Retro Review: Glory Road

22 Apr

ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger.”

I cannot decide, after finishing Glory Road for the first (and probably the last) time, if the book is a poor fantasy novel or a brilliant deconstruction of the genre. On one hand, I disliked large swathes of it intensely; on the other, I noted a number of interesting points where Heinlein invites us to see just how absurd the characters are. Glory Road is not completely unreadable – and, like most of Heinlein’s works, it had its good points, but it has simply not aged very well. There were times when I cringed while reading and that is not a good thing.

Glory Road’s ‘hero’ is a man of many names (I’ll stick with Oscar) who spends the first section of the book bumming around Europe after being discharged from the US Army, hoping to find meaning in his life. After a brief moment of feeling rich when he lands a jackpot lottery ticket, and trying to come to terms with the problems such wealth would cause him, Oscar sees a girl who catches his eye immediately. But he doesn’t catch her name.

Shortly afterwards, he answers a classified ad for a ‘hero’ and finds himself roped into a quest for the Egg of the Phoenix by the girl, whose name is Star. Accompanied by Rufo – a squire and jack of all trades who seems to like dirty fighting – Oscar is dragged from crisis to crisis on his trip down the Glory Road, eventually convincing Star to marry him shortly before he proves his hero credentials by successfully recovering the Egg. At this point, Star reveals that she is actually the Empress of the Twenty Universes, Rufo is her grandson and Oscar is now her consort. The Egg is really a collection of memories belonging to the last rulers of the universe.

Oscar is welcome in her home, apparently, but he really doesn’t fit in, eventually coming to the conclusion that he isn’t any better than a gigolo. (An irony, given that Star originally condemned Earth’s habit of prostitution in all its forms.) The life of a retired hero is not all it’s cracked up to be. He goes back to Earth and discovers that he really doesn’t fit in there either. Having got into the habit of having adventures, and resolving not to die in his bed, Oscar sets out along the Glory Road again …

The problem with Glory Road is that the relatively strong first and third sections are badly let down by the middle. I came very close to simply deciding it wasn’t worth continuing, for reasons I will detail before; in hindsight, there was a logic behind the aspects I found objectionable, but I thought twice about reading far enough to learn what it was.

Oscar starts the book alienated from his society, wandering the world in desperate search of something meaningful to do with his life. He comes across as both sympathetic and unsympathetic, his wry observations on society contrasting oddly with a cold-blooded attempt to dodge military service (presumably in Vietnam) and a complete lack of loyalty to anyone other than himself. It’s easy to feel sorry for him. And yet … he also acts like an entitled brat on the Glory Road, bickering with Star (who, to be fair, acts childish herself during that section). He marries Star and seems to think he has a right to dominate her, yet he doesn’t ask the right questions when it seems as though Star is willing to do anything for him. This actually weakens the book in more ways than one. Quite apart from the misogyny, we are simply not told why the Egg is important until after the quest is over.

The deconstruction commences at the same time. What does the hero do after the quest is over? Oscar, it seems, never thought about it. He finds the sudden role reversal between Star and himself to be more than a little disconcerting; he is bound by customs and social mores that simply do not apply to Star and her people. Oscar is now the child and Star, over two hundred years old, is now the adult. He wears it poorly. In many ways, Oscar reminds me of the jock who won a football game in high school … and is still talking about his amazing victory decades later, after everyone else has moved on. On one hand, it’s easy to feel sorry for him – and to understand his annoyance at pettifogging regulations when he’s back on Earth – but, on the other, it’s hard not to see him as an ungrateful brat. He reminds me of some of the Culture’s citizens, whining about the lack of meaning in their lives. There are lots of people here who would happily trade places.

Star is, at first, almost a parody of the standard woman in fantasy tropes. She is alternatively encouraging and bratty, both helping Oscar to overcome his nerves and berating him for mistakes he didn’t know not to make. When Oscar mans up, she shifts into submissiveness … something that nearly made me throw the book aside … until the end of the second section, where she resumes her role as empress. It rapidly becomes clear that she was having a holiday romance with Oscar – she had the chance to let her hair down and pretend to be someone else for a while – and that things will not be the same. It’s difficult to tell if she actually loves Oscar or not, but I think she doesn’t. She certainly treats him very unfairly – he married her without knowing what he was really getting into.

As always with Heinlein, Glory Road includes a great deal of social commentary. Oscar points out that, if you spend years beating the patriotism out of children, you can hardly complain when the grown-up children refuse to fight for their country. This is noted in ways both overt and covert, from the lack of support for war veterans (at least until the GI Bill is expanded again) to Uncle Sam’s money-grabbing habits. Oscar concludes that the taxman will take two-thirds of his lottery winnings and, while its hard to feel sorry for that attitude, it must be noted that a person who genuinely earns the money will see it vanishing and grow to resent paying the government, particularly when the government doesn’t seem to offer anything in return. He also notes that customs in one part of the globe are not the same as customs in another, something that gets him into trouble on the Glory Road. But really, who would have expected an innkeeper to be offended when the hero refuses to sleep with his wife and daughters?

