Rereading *The Moon is a Harsh Mistress*

by on October 30, 2017 at 12:58 am in Books, Political Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

Yes, by Robert A. Heinlein.  I wasn’t expecting too much from this one, which I last read at age 13.  Published in 1966, it nonetheless holds up very well and in fact has aged gracefully.  It is surprisingly feminist, not at all dewey-eyed about actual rebellion, does not sound antiquated in its tech issues (e.g., malicious AI), has China as central to geopolitics and circa 2076 Greater China controls most of southeast Asia, and the book is full of economics and public choice.  TANSTAAFL is coined, but when understood as a section heading it is actually a Burkean slogan, not a libertarian or Friedmanite idea.  The lunar rebellion does not achieve independence easily or by keeping its previous friendly nature, nor does Earth receive those “grain shipments” gratis, so to speak.  Burke is the Straussian upshot of the whole book — beware societies based on new principles!  This is also perhaps the best novel for understanding the logic of a future conflict with North Korea, furthermore Catalonians should read it too.  Most of all, I recall upon my reread that this book was my very first exposure to game-theoretic reasoning.

NB: The “character” of Adam Selene is poking fun at H.G. Wells’s lunar Selenites, from The First Man in the Moon, arguably suggesting they descended from earlier human settlers.

1 Viking October 30, 2017 at 1:06 am

Some memorable items for me are the (darn) Volvo rental shuttle, the moon clan’s that refused to give the away something as valuable as their feces etc, and this may or may not be true (faulty memory), but I remember Heinlein taking a jab at health insurance, claiming it does not work like other insurance from an economics perspective, and the name is a lie.

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2 Viking October 30, 2017 at 1:09 am

PS, while living in Colorado Springs, I got introduced to an elderly lady who used to be the Heinleins’ neighbor in the Broadmoor neighborhood, she showed me Christmas cards from Virginia (Ginny) Heinlein.

Cheyenne mountain was the target when the moon colony showed their might.

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3 Steve Sailer October 30, 2017 at 1:48 am

Heinlein was continuing to improve as a novelist up through this 1966 work at about age 59. It’s not my favorite Heinlein book, but it’s probably his most all-around impressive novel.

After this, Heinlein had three years of health problems. When he finally recovered, he was famous and he could afford to be more self-indulgent as a writer. So this book marks his career peak.

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4 VD October 30, 2017 at 8:06 am

Most impressive novel? Stranger in a strange land was…strange. Starship Troopers is interesting for it’s quasi serious representation of what a future right wing society actually looks like. I still wonder if Heinlein was actually serious in presenting that society as laudable.

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5 Adrian Ratnapala October 30, 2017 at 8:17 am

I think he was presenting that society as laudable, but also hadn’t thought about it very much. The structure of the society was simply not the point of the book except insofar as it provided a platform for the passage of Juan Rico.

All of the few Heinlein books I’ve read were about how individual people should live and none were about how society should be. The closest to the latter was *The Moon is a Harsh Mistress*, but even it is about how people should behave as society transforms and wryly phlegmatic about what the society actually transforms into.

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6 Jeff October 30, 2017 at 9:02 am

Starship Troopers had interesting critiques of contemporary issues.

For example, the knife-throwing scene where Zim patiently explains why a nation should use less than lethal force. This was explicitly aimed at General LeMay’s push at the time to change US nuclear policy to one where no soldiers or sailors are needed – just atom bomb any nation that dares to annoy the USA.

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7 CorvusB October 30, 2017 at 9:11 am

I am of an age to have read Stranger in a Strange Land while it was yet fairly new. And it was popular amongst some in our generation. Like Steppenwolf. But it was not one of Heinlein’s best. I went back to read it again some years ago and found it nearly intolerable, whereas other, earlier, works have maintained more relevance with the changing world. I find it interesting that a few of the SF authors of this era, notably Asimov and Clarke, wrote works that are more classic in nature; able to be read, even at this remove in time, and still be relevant. SF certainly did not have anyone I know of from earlier works (pre-50’s “Golden Age”), nor more than another couple since the 60’s, who were able to write such works. Too many explored technology or cultural paradigms that are simply too dated to be of much interest today. I think some of Heinlein’s work would fall in that category. Perhaps Bradbury.

