Compared with Rocketship Galileo (reviewed HERE – link) and, as you might expect with nearly 20 years difference, this is a book very different to the juveniles Heinlein was famous for writing. Following on a couple of years after Stranger in a Strange Land, this is the older, more mature Heinlein writing with adult themes, albeit in a humorous context.
Unusually for Heinlein, Glory Road is generally regarded as a comic Fantasy, clearly a lighter book than much of his material around this time. Just to put that in historical context, the militaristic Starship Troopers was published 1959, the seminal Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961 and Podkayne of Mars in 1963. By comparison, Glory Road is a novel with the semblance of traditional Fantasy tropes (quests, swords, dragons) though with additional SF trappings (usually to do with mathematics, time and space) especially at the end.
Though Podkayne is seen by some as ‘the last of the Heinlein juveniles’ (admittedly not by Heinlein himself, who thought it was more grown-up), the majority of Heinlein’s writing at this stage indicates a willingness to be more adult and deal with bigger issues than Ross, Morrie and Art of Rocketship Galileo ever dealt with. (The frustration over the publication of Podkayne, written about by Heinlein in Grumbles from the Grave, also illustrates this.)
If Podkayne is a juvenile and Stranger an adult novel, then Glory Road has the fortune to sit nearer the adult end of the spectrum, after those difficult ‘young adult’ years. It is a book that deals with adult issues of sex and sexuality, cultural mores, war and death, yet at other times, both in terms of plot and tone, it can be jokey, almost to the point of silly.
The initial part of the plot reads as a light-hearted ramble about a protagonist that, now in his twenties, has found it difficult to settle down to anything. Evelyn Cyril “E.C.” Gordon (also known as “Easy”, “Flash”, and “Scar”) has been recently discharged from an unnamed ‘war’ in Southeast Asia (possibly Vietnam, but to me read as Korea). When the novel starts he is wondering what to do with his future and, now living on l’Île du Levant, considers spending a year travelling around France.
However, on reading a newspaper, he responds to an advertisement which asks “Are you a coward?” On further investigation he discovers that the ad has been placed by Star, a stunningly gorgeous woman he had previously met on l’Île du Levant. Star informs him that he is the one to embark on a perilous quest to retrieve the Egg of the Phoenix. When she asks what to call him, he tells her “Oh, Scar.” She repeats this as “Oscar”, and thus gives him his new name. Along with Rufo, her assistant, who appears to be a man in his fifties, they tread the “Glory Road” in swashbuckling style, slaying minotaurs, dragons, and other creatures. It’s all rather reminiscent (and I’m sure deliberately so) of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter, who is referenced a few times in this novel.
The book then becomes a quest story with the team hunting for the Egg of the Phoenix. Oscar and Star get married. They have a variety of challenges to get through before reaching the Egg. At the Egg Oscar fights a battle against ‘the Never-Born’, the last guardian of the Egg, but eventually wins and escapes with his prize. In another twist, Rufo informs Oscar that Star is actually the empress of twenty universes — and Rufo’s grandmother.
And here’s where the science fictional elements step in more obviously. The Egg of the Phoenix is actually a cybernetic record of the knowledge and experiences of 203 Emperors and Empresses before Star. The quest was to recover the Egg which has been stolen and allow Star to take up her role as empress, for the Egg will only work for her. Despite her youthful appearance, we discover that Star is the mother of dozens of children, and has undergone special medical treatments that extend her life much longer than usual. She now has to complete her training by absorbing the knowledge held within the Egg, which she does by imprinting each of her previous post-holders to her brain.
The only solution for him in the end is, on Star’s advice, to set off on the Glory Road (clearly an allegory for Life’s journey) with Rufo again. For what use is a hero without a challenge?
And this perhaps is the crux of the book.
When I first read this, my overriding emotion was that I felt sorry for the dragons that Oscar hunted: clearly a weakness on my part that Heinlein wouldn’t have approved of! But what we have here is a fantasy quest novel written in that deceptively engaging Heinlein style from the first person. This would not be that different to his earlier novels (and is perhaps worth a comparison with Heinlein’s previous novel, Podkayne of Mars, with its female protagonist.)
However, along the way there are the first explicit suggestions as to what will become more noticeable characteristics of the later Heinlein novels: lengthy musing (which some see as lecturing) on the part of the narrator, references to sex (here rather obliquely but quite risqué for the time), spanking and polygamous (or at least open) relationships, and that male/female (or husband/wife) sparring repartee that passes in Heinlein’s later novels as conversation. And yes, we have that Heinlein cliché appear of nipples standing up (though, thankfully, not going ‘spung’ yet: see later books.)
Despite all of these traditional Heinlein tropes, I must admit that the ending is a surprising one, although (when I have thought about it) typically Heinlein. If the Glory Road is an allegory for life’s journey, then both Oscar and ourselves must continue to tread along its route, continually finding new challenges if they wish to be fulfilled in the end. Once an adventurer, according to Heinlein, always an adventurer, looking for the next ‘big thing’. It makes me think that Heinlein’s been reading a lot of Hemingway…
Glory Road is an unusual book from an author trying to set himself new challenges. Though it didn’t entirely work for me, it was overall quite enjoyable and better than I remember much of Heinlein’s later work to be. It deserves credit for trying to be different, and I suspect that this is also the reason why it was nominated for a Hugo Award in 1964 – the year, coincidentally, I was born.
Glory Road by Robert A Heinlein.
First published 1963 (UK; 1965) expanded from magazine version in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July – September 1963.
First edition published by G P Putnam & Sons, 1963.
Mark Yon, May 2009