When I picked up my copy of “Glory Road,” I was met with a cover depicting a buxom woman in tights, a dwarf and a guy dressed like Robin Hood battling what appears to be a fire-breathing dinosaur and a blurb proclaiming this one of the “best SF novels of all-time.” And I thought to myself–this is precisely why some people don’t take science-fiction as a literary genre seriously. Covers like this that depict such absurd scenes really can put off the serious intellectuals who look down their nose at sci-fi and can’t see the forest for the trees.
Then I read the book and the scene on the cover actually happens within the pages of “Glory Road.”
I guess that whole “don’t judge a book by its cover thing” thing really does apply here.
And here we come to my yearly reading of Heinlein. I participate in a science-fiction and fantasy discussion group and each year our January selection is by Robert Heinlein. Having read “Starship Troopers” last year and missed a discussion on “Stranger in a Strange Land,” that leaves a lot of the other “lesser” Heinlein novels on the table for reading and discussion. I tried suggesting a collection of short stories but after hearing this one advertised as young man answers classified ad for hero and has adventures, I have to admit I was kind of intrigued by it. Looking at when it was written by Heinlein, I was hopeful it might be from the period before he became old, pervy and pretty much insane.
Alas, “Glory Road” is a preview of the old, pervy and insane Heinlein to come.
E.C. “Scar” Gordon is your typical, later period Heinlein hero. By that, I mean he’s this fantasized version of himself that Heinlein puts into just about all of his later books. Gordon is a man’s man, virile, red-blooded, full of opinions and completely attractive to every woman he encounters. Women can’t resist him becuase…umm….well, if you figure that one out you let me know. Gordon is the veteran of an unnamed war in Asia (clearly the Vietnam war, though at the time Heinlein wrote, that name hadn’t stuck yet) who decides to finish his education on the G.I. Bill. That is until he finds out that Congress hasn’t approved the funding, leaving him stuck in Europe. He decides to spend some time in France in a town where going around in the buff is common and fully accepted by everyone. On the beach one day, he sees a stunningly beautiful woman who he falls instantly in love with though he fails to do something silly like catch her name or introduce himself. The next day he is torn between trying to find this beautiful woman or taking advantage of his ticket in the Irish Sweepstakes.
Upon finding his ticket is a fake, he returns to town and tries to find the girl. But to no luck. He sees an ad various papers he reads, looking for a hero and since it applies to him–all except the part about being handsome, he says–he decides to follow up on it before returning to the United States.
And lo and behold, the naked girl from the beach is the one who placed the ad. To find him. I’m not joking on that one. Gordon calls her Star and she says she needs a hero to accompany her and a dwarf on a dangerous journey, full of peril to retrieve some object becuase…well, she doesn’t actually tell him at this point.
It’s at this point (and this is only the first third at best of the novel) that the book begins to quickly derail. As I said before, Oscar is clearly a Heinlein stand-in and it’s only moments before Star is desparately in love with him. Why I’m not sure, since the guy is a manipulative, controlling man who threatens to keep her in line by spanking her if the need arises. Star, who apparently hasn’t been around any men lately, finds this incredibly sexy and falls deeper and deeper in love. Eventually, the two get married but not before Star offers to let Oscar sample her first sexually. In fact, upon his proposal, Star offers to jump his bones right there on the Glory Road.
Meanwhile, the trio are on some kind of quest, journeying up the road. At several points, Oscar asks Star what the nature of their quest is, only to have her deflect the question. This gets frustrating because it’s clearly Heinlein trying to keep the coming twist a secret as long as possible. But given that Gordon is such a man’s man and in complete control over Star, it’s hard to believe that he’ll just accept the secret and not pursue it further. It’s a contradiction in character that is alarmingly apparent and really ruins the middle third of this novel.
And believe me, there’s a lot working against the middle third of this book. A journey up the Glory Road should be, well, exciting. Or at least interesting. Instead, it’s just…well, there. There is the battle with fire-breathing dinosaurs and the way that Oscar deals with a couple of threats requires such a huge suspension of disbelief that it completely took me out of the story. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the long sections of characters sitting around discussing Heinlein’s views on women and sexual relationships. If you think the whole Star offering herself right there to Oscar is a bit out there, wait until you get to the part of where the ruler offers his three daughters to Oscar. In many ways, it’s a preview of the later Heinlein obsession with the idea that monogomy goes against the basic urges and insticts of mankind. And that men, if the right kind of man mind you, should be able to have sex with whoever and whenever possible in order to sow the wild oats and produce more men like him.
Thankfully, the novel finally ends this third and we find out the twist. Star is the Queen of the Multiverses. And Gordon is her husband/consort. The final third of the novel has some more interesting moments, though Heinlein’s political idea that the best way to deal with any issue is to leave it alone seems a bit naive at best. It may stem from feelings at the time of writing about the conflict in Vietnam.
The final third tries to look at how Oscar reacts to his new life and what really gives life meaning and purpose. When it gets there, it is interesting and almost enough to redeem the novel. But not quite.
I’ve read several places that many consider this one of Heinlein’s top novels. I can’t say I agree. I will admit I’ve read only a limited amount of Heinlein, but “Glory Road” is precisely one of those novels that exemplifies why I just can’t get excited about reading more of his works.