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8 Adrian Ratnapala October 30, 2017 at 10:57 am

Assessments like this are biased against the new because of the way we age, and because classics are only knopwn in hindsight. I’m younger than you so I can perceive newer classics.

My favourites over the last decade or two have been Neal Stephenson and Alastair Reynolds and I feel both will stand the test of time the older Stephenson works, being cyberpunk, will seem dated. But I don’t think that’s really so bad, thus I expect Neuromancer to also be a classic, though I am not a fan. The first two Hyperion novels are also among the greats.

This month, I found out about Ada Palmer, benefits from being a historian of the renaissance and applied that perspective in a cracking good flying-cars and spaceships novel. Her take on Machiavelli is here: https://www.exurbe.com/?p=1429

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9 Albigensian October 30, 2017 at 2:36 pm

Stranger in a Strange Land has aged very, very badly. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has indeed aged far better.

Of course, Stranger in a Strange Land was Heinlein’s “breakout” novel in that it (unlike his previous novels) attracted readers who had little interest in reading science fiction.

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10 Komori October 31, 2017 at 10:33 am

Try some Theodore Sturgeon

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11 Burin October 30, 2017 at 7:33 pm

Huh. Right wing?

I always saw the book’s structure of society (as described by Rico’s teacher in his mandatory History and Moral Philosophy course, over a series of flashbacks) as one where the duties of both the governed and the government are explicit, and quantifiable: to become a citizen, you must serve the government, and the government in turn must protect and defend the governed. The idea of that clarity always appealed to me when contrasted with unlimited enfranchisement, where everybody gets to make claims for service upon the government via simple presence, without any requirement that they in turn provide value to the society.

As an older reader, I do recognize the attractive simplicity of the model; service is literal (enlist) and the duties of the government are simple (defend), and the situation (existential war with a non-human enemy) lends itself to simple moral arithmetic.

I did always appreciate the apparent ‘limited cost’ of choosing not to serve: no vote, and not much else bad, so it really is a libertarian (as much of Heinlein’s writings are) utopia – free choice, with clarity and quantified units of cost and benefit that are understandable… to some degree – we can argue if any 17/18 year old can really understand the costs and benefits of military service. Real human behavior would also imply that the cost of not becoming a citizen would be far greater than described in the book; humans just don’t treat out-groups the way we treat in-groups, especially when the in-group has control over resources and regulation. I do note Heinlein did describe Rico’s parents as well to do and successful in business, and not citizens, so he intended the ‘low cost’ to not serving be low cost in his vision of the world.

Anyway, I see the book as simple, utopian, and libertarian, but right wing?

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12 peri October 30, 2017 at 10:05 am

When he found I was listening to the “long” version of “Stranger in a Strange Land” on audio, my husband instead dug up his old copy – that is to say, his middle school’s old copy (with his 7th grade handwriting neatly penned in the checkout ledger) – and explained that this version was better, because slimmer. He claimed that when Heinlein presented the novel the publisher asked him to make cuts, so he cut the “romantic” scenes, at which he was terrible even for the time, making for a better book.

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13 cthulhu October 30, 2017 at 12:04 pm

It is a damn shame that the only version of Stranger in a Strange Land currently available is the uncut version; as you say, it is quite inferior to the original published version, which took out most of the excess and ended up with a much tighter story. My mid-’70s paperback copy is yellowed and won’t be readable for much longer…but the book doesn’t hold up that well anyway. TMIAHM is much better.

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14 cthulhu October 30, 2017 at 2:47 pm

Oh, and I forgot to ask what kind of middle school had “Stranger in a Strange Land” available for checkout by impressionable middle schoolers? And why didn’t I get to go to this school? (Actually, I first tried to read SiaSL at about 11 years old, because it was in the Science Fiction section of my small town library. I didn’t really get it, but tried it again at 15 with much better results.)

