Book Review: Glory Road, by Robert A. Heinlein

Mama Fisi
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Continuing my attempts to read and comment upon the works of Robert A. Heinlein, I will now review his 1963 fantasy-adventure story, Glory Road.

Once upon a time, there was a young knight-errant who, unable to find any other way of supporting himself, joined the Army.  He was sent to a terrible place full of dangerous people who tried hard to kill him, but by some miracle he escaped; but the Army refused to pay him the money he'd been promised, so the young knight made his way to an island of lotus eaters, hoping to win a fortune in a convoluted lottery.

There, he saw an incredibly beautiful woman on the beach, and desired very much to meet her, and by a strange set of coincidences, he answered an ad that she had put into the local paper, seeking a hero for a dangerous quest. 

The woman turned out to be a witch, and she and her gruff assistant transported the knight to a distant, strange world, where he could prove his worth by defeating a hideous monster by forcing it to eat itself. After battling a herd of man-eating minotaurs, the hero nearly caused a disaster for the party when he inadvertently offended the local laird who had been kind to them, but he was able to set things straight by claiming ignorance of the clan's customs.

Reaching a teleportation gate guarded by fearsome dragons, the hero and his companions arrive in a hellish place where everything around them is deadly poison.  They use magic garters and an oaken arrow to fly through the air to the top of a massive tower.  Inside this tower is the object of their Quest, the Egg of the Phoenix.  The interior of the tower is arranged like n M.C. Escher maze, but the hero succeeds in finding the one true path to the Egg, and defeats its terrifying guardian, which seems to be able to twist his deepest insecurities against him.

The trio make good their escape, and arrive in a world where the hero discovers that the beautiful witch--whom he had married earlier in the story--is really an Empress of many worlds, who is hundreds of years old, and the elderly, gruff assistant is her grandson.  The Egg of the Phoenix is a device which contains the accumulated wisdom of seven thousand years of their culture, which had been stolen from the previous ruler.

Instead of a "happily ever after," the hero grows increasingly bored and dissatisfied with his new life of wealth and luxury as the Empress' consort.  He has everything he could possibly want, and yet he has no purpose, and so after an argument, he and the Empress decide it might be better if he went back to his home world for a while. 

The hero then discovers that all of the bad luck he'd had before meeting the beautiful witch has sorted itself out in his favor, and that apparently, she had been manipulating his life for many years in order to mold him into the hero she required for her Quest.  He attempts to go back to his old life, but he gets itchy feet and contacts the Empress' grandson in the hopes of going off on a new Quest.


This is, basically, the plot of Robert A. Heinlein's Glory Road.  On the whole, I found it to be an interesing book, but it had several rough patches that threw off the cadence of the narrative.  The story is a peculiar mix of good creative writing, and bumble-footed limping as he tries to pad a short story out to novel length.  It's a fantasy story with science fiction overtones that starts off with a long reality-based description of E. C. Gordon's difficulties with life, the universe, and the United states Army.

In fact, the story seems to have been stitched together from a ragbag of short ideas.  Heinlein also openly throws in numerous cameo references to famous adventure stories--for instance, I'm pretty sure one of the guardians of the Phoenix Egg was supposed to be Cyrano de Bergerac--along with some rather dull passages where Gordon and Star discuss comparative morality.  Not having been there when it was written, I can only speculate that Heinlein himself might not have been entirely sure what he wanted to do with this story.  It changes from being clever and well-paced to dull and groping with an audible grinding of gears.

I will say that, speaking as a writer, this story was instructive to me in what "not' to do--don't load your readers up with paragraphs upon paragraphs of boring social engineering diatribes, even if they're constructed as conversations between characters.  Nobody appreciates didactic adventure stories.  At least, I don't. 

And oh, there's the nudity.  I suppose there was a fad for getting naked in the 1960's, or maybe he was riffing on E.R. Burroughs' Barsoom series (which Heinlein quotes) but from the Isle du Levant where Gordon first meets Star, right through the rest of the book, these folks spend most of their time naked, or nearly so.  At least in the Burroughs books, you could forget that the characters were wearing nothing but leather, metal, and a few gemstones; in this one, you're reminded about it every couple of minutes.  It's really rather childish, this obsession with nudity masquerading as open-mindedness.  It's almost like he was daring Hollywood to try to make a movie out of this book (Note: there is a movie titled "Glory Road," but it's about a black college basketball team in 1966 Texas.  Not the same story.)

And of course, with nudity, you get sex.  Heinlein never describes any lovemaking, but he throws in scads of propositions or "adult situations" as the TV Guide would call them, and these, too, seem somewhat puerile, but then one must keep in mind the audience for which he was writing--young males. So although most of the bawdy adventures take place well off camera, you are never allowed to forget that the hero is manly, the heroine is the paragon of womanhood, the comic relief gets some in the kitchen, and everywhere but on Earth it's a terrible affront to turn down an offer of sexcapades, even when it comes from your host's favorite wife and nubile daughters.

And the "not so happily ever after" conclusion seems rather jarring.  In a way, it makes sense, as a man of action without an outlet for his energy can become as bored as a lion in a cage, but it's a bit of a let-down.  I wanted Gordon and Star to be deliriously happy together, but as soon as they had obtained the Egg of the Phoenix from the Mile-High Tower, BAMPF! oh by the way, things aren't at all as they appear, sorry old chum, you've been screwed over again...  On the one hand, it is a clever plot twist, but on the other hand, it's like changing the channel from Star Wars to Anna Karenina.

Despite these objections, I did enjoy the book.  I might have enjoyed it more as a short story or a novella, though.