The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: What happens to Mike?

A speculation on a key plot element. Warning: spoiler!

Brad DeLong tweets a pointer to Jo Walton’s very smart review of Heinlein’s revolution-on-the-Moon tale, which features a one-armed computer technician and a self-aware computer. The review has lots of spoilers, so I’d propose reading the book first.

More or less everyone, across the spectrum from Heinlein-worshippers to Heinlein-haters, agrees that TMIAHM is one of his two or three best products. (My other nominees, aside from Stranger in a Strange Land – which makes much more sense in the uncut version released a few years ago than it did in the original – would include Glory Road and Citizen of the Galaxy. Hard-core fans tend to elevate Starship Troopers, which I loathe.)

The balance of this note is a howling spoiler, so I’m putting it below the fold.

Walton notes that the death of Mike is both incredibly sad and necessary to the plot; else he would have been a dictator. That reminds me of a speculation I first heard from David Cavanagh, though I’m not sure it was original with him: that Mike’s (otherwise unexplained) death was in fact a suicide, occasioned by Mike’s self-awareness of the great danger he posed to his human friends. Cavanagh’s analysis focused not on Mike’s dictatorial powers, but on his discovery that blowing up a bunch of cities finally gave him a referent for the otherwise hard-to-understand term “orgasm.”

My only objection to that interpretation is that I can’t imagine Heinlein, had he intended it, not having Prof explain it to Manny.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: What happens to Mike?”

  1. I was hoping he'd show up again once an ambulatory container became available, and do a Stephen Byerley.
    But, alas, that sequel remains to be written.

  2. The sequel is Steel Beach, iirc. Not by Heinlein, but then it wouldn’t be. Once such a program/machine become self-aware and recognizes that it poses a danger to those it is designed to serve, mental illness is pretty much the obvious next step. (As with most humans)

  3. It's been a while since I've read the book, and my memory is foggy, but I do remember never being really persuaded that Mycroft was self-aware. It's the whole "other minds" problem. I believe that other human beings are self-aware, and also by analogy that dogs, cats, horses, lizards, and so forth, are self-aware, although maybe not at the same level as Homo sapiens. I can't rule out the possibility that a machine could be self-aware, but I don't know how such a hypothesis could be tested should such a machine ever be developed.

    On a related note, back in 1993, a fellow named Warren Lapine and his friends started a science fiction magazine. The mag would publish short stories, and they considered themselves in the tradition of Robert Heinlein. In his honor, they titled the magazine *Harsh Mistress*.

    The problem with the title is that some writers got the wrong idea about what kind of stories they were looking for . . . After two issues, Lapine changed the name of the mag to *Absolute Magnitude*.

    1. I would guess that you would determine the machine's self awareness in much that same way that you would evaluate that of a human. Perhaps by asking it questions about itself?

      1. My conviction that other human beings are self-aware is based on two facts:

        (a) I am self-aware;

        (b) other human beings are like me.

        If I were to encounter a machine that acted like Heinlein's Mike, I would conclude that it is a machine that does a good job of imitating a human being. The task of creating a computer program that answers questions in a way indistinguishable from how a human might answer was proposed by Alan Turing in his classic 1950 paper "Computing Machinery and Intelligence." Turing called this "the imitation game," and later writers have dubbed it "the Turing Test."

        Nobody has been able to create a program that even comes close to passing the Turing Test, but I find it plausible that someday somebody could. If so, I would conclude that the developers created a program to play the Imitation Game, not that the computer was self-aware.

  4. I’ve read quite a bit of Heinlen, and if his work is any indication of his person, he’s a paranoid racist survivalist kook. From counseling how to survive nuclear war to imagining a future in which Africa holds power over the world with a sort of primitive tribal empire. And there’s plenty of hot sex and alternate lifestyles for the protagonists.

    “Moon is a harsh mistress” is a masterpiece, however. It’s the story which thoroughly embeds the concept of TANSTAAFL into our psyche.

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