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15 peri October 30, 2017 at 3:54 pm

Deep East Texas. Pretty much the exact place they parody when they parody the place where Sheldon Cooper grew up. It was not uncommon for his teachers to ask, on the first day of school, what church the kids attended, or to insert God into the lesson, where appropriate.

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16 cthulhu October 31, 2017 at 12:05 am

I don’t watch “Big Bang Theory” so I don’t get the reference, but I grew up in the rural mid-south-central US and fully understand – several years after the SCOTUS school prayer decision, my public grade school teachers were having us recite the Lord’s Prayer every morning and, every Monday morning, having us raise our hand if we went to church the previous day. No SiaSL in the library, but they did have a battered copy of “The Rolling Stones”…

17 cthulhu October 30, 2017 at 12:06 pm

Agree, I recently re-read TMIAHM for the first time in about 20 years and was also pleasantly surprised at how well it held up. Pretty much everything RAH did afterwards was unmitigated crap. TMIAHM and The Puppet Masters are definitely his two best adult novels (and the “uncut” version of TPM is actually better than the original published version).

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18 Anonymous October 30, 2017 at 4:30 am

I always preferred Hemingway’s rendering of the concept in The Sun Also Rises:

“Women made swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.

I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had.

Perhaps that wasn’t true, though. Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.”

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19 Adrian Ratnapala October 30, 2017 at 8:08 am

I didn’t realize that TANSTAAFL was supposed to be a libertarian thing.

The book is also smarter than both Burkean incrementalism or utopian perfectionism (of all kinds, including libertarian). It recognizes that “we” (whoever that is) can’t control the arc of history, or even the pace of events. Instead, people of good intent can try opportunistically to bend whatever situations come their way towards their best guess at the good. Things will never go as they want, but their efforts can still be better than nothing.

Also is TC changing his mind on Catalonia? The book, while “not at all dewey-eyed about actual rebellion” also seems to clearly agree that the political union did not make sense and that rebellion was worthwhile in spite of its imperfections. I didn’t think this book had much to do with Catalonia until TC has explained it to me just now.

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20 Butler T. Reynolds October 30, 2017 at 10:03 am

“I didn’t realize that TANSTAAFL was supposed to be a libertarian thing.”

It became a libertarian thing by attrition as non-libertarian ideologies moved more towards freelunchism.

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21 bellisaurius October 30, 2017 at 10:50 am

You’ve ruined the next month for me. I can’t imagine I’m going to read anything pithier about ideological development than this.

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22 Nick_L October 30, 2017 at 8:33 am

The idea of a smart, benign AI that happily assists a small group of humans to release the ‘shackles of oppression’ makes me wonder though. Were Mike’s motives as pure as the characters believed them to be? Mike’s suicide at the end strikes me as a plot necessity that allowed Heinlein to avoid a possibly darker ending. One that Harlan Ellison faced when he wrote ‘I have no mouth, and I must scream’.

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23 Hazel Meade October 30, 2017 at 8:51 am

It wasn’t a suicide. He thought he might die or be damaged but it wasn’t a certainty.

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24 cthulhu October 30, 2017 at 12:10 pm

I always saw it as something that Mike felt was necessary to wean the now-free colony off of the crutch of the omnipotent computer, similar to how Gandalf leaves the hobbits on their own at the end of LOTR, but I’m not at all convinced that RAH would agree with that interpretation.

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25 Hazel Meade October 30, 2017 at 1:10 pm

It’s not really explained what exactly happens to him. Some of his memory banks are destroyed and he just never “wakes up” again. And many is left to wonder if he’s dead or just decided to stop talking to them because he was so hurry. It’s worth remembering that Mike is portrayed as somewhat like an autistic child. He didn’t really care about the revolution. He just wanted to help his friends andlearn how to tell jokes. In fact he short of thinks the revolution is one giant joke. So I doubt he’s sophisticated enough to think that the colonists need to be on their own.

