As a boy, Elon Musk was an avid reader who would read novels for more than 10 hours a day. In the biography of Elon Musk written by Ashlee Vance, it was mentioned that one of Elon Musk’s favourite books was this science fiction novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. It was a novel written in 1966, by American author Robert A. Heinlein.
Curious to know what book would interest the eccentric multi-billionaire, and also intrigued by its quirky title, I borrowed the book from the national library.
The back cover gave a brief synopsis of the book. It was the Year 2075, and the Moon is used as a penal colony by Earth’s government. Three million ex-political dissidents, convicts and their descendants live on the Moon, and everything on the Lunar colony is regulated strictly, efficiently and cheaply by a central supercomputer, HOLMES IV (“High-Optional, Logical, Multi-Evaluating Supervisor, Mark IV”). A computer technician Mannie O’Kelly-Davis discovers that HOLMES IV has quietly achieved consciousness. He decides not to report this to the Authority, and becomes friends with it instead.
Reading this synopsis, I thought the book would centre around this super-computer and how the friendship between Mannie and the computer would evolve. Instead, to my surprise, it turned out to be a book that centres around politics, as Mannie and his friends utilises the super computer to plot a revolution to overthrow the Lunar Authority that controls the colony.
Despite my surprise, the book turned out to be very interesting (good taste, Elon Musk!). The storyline was fresh, and the description of the Lunar colony felt really real, with many rich details about everything from the marriage systems on the Moon, to the customs of settling disputes. The book also kept its readers on the hook, as the story unfolds layer by layer to show us how the small group of rebels organise their revolution step-by-step to overthrow the Government.
It is fascinating to also see how science fiction inspires actual new inventions in the world. In the story, the Earth depends on the grain sent down from the Moon. The grain is shipped to Earth via a very interesting method. The Lunar Authority built a giant catapult, which they use to launch the grain shipments into space and calculate the landing such that these grain shipments will splash into the Earth’s oceans.
In real life, two academicians, Gerard K. O’Neill of Princeton University and Henry Kolm of MIT actually built a real “catapult”, called a Mass Driver, to launch payloads in the 1970s. The objective is to reduce the cost of space launch to only about ten dollars a pound, the cost of electric energy, by eliminating the need to use rocket fuel. It is said that O’Neill and Kolm were inspired by the novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress!
Although the book is a good read, I thought the story was a little too neat. The revolution, although very clever, felt a little too smooth. There were no setbacks where plans go awry, and then the rebels have to change their plans along the way. There were also very little emotional scenes that could have strung the heartstrings of the readers. For example, the scene where one of the lead characters, Professor de la Paz died, could have been played up to become one of the highlights of the whole story. Instead, it was dealt with in a very no-nonsense and straightforward manner.
All in all, I would say that the book is really a classic. I find it fascinating that science fiction novels written in the 1950s and the 1960s still hold so much relevance and inspiration for us even in the year 2021.