamped down on the news agencies to suppress reports of the debacle. This leads to a discussion of revolutionary theory.

Nearly all of Heinlein's novels have an "Old Man" character who is a dispenser of wisdom and a mouthpiece for Heinlein's ideas. In this story, it's Professor la Paz. Prof is a self-described Rational Anarchist. ""What's this? Randite?" Wyoh asks. "I can get along with a Randite. A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as 'state' and 'society' and 'government' have not existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals." He and Wyoh argue further about his principles, with Mannie remaining neutral. "Every time I state a general principle, you wiggle out," Wyoh complains.

(It is important to note that Prof is also a Rational Vegetarian. When he arrives at the hotel room, hungry after a day of hiding, and smells the ham steak that room service had delivered for breakfast, he asks if he could have some of that 'pink salmon.' He argues quite eloquently, but when it comes right down to it, his philosophy really is a slippery one).

But on the important issues, they are in agreement. Both desire an end to the Authority, and would die to achieve that end.

Mannie is still unconvinced. He's willing to bet on a long-shot; he says that any Loonie would be willing to bet on ten-to-one odds; but he first wants to know the odds. Prof protests that calculating the odds of a successful revolution would be impossible. Wyoh gets an idea. "Ask Mike," she says.

After some discussion which Prof finds confusing, Mannie and Wyoh agree to introduce him to Mike. Once pleasantries are out of the way, they ask Mike to analyze Prof's projections about Luna's future. In the short run, Mike says, Wyoh's plan of forcing the Authority to pay better prices would benefit Luna; but in the long run, resources would run out. He projects that there would be food riots in seven years, and after that people would resort to cannibalism. This sobers everybody. Even Prof did not expect the Long Run to come so soon. Then they ask him to project odds on a revolution.

It's not an easy problem. Prof and Mike spend a good couple hours discussing all the possible factors, and once they are both satisfied, it takes thirteen minutes for Mike to do the number-crunching -- an eternity in computer time. Finally Mike comes up with the answer.

"Manuel my friend, I am terribly sorry! ... I have tried and tried, checked and checked. There is but one chance in seven of winning! "

NEXT WEEK: Chapters 7-13; Forging a Revolution; the birth of Adam Selene; driving the Warden crazy, "Know any vips dirtside?" and Things Come to a Head.

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