Archive for July 7th, 2008

More on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - Limits

Sharon July 7th, 2008

The other question I thought it would be interesting to discuss in reference to this book is the larger issue, which will keep coming up througout the discussion of “limits” vs. “no limits.” Heinlein is very clear (mostly in other books) that while he recognizes and believes in the idea of limits for any given planet, he sees the future of humanity as ultimately unlimited -we will be able to do everything we want, and while individual human beings will die or be lost, humanity as a whole has a great destiny.  For example he projects intelligent, “awake” computers, the transmutation of matter into any other substance, vastly extended lives.  And he’s basically a frontier guy - human societies can be really cool as long as they consist of small numbers, living in isolation - once they actually have to start self-regulating, things fall apart and it is time to head off to a new planet - thus, Mannie eventually heads off for the asteroids.

Now this question of what our limits are not only has a lot of present-day relevance, but it also is a larger philosophical question that I think we all have to answer for ourselves - what level of limitation do we believe is transcendable?  What problems can we leave to our descendents, for good or ill, and which ones do we have to fix (or even have the option of fixing) now? 

The truth is that even though we have no meaningful space program and no real immanent hope of going into space, most Americans at least are firmly in the no-limits camp, and my own opinion is that the idea that space is an option has actually underscored the inability of our populace to grasp the idea that we have to preserve this planet at all costs.  I’m not irrevocably opposed to going into space if the means magically appears to do it sustainably, but I do believe that the idea that there is another frontier out there that will allow us to blow the limits one more time is a dangerous one.

And yet, it is the no-limits crowd, overwhelmingly, that has had the courage to imagine the problem of limitation at all - for all the tendency of science fiction to become fascinated by the possibilities “Mass drivers!” “Van Neumann machines!” “Cryo-suspension!”  Oooh, shiny… these are also the people with the ability to imagine apocalypses at all.  That is, most of the world doesn’t see the double edge of the sword at all.

What do you think?


Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Book 1: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Sharon July 7th, 2008

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said-
140 I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert.
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time.
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
150 Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
161 The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said.
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot-
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
171 Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

(TS Eliot “The Wasteland” From “A Game of Chess”)

I’ve been mulling over how to approach this book club discussion, since I’ve never done this particular kind of post before, and I thought I’d jump in with the reason I wanted to include it.  To me,  the real virtue of this book is that it is a depletion novel - and a novel about a powerful response to depletion.  That is, the crisis that the Loonies face in the book is pretty much precisely the one we face ourselves.  Consider this quote (pg 74 in my Ace edition), in which Prof, Wyoh, Mannie and Mike the conscious supercomputer are discussing whether Luna must revolt, to keep from depleting its water source.

“Okay, Mike - no cheap shipping, no transmutation: How long till trouble?”

“Seven years.”

“‘Seven years!’” Wyoh jumped up, stared at phone. “Mike, honey! You don’t mean that?”

“Wyoh,” he said plaintively, “I did my best.  The problem has an indeterminately large number of variables.  I ran several thousand solutions using many assumptions.  The happiest answer came from assuming no increase in tonnage, no increase in Lunar population - restriction of births strongly enforced - and a greatly enhanced search for ice in order to maintain the water supply.  That gave an answer of slightly over twenty years.  All other answers were worse.”

Wyoh, much sobered, said, “What happens in seven years?”

“The answer of seven years from now I reached by assuming the present situation, no change in Authority policy, and all major variables extrapolated from the empiricals implicit in their past behavior - a conservative answer of highest probability from the available data.  Twenty-eighty-two is the year I expect food riots.  Cannibalism should not occur for at least two years thereafter.”

“Cannibalism’!” She turned and buried head against Prof’s chest.

He patted her, said gently “I’m sorry Wyoh.  People do not realize how precarious our ecology is.  Even so, it shocks me.  I know water runs down hill…but didn’t dream how terribly soon it will reach bottom.”

I wanted to talk about this book because it it takes as a given that depletion of resources can lead to a vast crisis, and that we can not realize just how close we are until the very last moment.  Manuel, for example, is engaged for that reason, and that alone - he is not innately a revolutionary.  I think this is an interesting book, precisely because even though the literal situation is implausible (Hubby the Astrophysicist observes that there’s no water at all on the moon, nor any carbon in the rock, so not a chance we could farm it - but Heinlein couldn’t have known that), it is a really fascinating meditation on a situation not too far off of our present one.

So I thought an interesting place to start might be with this question of the value of the book as metaphor for our present circumstances is.  There are a lot of things not to like about Heinlein and this book, but I also think that there are a lot of things that are utterly fascinating in analogy.  What do you think?

The next question that occurs, then, if we’re to see this book in relation to our present circumstances is this - what about the response?  In the case of the Loonies, there doesn’t seem to be much choice.  But the book is a remarkably detailed handbook to revolution - and to the moral compromises that come with revolution.  That is, the revolutionaries aren’t able to remain purists.  They do a whole lot of things that are troubling, from the manipulation of the populace to actually inciting attack on their own population.  When the moral issue arises, Prof answers Mannie that necessity doesn’t justify his actions, it just makes them necessary. Mannie asks (pg 243):

“Still doesn’t say how to pay for what we are doing now.”