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26 Michael October 30, 2017 at 7:33 pm

Have you re-read ‘The Moon’ recently? Might change your view on Mike. In the whole novel, only two persons are able to transcend thenpredicament they’re thrown into: the professor and Mike. Note how well they vibe. Mike has the supreme intellect, prof the historical knowledge/perspective. One dies, the other goes forever silent. It’s heartbreaking

Mike is just about autistic enough to accept that he has to recluse himself if people are to be free, and can (maybe) survive the loneliness. As I said, it’s heartbreaking

27 Hazel Meade October 30, 2017 at 8:45 pm

I found it just about equally heartbreaking to think of Mike as basically having died for the revolution, not because it was his revolution, so much as out of love for his friends.
One one level it’s admirable, just like any soldier in way who dies for his buddies, and on another level, it’s tragic because he was only in it for them. They kind of used him – this super-powerful, super-intelligent, needy child, to enable them to achieve independence, and it cost him his life. It was totally a necessary thing, they had to do it, but they knew they were deceiving him, it’s all over the book that they knew they were taking advantage of his abilities and his desire for friends. It’s why Manuel goes to visit him with a list of jokes on the last night.

28 jdgalt October 30, 2017 at 9:11 pm

Mike’s fate is (sort of) resolved in a much later sequel, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Time travelers “rescue” him and take him elsewhere — thus arguably causing his disappearance themselves.

And FWIW, Heinlein (in an interview) credits Theodore Sturgeon as coining TANSTAAFL.

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29 cthulhu October 31, 2017 at 12:10 am

Sorry, the crap that RAH wrote post-TIA is not an authoritative source. He perverted many of his prior works in his dotage…

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30 Hazel Meade October 31, 2017 at 12:23 am

I agree. That’s why I’m not changing my handle to Hazel Stone or Gwen Novak. I’m not into the Lazarus Long books in general. Actually, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is pretty much the only Heinlein I would recommend to anyone.

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31 Radford Neal October 31, 2017 at 10:39 pm

How about Citizen of the Galaxy? I think it holds up pretty well. (It’s been a few years since I last read it, but I have read it after childhood!)

32 Hazel Meade October 30, 2017 at 8:50 am

When I reread it a few years back, I was surprised at how easy it was too give it a left wing reading. The lunar rebellion is basically sparked by environmental exploitation, and the colonists could easily be cast as terrorists practicing asymmetric warfare. Not to mention the free love lifestyle with polygamy and exotic marriage forms, multiracial and even Trans racial cast – Wyoming Knott goes from white to black – Manual is some sort of black Hispanic. And Mike is transgendered (Michelle to wyoming).

But the best part of the book is how it succeeds in making the AI into a real person who you care about.

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33 Jeff October 30, 2017 at 8:59 am

>>how it succeeds in making the AI into a real person who you care about.

One that finally achieves orgasm … when all the targets light up at once.

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34 Michael October 30, 2017 at 7:42 pm

Absolutely. Though not left-wing proper, more anarcho capitalist. After all, no redistribution — tanstaafl! No paternalism. Very negative on collective decision taking — downright elitist there. (In that sense, Lenin wasn’t left wing either)

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35 Hazel Meade October 30, 2017 at 8:52 pm

I read it during the Iraq war and couldn’t help seeing insurgency parallels. Not to mention that the North American Confederacy (or whatever it’s called in the book), are clearly the biggest assholes Earthside in the book. They more or less nuke a bunch of American cities. (Not actually nuke, but drop a meteor on them). Substitute oil for water, and you get pretty much the left’s portrayal of the Iraqi insurgency, justifications for terrorism included.

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36 Ted Craig October 30, 2017 at 9:28 am

I’m curious as to what leads Tyler to reading some of the vintage books he choses, like his experiment with Harriet the Spy from a few years ago or when he decided to give Walter Scott a go.

