To Understand Elon Musk, You Have to Understand This ’60s Sci-Fi Novel

Elon Musk says The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is one of his favorite books. That checks out: the novel is about a lunar colony that bravely cuts off resources to its starving Earth dependents.

Elon Musk arrives for the 2022 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2022, in New York. (Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images)

Elon Musk styles himself as a character out of science fiction, posing as an ingenious inventor who will send a crewed mission to Mars by 2029 or imagining himself as Isaac Asimov’s Hari Seldon, a farseeing visionary planning ahead centuries to protect the human species from existential threats. Even his geeky humor seems inspired by his love for Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

But while he may take inspiration from science fiction, as Jill Lepore has observed, he’s a bad reader of the genre. He idolizes Kim Stanley Robinson and Iain M. Banks while ignoring their socialist politics, and he overlooks major speculative traditions such as feminist and Afrofuturist science fiction. Like many Silicon Valley CEOs, he primarily sees science fiction as a repository of cool inventions waiting to be created.

Musk engages with most science fiction in a superficial manner, but he is a very careful reader of one author: Robert A. Heinlein. He named Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress from 1966 as one of his favorite novels. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a libertarian classic second only to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in its propaganda value for neoliberal capitalism. It inspired the creation of the Heinlein Prize for Accomplishments in Commercial Space Activities, which Musk won in 2011. (Jeff Bezos is another recent winner.)

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress popularized the motto “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” often used by defenders of capitalism and opponents of progressive taxation and social programs. It’s about a lunar colony that frees itself, via advanced and cleverly applied technology, from the resource-sucking parasitism of Earth and its welfare dependents. In this instance, it appears that Musk correctly caught the author’s drift.

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Heinlein filled his fiction with loudmouthed men who claim to be accomplished polymaths. They boss everyone around, make decisions on a whim, and ignore advice regardless of the consequences. In other words, they act just like the CEO of Tesla, Inc. Likewise, Musk often attracts investors through publicity stunts rather than proven science and engineering, a self-marketing strategy that puts him, as Colby Cosh has pointed out, in the same dubious company as Heinlein’s space entrepreneur D. D. Harriman in his story “The Man Who Sold The Moon.”

But Heinlein wasn’t in the business of criticizing free-market capitalism — far from it. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress depicts a moon colony forced by the centralized Lunar Authority to ship food to Earth where it goes to feed starving people in places like India. The lunar citizens, or Loonies, revolt against the state monopoly and establish a society characterized by free markets and minimal government. The Loonies welcome the Malthusian catastrophe that will follow their withdrawal of nutritional assistance from Earth because they believe population collapse will ultimately make the welfare dependents down there “more efficient people and better fed” in the long run.

In addition to basic libertarianism, the novel promotes what Evgeny Morozov would call “technological solutionism,” the belief that every social or political problem can be solved with the right technical fix. This ideology’s roots go back to the 1930s technocracy movement, which, as Lepore points out, numbered Musk’s grandfather among its adherents. Musk has taken up this legacy, promoting the electric car as the solution to climate change. In Musk’s view, private innovation rather than state intervention or activist politics will save the world.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress follows the same mindset. Although the Loonies advocate libertarian principles — we learn that “the most basic human right” is “the right to bargain in a free marketplace” — these prove secondary to the practical problem that Earth is draining Luna’s water and other resources at a rate they predict will result in mass starvation on the Moon.

Their solution to this problem touts itself as equally scientific. In the book we learn that an insurrectionary group is no different from “an electric motor”: it must be designed by experts with function in mind. The Loonies’ revolutionary conspiracy decides that “revolutions are not won by enlisting the masses. Revolution is a science only a few are competent to practice. It depends on correct organization and, above all, on communications.” Acting on this principle, one of the coconspirators, Mannie the computer technician, designs their clandestine cell system like a “computer diagram” or “neural network,” mapping out how information will flow between revolutionists. They determine the best way of organizing a cadre not through democratic deliberation or practical experience but through cybernetic principles.