“‘How,’ Manuel?  You know how we are doing it.  We’re stealing it.  I’m neither proud of it nor ashamed; it’s the means we have.  If they ever catch on, they may eliminate us - and that I am prepared to face.  At least, in stealing, we have no created the villainous precedent of taxation.”

“Prof, I hate to say this -”

“Then why say it?”

“Because, damn it, I’m in it as deeply as you are…and want to see that money paid back!  Hate to say it but what you just said sounds like hypocrisy.”

He chuckled, “Dear Manuel! Has it taken you all these years to decide that I am a hypocrite?”

“Then you admit it?”

“No.  but if it makes you feel bettter to think that I am one, you are welcome to use me as your scapegoat.  But I am not a hypocrite to myself because I was aware the day we declared the Revolution that we would need much money and would have to steal it.  It did not trouble me because I considered it better than food riots six years hence, cannibalism in eight.  I made my choice and have no regrets.”

The novel is unabashed in its assumption that Prof and Co. choose rightly - that it is worth paying that moral price when the price on the other side is so high.  But it is also very difficult for Wyoh and Mannie to accept that they must do personally unacceptable things in order to achieve larger ends. 

Is this a realistic handbook for radical change?  The book takes as a given (and of course, creates the given) that Revolution is a possible answer.  Is it in other circumstances, or just this one? 

Moving on to another subject, I’m not sure we really need to talk about Heinlein’s women - or do we?  I once read an essay somewhere (maybe Harpers?) about Heinlein that essentially said that his books were good until he discovered female nudity ;-) .  And I actually think that may be true - his juvenalia are pretty good, and the young women in them are often less stupid than the grown women later on (if he can keep off his fascination with spanking and discolored behinds ;-P), but ultimately, in the case of this book, I think the book itself is good enough to make it worth ignoring the deep horribleness of Heinlein’s women (something you cannot say about any other Heinlein novel I can think of ;-) ).  More interesting to me is the family structures.

And again, I think there’s an interesting metaphor here - we don’t have the “shortage” of women depicted in the book, but what we do face is a rapidly changing society, and probably a great deal of cultural and economic pressure to smaller family sizes.  Whether or not there are formal limitations on reproduction, post-peak economics are likely to make people reconsider childbearing in societies like ours, where children are a “cost.”  And that means an awful lot of older adults being supported potentially by a much smaller younger cohort, and many adults with only one or no children to support multiple extended families.  I’m wondering what you thought of the various family structures imagined by Heinlein in the book (we’ll pass rapidly over the idea that 13 year old girls should marry into line marriages with old dudes, I’m more interested in the larger question of the way family structures might be adapted to deal with changing circumstances)?

Finally, I start off our discussion of “The Wasteland” which I’m going to integrate with the other books, and tie towards them, with the end of the “A Game of Chess” section (a reader pointed out that the poem is available online here: if you want to follow along), with the Pub scene.  In it, a gossiping woman is talking about ordinary things, and an ordinary, if deeply tragic, family situation - a woman ravaged by childbearing and an abortion, trying to hang on to her husband while preventing further pregnancies - and over her discussion of dinner and dentistry and abortion comes the words  “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.”  These are, of course, on one level, the words of the pub owner, closing up.  But earlier in this section of the poem, we have seen a chess game with Death, and it is Death who is equally insistent, who also says, whether you are done or not with your tale, when it is time, it is time. 

When I spoke at the Community Solutions Conference last year, I quoted these lines from Eliot several times, speaking of the rising sense of urgency I was feeling.  And I was reminded that the first year I spoke, I had mentioned that there were more people present in the room at the conference than plotted to create the American Revolution.  A lot of people told me how inspiring that reference was, but if any major plots were born that day, I haven’t been told of them (maybe I’m just not trustworthy ;-) ).

So I guess the last question I have is this - for all the weaknesses of the book, and they are many and varied, Heinlein’s heroes, reluctant as they are, when confronted with the reality of HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME have the nerve to pay the price, to raise the stakes and to seek the redress they require.  We can argue that their moral compromises would be unacceptable in reality.  We can argue that their circumstances are not ours, but what I would ask is this - what is it time for in our present situation, and why is it so unthinkable to most of us (Derrick Jensen perhaps excepted) that we might respond so strongly, that we might change so radically.  I’m not suggesting any particular response, but I am asking why it is that our response, not just as a people, but as aware individuals  to depletion is so comparativel tepid (me too), so focused on soft responses, why we feel so powerless in relationship to our collapse?  Is that even a question worth asking? 

I’ll be fascinated to hear your answers - and there will probably be one more post on this subject later today.  If you have other questions for discussion, post them in comments and we’ll talk about them,