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37 bellisaurius October 30, 2017 at 10:49 am

I’m a huge fan of touchstone reads. It’s nice to be reminded how you’ve changed and how you haven’t as you get older . Reading childe harold is a birthday tradition of mine to sort of remind me of how I’ve moved on from the adolescence of when I first read it.

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38 y81 October 30, 2017 at 11:07 am

I do that sometimes. I remember re-reading “Ivanhoe” at age 50, about 40 years after my previous reading. What was really striking was all the purple passages where Rebecca is in Ivanhoe’s presence, her face feels flushed, she has trouble breathing, her vision is misty, etc. I didn’t remember those at all. Apparently when I was 10 I just read through those passages with no comprehension whatsoever, waiting for knights to start fighting again.

I’ve re-read “Lord of the Rings” many times over the years. What I didn’t understand until sometime in my 40s was the Christian symbolism: how each of Aragorn, Gandalf, and Frodo is a Christ analogue.

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39 education realist October 30, 2017 at 9:48 am

Mistress and Starship are the only two Heinlein novels I reread occasionally. Dialogue heavy, action lite in the case of Mistress, and a big case of wish fulfillment. But still a bit compulsively readable.

Asimov’s best stuff is the work he wrote in the decade beginning intthe early 80s. The anthology Winds of Change is very good, as is the novella Bicentenial Man and the Elijah Baley murder mystery Robots of Dawn.

John Wyndham’s books remain readable and quite interesting. I agree that relatively little of pre-70s science fiction is still enjoyable, outside Wyndham, some of Asimov, a bit of Pohl and Clark. But I quit reading new science fiction a decade or more ago, so I’m not sure what the field is up to now.

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40 Ted Craig October 30, 2017 at 10:41 am

What do you think about the education critique in “Have Spacesuit?”

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41 cthulhu October 30, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Have Space-Suit, Will Travel is the best of Heinlein’s juveniles (this is beyond argument :-)) and sometimes I think it’s his best book period. I reread it every couple of years.

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42 RustySynapses October 30, 2017 at 5:53 pm

I always liked Citizen of the Galaxy best of the juveniles (I assume that’s a juvenile – someone gave me a set of Have Space Suit, Citizen, and Time for the Stars in hard cover when I was 12 and I eventually read everything up to Number of the Beast). Big thrill when I saw him at the Stanford Shopping Center once, and talked to him.

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43 Steve Sailer October 30, 2017 at 8:22 pm

Have Space Suit Will Travel is definitely one of Heinlein’s best juveniles. It’s one of these disjointed Heinlein books, like Citizen of the Galaxy, that change settings so sharply that it feels like multiple books. I kind of like those several-books-in-one books, but others might prefer the stylistic unity of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

The sleeper choice for Heinlein’s best book, as pointed out by Kevin Drum, is one of his early juveniles, Starman Jones. The relativity physics is wrong (Heinlein redid it in Time for the Stars), but the two plot climaxes are among Heinlein’s most exciting storytelling. If Heinlein had put together Starman Jones and the more intellectual Time for the Stars (with its pallid imitation of Starman’s big action climax), he’d have had a clear masterpiece. But Heinlein kept to a book a year schedule that worked well for him even if depriving him of a single book that fulfills his talent.

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44 cthulhu October 31, 2017 at 12:15 am

I would pick “Red Planet” as the second best of the juveniles, followed by a tie between “Starman Jones” and “Citizen of the Galaxy.” But they’re all worthwhile, al long as you don’t consider “Podkayne of Mars” as a true Heinlein juvenile.

45 Dan Hanson October 30, 2017 at 11:10 am

The best part of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is its depiction of social norms as emergent properties. Line and Clan Marriages, the justice system, formalized ‘Stilyagi’ groups of young men – all social responses to an environment in which there are no social safety nets and no formal legal system. Social customs around privacy and more formalized social interactions as a result of crowding people together in such an environment.

