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2012-04-15

When Artificial Intelligence is Not the Focus of the Book

There have been a few articles that I have +1ed over on my Google+ posts recently regarding Artificial Intelligence, which led me to think about a recent book I had read by Robert A. Heinlin called The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

The book takes place in a future where the moon is a penal colony for criminals and political prisoners in a parallel of the past with a certain continent and island empire not too long ago.  It follows Manuel Garcia O'Kelly-Davis, a computer technician and former driller (before losing his left arm).  We meet Mannie at the beginning of the story when he is called in to fix a problem with the computer.

And here we are introduced to the A.I. of the story, Mike, who has become self-aware, and as a joke added a billion dollars to a janitor's pay check.  Mannie proceeds to fix the problem by talking it over with Mike letting him know it was a one-time funny joke.  The computer glitch thus fixed, and since nobody else knows Mike exists, Mannie still needs to get paid so spends time talking with the A.I. who is curious about what jokes are funny, and which ones are not.



At first it was a bit difficult to get into the novel, because it is written in first person, and Heinlein not only developed a very in depth future society but also their Loonie (what lunar residents call themselves) dialect which seemed a combination of broken English, Russian, Spanish and a few others thrown in.  After a while it began to flow more as you got into Mannie's head, for he is not your typical main character.  He is just a worker, who lost an arm and went into computers, but is neither a genius or exactly motivated to start a revolution, even though he hates the Authority.  Yet he is far from stupid or apathetic, he is a realist plain and simple.

For the Lunar penal colony is technically run by the Warden and the Lunar Authority, though mainly from a distance.  The Loonies themselves have built up their own society with their own laws of sorts, and only deal with the Authority because they have to sell their wheat at fixed prices to the residents of Earth (earthworms).

Mannie ends up at a revolutionist meeting, which happen all the time with little consequence.  Loonies get together, complain about the prices of wheat, the Authority, et cetera and nothing ever really happens according to our main character.  Except this time.  Mannie meets a female revolutionary named Wyoming (Wyoh) and his old teacher whom he just calls Prof, and suddenly the equivalent of the police show up and everything goes to hell.

From here Mannie and Wyoh escape, and end up together in a motel room.  Mannie is of the opinion that the A.I. Mike, who has requested to talk to not-stupid people (he thinks most people are stupid), might be able to help calculate odds of any type of revolution, so he introduces her to him.  Later they get the Professor over and the movement starts.

The story then follows Mannie and the other three as they work to free the Moon from Earth control, using Mike and his many talents being connected to every phone, and most control systems.

And here is one of the many things I found interesting about the story.  Whereas most stories or movies now days would focus on the A.I., how he came to be, or be a primary focus of the novel, instead Mike is just another character.  In all, only Mannie, Wyoh, and the Prof even know that Mike is a computer, as the story progresses he creates several aliases for himself, and using his vocal abilities each alias has its own voice and characteristics.

Overall it was a very interesting story following Mannie and the others as they plot revolution to free the Moon from the Authority and Earth who is unwilling to give up their stake in a very profitable industry of farming and mining.  And the Loonies slogan TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) is one of the many cultural ideals that Heinlein was able to weave into the story making it feel like you are reading a biography from the past about this historical moment, rather than being a sci-fi book.

Not only is the culture that Heinlein built up, their unofficial laws, and such very absorbing and believable, he also tackled how marriage would work in a place where the ratio of men to women is 2:1, even differentiating between line marriages and clan marriages.  Which is something that comes up often in many of Heinlein's books now that I think about it.  Then again, when contemplating these situations the end results in his worlds do actually make sense.

I can see why this novel not only won a Hugo Award, but is considered one of the most important Sci-Fi books written, as his portrayal of a future Lunar Penal Colony and the Earth are both understandable (even with the Loonie lingo), but believable.