I like to have a science fiction book going while I’m also reading something more ambitious – something to read on my phone if I’m caught without anything else to read. I’m fortunate to have a big collection of bootlegged sci-fi ebooks on my phone, and I’ll dip into them almost at random.

In this case, I re-read a book I remember loving when I first encountered it as a teenager. I went through a Heinlein period, starting when I was about 12 with what are known as his juvenile books – titles like Starship Troopers, Tunnel in the Sky and Space Cadet. I loved them – they were fun, escapist stories, perfect entertainment for a bookish kid. Next came his middle period, with books like Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Farnham’s Freehold, which were more challenging, but still satisfying. I moved on at that point, and never made it to his later works, like Friday and The Cat Who Walked Through Walls.

“Moon” tells the story of an uprising of Earth’s lunar penal colony. Neglected and oppressed, the residents of the moon band together to throw off the yoke of the Federated Nations of Earth. The protagonist is Manuel O’Kelley-Davis, a one-armed handyman and, critically, a computer technician who has befriended the moon’s central operating system, nicknamed Mike, which has become sentient. With a small band of collaborators, Manny and Mike orchestrate a rebellion.

Heinlein delves deep into revolutionary theory, the structures of successful insurgencies and the uses of propaganda and media. He describes a quirky, multi-ethnic lunar culture with its own pidgin tongue, where men outnumber women 2:1, making group marriages common, and where there’s almost no government, so disputes are handled informally and troublemakers are thrown out of airlocks.  Most “loonies” make their living as farmers, growing wheat in tunnels and harvesting lunar ice. Earth, by comparison, is crowded, hungry, close minded and bureaucratic.

What seemed like a plausible sci-fi set-up as a kid now reads as Heinlein’s libertarian fantasy. On the moon, the hardy colonialists are literally five times lighter than Earth’s residents, and once they travel to Earth, the heavier gravity pins them down. The book’s heroes are resourceful individuals who survive by their wits and elbow grease, and live by the slogan Tanstaafl – There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Their foils are found in committee meetings and congress, academics and politicians who want to “talk-talk” everything to death and derail the revolutionaries’ ingenious plans. This theme can get tiresome.

From the perspective our completely wired, Snowden-informed era, the idea of a central computer that can monitor and manipulate all aspects of society doesn’t seem far fetched, but Heinlein was prescient. In “Moon,” Mike the computer is a childlike innocent, learning how to have a sense of humor, who grows to become the (artificial) face of the rebellion under the tutelage of his well-meaning human friends. But it’s not hard to imagine another book where Mike’s mentors are motivated by less noble goals and where a society free of laws or controls is no paradise.

Books completed this year:
1, The Man in the High Castle (Dick)
2, Disgrace (Coetzee)
3, The Finkler Question (Jacobson)
4, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein)