The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I am reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk. In doing so, I find myself reading books that get referenced along the way. This is an active reading technique that I employ on certain books that I want to apply an attentive focus to. Each time the book refers to something else, be that an article or another book, I stop to read the referenced source. Of course, this delays my completion of the primary book, but I get so much more out of it.

I can possibly get more out of Musk’s life than Isaacson did if the biographer failed to read these books himself when writing about Musk. One interesting takeaway from this biography so far is that a very influential novel in the early life of Elon Musk was Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I was up late last night reading it. I’m not sure Isaacson did the same when he writes:

Fortunately, he was saved by science fiction, that wellspring of wisdom for game-playing kids with intellects on hyperdrive. He plowed through the entire sci-fi section of his school and local libraries, then pushed the librarians to order more.

One of his favorites was Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a novel about a lunar penal colony. It is managed by a supercomputer, nicknamed Mike, that is able to acquire self-awareness and a sense of humor. The computer sacrifices his life during a rebellion at the penal colony. The book explores issues that would be central to Musk’s life: Will artificial intelligence develop in ways that benefit and protect humanity, or will machines develop intentions of their own and become a threat to humans?

The reason I wonder if Isaacson read this book is that the novel makes no reference to Mike sacrificing his life. This computer stops working at the end of the book, which is sort of a spoiler, sorry. Yet, the book presents this loss as an ambiguous disappearance. Was Mike destroyed in a bombardment from Earth during their civil war or was this the result of distributing Mike’s components around the moon to prevent him from being destroyed, an accident? A more subtle interpretation is that the computer pulled a Washington-like Cincinnatus move and retired.

While this book provides a nice story about artificial intelligence, as do many sci-fi stories, that’s not the primary message. Heinlein wrote a political book, a Revolutionary War allegory, and in doing so, penned a libertarian critique of the administrative state as eloquent as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. In his interviewing of Musk for the biography, Isaacson must have learned how important The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was to Musk’s intellectual development. Might it have been more about public policy than AI? Perhaps Isaacson should have read the book himself so that he could know to ask that follow-up question.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.