Mannie’s disinterest in the messy business of political persuasion is a strength, not a weakness, because it allows him to see people as mere nodes in the network. Indeed, Manny’s narration throughout the novel uses engineering terms to describe human beings and social interactions. He describes one woman as “[s]elf-correcting, like a machine with proper negative feedback.” Mannie, who boasts a cyborg arm, treats others as mechanisms in need of tinkering. Musk’s brain-machine interface company, Neuralink, attempts to operationalize this idea.

For Mannie and his coconspirators, democratic input from the revolution’s mass base is “noise” that can only interfere with the signals transmitted from the elite leadership outward to their interconnected web of subordinates. Even when it comes time to establish a constitution for the Luna Free State, the conspirators use clever procedural tricks to do an end run around everyone in the congress who is not a member of their clique. Smart individuals always win out over mass democracy in Heinlein’s fiction — and that’s a good thing.

The novel takes solutionism to the extreme when Mannie enlists the help of a sentient supercomputer named Mike to lead the overthrow of Earth’s colonial government on Luna. Anticipating the exuberance of the dot-com era, Heinlein suggests that a computer can foment change better than any movement or organization. Mike’s revolutionary tactics reflect the novel’s obsession with communications: much of the book is devoted to the conspiracy’s attempts to shift public opinion against the Lunar Authority and sow confusion among the government’s ranks through hacking and media campaigns. Like the keyboard warriors of our present moment — the hyperonline Musk among them — Heinlein’s revolutionary elite hope to change society by manipulating information.

When revolutionary war breaks out, Mike’s technical superiority emerges as the deciding factor. Using electromagnetic catapults, the supercomputer hurls rocks at the Earth that impact with the force of atomic explosions. The Federated Nations of Earth are forced to grant their lunar colonies independence after this calculated show of force. In the end, the Loonies achieve political emancipation thanks to a gadget.

Markets and Machines

These ideas would later feed into what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron call the Californian ideology, a combination of techno-utopianism and economic libertarianism espoused by digital artisans such as software engineers working in Silicon Valley. As Barbrook and Cameron note, the Californian ideology’s evangelists in the 1990s tended to be science-fiction fans who loved Heinlein and fancied themselves countercultural rebels bringing about a golden age of freedom by building the electronic marketplace. They believed that once unleashed from physical as well as governmental constraints, the free market would produce new technologies to address every possible problem or need.

Even more fundamentally, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress reflects a prevailing dogma that promotes cybernetics as the key to understanding the universe. Under this belief system, everything from markets to ecosystems appear as information processors operating based on feedback mechanisms. Like a thermostat, they respond to changing circumstances without conscious human control. Because the economy is a self-regulating system too complex for anyone to understand let alone steer, the Californian ideologists suggest, it should be insulated from democratic interference by a global legal order developed by neoliberal experts.

Musk has immersed himself in this ideology since his involvement with PayPal in the 1990s, and so it makes sense that he would be drawn to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. He’s so mired in this way of thinking that he entertains the idea that all of reality is a computer simulation. In many ways, Musk models himself on Mannie the computer technician, the wisecracking rebel who only wants the government to get out of his way so he can make things work. When Musk encounters traffic congestion, he doesn’t see it as a failure of urban planning or a problem following from underinvestment in mass transit. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity to build a hyperloop. His solution to everything is an invention developed and marketed by rogue geniuses in the private sector. His faith in technofixes is so great that he imagines machines as potential overlords waiting to take over. There is more than a hint of Mike in his fear of an impending robot apocalypse.

Even his efforts to acquire Twitter and strip it of content restrictions seem to be motivated by the same ideology. Fred Turner argues that Musk’s opposition to content moderation stems from a belief that information wants to be free. When speech counts as data rather than dialogue, it becomes impossible to see why hate speech might be harmful.

Musk’s belief system rules out the idea that society is riven by antagonisms, least of all class struggle. He will always see problems like climate disaster as purely technical rather than derived from the profit-seeking behavior of the corporations ruining the planet. If science fiction reveals the contradictions of capitalism and encourages us to imagine alternatives, then Musk’s sci-fi persona is a cheap imitation. As a libertarian and a technocrat, the best he can do is fantasize about handing the revolution over to the machines.