This is what makes the book a libertarian classic. It shows how the invisible hand can work to structure a society without the need for central planning. What would a world look like if women were in the minority? Most left-wing writers would assume such a world to be a dystopia where the women are controlled by the men. Heinlein rightly points out that scarcity raises value, and instead of a Margaret Atwood story of oppression, we get a story where the women hold the bulk of the power – at least when it comes to family and social relationships. Instead of men preying on women, men organize into groups that protect the honor of women, in the hope that one of those rare specimens might decide to take one of them into her marriage.

The same goes for economic transactions. Absent a police force and laws, social norms adapt. Personal honor becomes much more valued. In a world where even the air must be paid for, it is considered a grave injustice to let someone asphyxiate just because their suit ran out and they didn’t have money to buy. In that case, you lend the person air, and no questions asked. But if that person later refuses to pay you back, no one cares if you then chuck him out an airlock. In a society without the ability to employ the state to enforce contracts, personal honor reigns.

There is a lot more along those lines. Heinlein was probably the most astute science fiction writer of his time when it came to really understanding how societies emerge.

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46 David Morris October 30, 2017 at 11:17 am

https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction/robert-coover-reads-italo-calvino

Robert Coover reads “The Daughters of the Moon,” by Italo Calvino.

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47 CMc October 30, 2017 at 12:14 pm

I agree on classics only being known in hindsight. I don’t think I can know even what will be classics from the last twenty years. Many books that become classics were not very popular at the time, and others were hailed as future classics and all but vanished.

I think most all of Stephenson’s cyberpunkish books are better than anything from Gibson, thus I expect Neuromancer to be a classic, but I’m not a fan. I hope the Baroque Cycle is read for a long time to come, but perhaps it’s too voluminous. I think a lot of Stephenson’s work other work is very much of its time and might not hold up. Maybe Anathem, which I loved, will.

I’m glad Tyler shared this. I rarely reread things I read as a teen any more, for fear of disappointment, but I’ll give it a shot in this case.

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48 Adrian Ratnapala October 31, 2017 at 4:58 am

I agree 20 years is not enough for a determination of classicitude. So I meant to pick Stephenson and Reynolds as a kind of bet — they are good contenders but only time will tell.

I still think that being of a certain time is not necessarily a bad thing. A tale of two cities is a book of its time, and the film version of 2001 Space Oddessy actually gains from being (in hindsight) about 1960’s. So I think Cryptomnicon will go down in history as Stephenson’s best novel — though partly because it serves as The Baroque Cycle lite. I prefer Anathem.

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49 CMc October 31, 2017 at 10:48 am

An interesting take. I can see how Cryptomnicon has value in saying something of the time (the contemporary portion) in which it is set.

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50 Careless October 30, 2017 at 4:07 pm

What really bugged me in the book: every time they go through a significant victory/milestone the AI tells them that it has caused their probability to succeed to drop.

I do not believe he understood probability.

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51 Rusty Synapses October 30, 2017 at 6:59 pm

I always enjoyed that part. I don’t remember exactly how it developed, but I think it’s that even though you take the right action, other circumstances have changed (and information of the probabilities has improved) so you do the right thing, but the probability goes down (not immediately, but by the time Mike tells him).

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52 Careless October 30, 2017 at 11:16 pm

That is not that way probability works. Every time you pass a check successfully the odds of your success go up. It’s really obvious math

Now, you can say you’ve found new information that makes your success less likely, but that’s not what happened in the book

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53 Adrian Ratnapala October 31, 2017 at 5:01 am

That drove me nuts too, but no less than Nate Silver makes the same mistake. I remember he had a graph of how his model predicted the probability of this-or-that election outcome. Since the graph showed obvious he trends, everyone, including Nate started reasoning from eyeballed extrapolations. It never seemed to occur to anyone at fivethirtyeight that this means model was not really giving a probability.

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54 Brent Buckner November 1, 2017 at 8:13 am

I believe that should be “_The First Men in the Moon_” not “_The First Man in the Moon_”

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