The politics in the book are also particularly odd. Star’s system of government – all-powerful empress who keeps her hands off as much as possible – is held up as superior to democracy, but that assumes that the emperors and empresses will always be good people. Even Star cannot grasp everything, which means her decisions – handed down from a distance – will always be flawed. Democracy is not a perfect system either, but it does provide a way to remove unsuitable leaders.

At the same time, the book also includes a great deal of pointless tilititation. I can’t decide if Heinlein was genuinely trying to write sexual material or not, or if he was still writing under restrictions from the gatekeepers, but it comes across very poorly. Writing erotica was not one of Heinlein’s talents and, again, it shows. One may regard Star’s society as ideal, in some ways – there is no prostitution because there are no controls on women – but one may also view it as a poorly-drawn ideal society. That said, Heinlein does manage to poke fun at a few sacred cows; what’s the difference, Star asks, between paying a woman for sex and taking her out to dinner first? There is a bluntness around their society which is oddly refreshing.

Panshin called Heinlein’s third period (1959-1967, which includes Glory Road) the Period of Alienation. And, while I disagree with Panshin on many issues, I think he might have had a point. Heinlein, I suspect, was coming to realise that many of the wonders he’d written about were not going to materialise as quickly as he’d hoped. Flying cars, lunar bases, starships and even immortality .. they were trapped in the future, while Heinlein himself saw the world getting smaller and society threatening to collapse. Indeed, there is a profound sense of alienation (a word I have used many times) running through Glory Road, to the point where it is hard to tell if Heinlein was blind to Oscar’s failings or expected us to see them for ourselves. (He did the same thing later, in Farnham’s Freehold, but there the subtext is clear that we are not supposed to sympathise with Farnham.) Heinlein was aware that society was moving and changing and, like all people raised in traditionalistic societies, he found the process uncomfortable. All the old certainties could no longer be counted upon, for better or worse. The urge to go back to a simpler time, warts and all, can be overpowering at times.

At base, Glory Road is about a man searching for meaning in his life. Oscar yeans for adventure, which he puts into words:

“What did I want?

“I wanted a Roc’s egg. I wanted a harem loaded with lovely odalisques less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels, the rust that never stained my sword. I wanted raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist and feed that lousy claim jumper to the huskies! I wanted to get up feeling brisk and go out and break some lances, then pick a likely wench for my droit du seigneur—I wanted to stand up to the Baron and dare him to touch my wench! I wanted to hear the purple water chuckling against the skin of the Nancy Lee in the cool of the morning watch and not another sound, nor any movement save the slow tilting of the wings of the albatross that had been pacing us the last thousand miles.

“I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.

“I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be—instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.”

Say what you like about Glory Road, that is a pretty evocative passage.

In some ways, Glory Road speaks to me because I wanted adventure too, when I was a kid. There is a part of me that would be tempted, if the call to adventure came now. But there’s also a bit of me that knows that adventure means being in deep shit, far away; adventurers, whatever the cause, leave dead bodies, broken lives and worse in their wake. The romance of adventure is gone. And, in some ways, this is a bad thing. We, as a society, need a frontier, a place to go and grow. Instead, governments are getting bigger – which means stupider – and intrusion into private lives is growing ever worse. These days, the Fellowship of the Ring would be buried in paperwork before they ever got out of the Shire.

And, of course, there’s a bit of me that cringes at the sexual elements within the book.

My feelings about this book are decidedly mixed, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. It has its moments, but the middle section lets the other two down badly. Most of Heinlein’s books, if I may borrow a line from the Holy Rewatch series, have aged like fine wine. Glory Road has more than a hint of rancid vinegar.

5 Responses to “Retro Review: Glory Road”

  1. MishaBurnett April 23, 2018 at 1:32 am #

    I see this book as Heinlein’s midlife crisis. There is a lot of dialogue in this book that feels like the author is trying to justify sexual licentiousness to himself–so much so that the action often grinds to a halt to give the characters time to discuss the subject in detail. Also, Heinlein seems to alternate between praising heroic action and mocking it.

  2. Ann April 23, 2018 at 2:10 am #

    It was a book I read as a young teenager and not one I’ve ever re-read. It’s interesting reading your comments on the books I read so long ago and so eagerly after they came out. I remember liking his earlier works better than his later works but these are books from my past I doubt I’ll ever revisit.

  3. Daniel April 23, 2018 at 2:42 am #

    I have fond memories of this book. But not sure if I have read it in the last decade or so

  4. PhilippeO April 23, 2018 at 12:33 pm #

    We, as society, need frontier, place to go and grow.

    Is this true ? It seems more of myth than fact. Denmark and Switzerland is not exactly bad place, and Chinese empire and Old Egypt is centre of surrounding world.

    and modern advocates of UBI (and Gene Roddenberry fans) sometimes make arguments that society that common people and poor live comfortable lives is far better than society where poor can climb to top, but vast majority lives poorer lives.

  5. sam57l0 April 24, 2018 at 1:13 am #

    I’m pretty sure I read this when it came out, and I read it again 1-2 years ago. There was something that I remembered from the search for and retrieval of the Egg that I didn’t find in the rereading, so I wondered how I’d made that up, or if this was not the physical book that I read back when. Not one of his best novels, but I still enjoyed it.

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