This week I review two books by Robert Heinlein:  a short-story collection, The Man Who Sold the Moon (New York: Signet/New American Library, 1951) and a full-length novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (New York: Tor/Tom Doherty & Associates, 1966).  All of the stories concern aspects of political economy: in one tale, inventions, alternate energy, cartels;  in another, transportation networks, unions, and security; insurance, and dangerous technology.  The role of a military or military-like cadre appears to be, in these stories, necessary to keep his invented transportation system running (not to mention the nuclear pile).  Therefore these stories aren’t all models of libertarianism, but the main story is at least about the triumph of an enlightened but somewhat stained capitalism.

Magazine Cover, 1952The centerpiece of the short story collection is indeed one novella and one afterpiece about Delos D. Harriman, a visionary, dreamer, chiseler, and scalawag: or, a Captain of Industry, the man who indeed sold the moon.  In Harriman’s tale, we are allowed to consider the development of space exploration, particularly the settlement of the moon, by private sources rather than government agencies.  Since a novella is only 100 pages, you can bet that private enterprise is a heck of a lot more efficient than NASA; but that’s not so much the point as the methods and character it takes to build great enterprise.

D.D. Harriman has a thwarted dream and a consuming passion; in a more meritocratic world, he would have been able to go to engineering school.  Instead, he bootstraps his way through business without B-school creds, with a combination of great ideas and unbridled confidence.  Once he obtains a critical mass of money and connections, he sets his firm to work on his dream: going to the moon.  The re rest of the novella details the way he manages to finesse the political and financial barriers in order to get there. 

He purchases, for nominal funds, the rights of states under the moon’s orbit; he flimflams the diamond consortium into believing that the moon will hold many diamonds, and then extorts money from the cartel in order to withhold that supply; he sells product advertising rights to the moon, and then sells the concept of not using them: essentially gaining millions for nothing.  Last but not least, he runs interference for his “talent” so that bureaucracy functions as the servant of R & D, not the other way around.  And in the end, the moon becomes a thriving colony with regular trading routes to earth.   

I consider The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to be Heinlein’s true masterpiece.  The moon has become an international prison colony for a Malthusian-beset Earth, and the real ethnic melting pot of mankind.   The Lunatic Rebellion (“Free Luna!”) follows closely the events of the American indepencence, only with a combination of  an anarchist Argentinian, Chinese businessmen, one stacked blonde revolutionary (this is Heinlein, after all–many of his heroines are genius-IQ Betty Grables), a French nobleman and the pragmatic and anti-government black-Russian-engineer amputee as founding fathers. 

Like D.D. above, these criminals/revolutionaries steal, evade, use public relations, and judicious applications of force to obtain their ends.  Along the way, you get to ponder on the ways that economic development, etiquette, and social institutions like marriage rise up as responses to environment–and a look at a weary police state.  In the end, the narrator, Manuel, notes that freedom and democracy can also be manipulated–and that democratic freedom often becomes little more than the freedom to tell others what to do.

Both are definitely worth your time.  

And as Mannie would say: Tanstaafl! (no such thing as a free lunch).