Robert A. Heinlein
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Robert Heinlein’s novel Glory Road. It’s the closest thing to heroic fantasy he ever wrote, although by the end of the book it’s clear that science fantasy is a better (but not entirely accurate) label.
This wasn’t the first Heinlein I ever read. That would be Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. (I’m planning on reading the Heinlein juveniles in the order they were written and writing about them at Futures Past and Present next year.) I’d read a number of the juveniles by the time I read Glory Road.
Nor was it the first adult novel by Heinlein I read. I’d read Sixth Column in paperback, plus the omnibus A Heinlein Trio from the Science Fiction Book Club containing The Puppet Masters, Double Star, and The Door into Summer. I probably had read Universe by that time, although my memory isn’t clear on that one.
What Glory Road was, however, was the first adult Heinlein I read that actually had adult content. And by adult content, I mean sexual content. I was 14 or 15 at the time I read it. It was something of a shock, since nothing I’d read by him was that sexual in nature, or if it was, either I was too naive to pick up on it or it didn’t make enough of an impression that I remembered it.
In the 30+ years since, I’ve not read Glory Road again. It’s not really considered one of Heinlein’s top novels, certainly not like Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, or Starship Troopers. And it was different enough from what I had read up to that time that I wasn’t too crazy about it. So I thought since it was the anniversary, I’d give it another try.
There are things you read in your youth that stick with you, things you recall that you don’t necessarily remember where you first read them. I was surprised at how many of those things were in Glory Road. Nothing major, just phrases and wordings that made enough of an impression that I still remember them three decades on down the road. Plus the whole jumping over a sword as a wedding ceremony thing.
While I’d forgotten much of the story, what I did recall was pretty much as I remembered it. A former soldier is biding his time in France before he has to head back to the States. Having just finished a tour of duty in Viet Nam (Heinlein never actually calls it that), E. C. Gordon is hanging out on an almost nude beach where he meets one of the most beautiful women he’s ever seen. They chat for a while, then she leaves.
The next day, while killing time waiting for a train, an ad in the personal column catches his eye. Someone is recruiting an adventurer, and the office is right around the corner from him. He decides to check it out. At the office, a little white haired bald man sends him to an examining room for a physical. The doctor is the woman from the beach.
He never makes his train. Instead, Gordon (dubbed “Oscar” by the woman he now calls “Star”) is off on a transdimensional quest to recover the Phoenix Egg. Along the way, he’ll have to slay dragons and monsters. And find what he thinks is true love.
Note that true love and free love are not mutually exclusive in this book. Star comes from a society where open marriages are the accepted norm. Remember Glory Road was published a couple of years after Stranger in a Strange Land.
The thing that caught my attention as a teen, though, was the scene fairly early on in the quest where Gordon, Star, and Rolfo (the white haired bald guy) have stopped at a nobleman’s house. Gordon is getting ready to go to bed when the lady of the manor arrives with her two daughters, one of them barely more than a kid. He’s told to choose which one(s) of them he’d like to share his bed with. Not understanding that it was considered an honor for a hero to spread his seed among the women of a royal house if he visited, he turns them down and triggers a major diplomatic incident. One that can only be resolved one way…(nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
This stuff was a far cry from Heinlein’s juveniles, or the Danny Dunn books I’d been reading before moving onto Heinlein. While any actual sex is off stage, you know there’s plenty going on. And a whole lot more discussion of it in the book.
Of course, viewed from the perspective of middle age, this isn’t as shocking as it was at fifteen. Besides, I knew pretty much what to expect when I started rereading it, which wasn’t the case the first time around.
There were some things I found grating. Star doesn’t come across as a believable woman. It turns out she’s a major political player across multiple dimensions. In addition to being a highly competent physician and a skilled fighter. Yet she acts like a simpering damsel in distress through much of the book. The dialogue between Gordon and Star at times borders on the nauseating, to the point I almost went and checked my blood sugar levels. Part of this is a function of which language they’re speaking at a given time. During an argument near the end of the book, they switch languages a couple of times, and the way they talk changes each time the language they’re using changes.
Still, her wilting flower routine got old fast. She changed from “Bitch” (her term for herself) to demure and submissive at the drop of a hat. What man in his right mind would put up with that. I don’t care how hot she is.
I’m not sure if Heinlein was lampooning epic fantasy or not. There are some subtle and not so subtle references to Conan, Oz, and Middle Earth in a few places. I didn’t remember them from the first time I read the book, so I may not have caught the references. Clearly he was having a bit of fun at times with this one.
I probably don’t have to tell you the magic in Glory Road isn’t exactly magic, but an application of Clarke’s Law. When the book was written, this was not as much of a cliche as it is now. And to be fair, Heinlein doesn’t spend a lot of time beating this drum. He’s too busy discussing sexual freedom within marriage.
Glory Road hasn’t aged as well as some of Heinlein’s other works. I doubt it will ever be considered one of his major novels, although I prefer it to Stranger or Farnham’s Freehold, which are from this period. On the other hand, I much would reread Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which are also from the sixties. Whatever your thoughts on the novel (assuming you’ve read it), Glory Road is unique among Heinlein’s works and worth recognizing on its 50th anniversary.