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Glory Road (1963)

Robert A. Heinlein

New York: Baen; ISBN: 0-671-87704-6; Pages: 294.

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

This is the only straight fantasy novel that Heinlein ever published, complete with swords, sandals, dragons, maiden in distress, and magic. It usually rates among the top five for many fans and it did so for me too until I re-read it yesterday. I will now have to re-classify it by bumping it down close to the middle of the list. Better perhaps than some of the others (e.g. Beyond This Horizon) but definitely not among the best. This review is a bit of a post-mortem on this too.

Oscar Gordon (not his real name) is a veteran of the unWar in Vietnam (book was written in 1963). He takes his leave planning to study in Germany but finds out, to his dismay, that the G.I. Bill does not cover the unWar. On the little left to him from his pay, he goes to Nice (France) to sunbathe nude and waste time before returning to the USA. He meets a gorgeous naked woman who quickly disappears. On a whim, Oscar answers a strange ad in the paper:

ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We need a brave man [...] 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.
He finds the same beautiful woman, whom he names Star, and is soon deep in the vortex of an adventure accompanied by Her and the trusty sidekick Rufo. They travel to planet Nevia, where no firearm works, and using brawn & brains, bow & sword, they overcome various dangerous, omnivorous, and quite hostile obstacles, like Horned Ghosts. Oscar and Star get married and then the trio attacks the final destination: a labyrinth where the Soul-Eater guards the Egg of the Phoenix. They recover the Egg and Oscar finds out that his blushing bride is... the Empress of the Known Universes (that's plural). After finding the "happily ever after" boring and unsuitable for a Hero, Oscar quits his role as Her Wisdom's consort and returns to the US to do something, whatever. But he soon realizes that he longs for more adventure, he wants to walk the Glory Road again.

As a fantasy, this is so-so at best. It is miles short of Ursula Le Guinn, for example, not to mention Tolkien. The worlds are recognizably human, even if a bit implausible. In fact, most Nevia's customs, especially the ones relating to sex, will find full expression in Heinlein's later works. But the creatures are mundane (Horned Goats) and uninspired (dragons who are really dinosaurs). It's a nice swashbuckling adventure although the way Oscar defeats some of the monsters defy credulity even for a fantasy (e.g. Igli getting stuffed into himself). There's a lot of banter which is not nearly as amusing as the one in, say, The Rolling Stones, and Star's submissiveness does become grating fairly quickly.

Some have blasted Glory Road as an example of Heinlein's preoccupation with unhealthy sexual relationships.

Item: the free-for-all love between consenting adults. Well, as much as I would like to believe Heinlein, the notion that human beings will suddenly "free themselves" from jealousy, competitiveness, and acquisitiveness is ridiculous bordering on the idiotic. Too much of pride, self-esteem, even self-definition is involved with relating to one's partner, regardless of sexual preference. When one goes swingin', it's not "just sex" and it's not "just fun" when the other person is involved. If such a thing is done, I'd rather not know about it, truth be damned.

It is unreasonable to suppose that one will remain forever attracted to the same person sexually. In fact, and Heinlein hints at that at the end of this novel, even if you have the prettiest girl in bed, you'd be tired, if not sooner, then definitely later. Tired, that is, if sex is the only thing you share. But other things can keep the sexual flame going much longer, even if your eyes stray a bit here and there. The immense sexual appetite helps us overcome the first hurdle in a new relationship. If nothing new has been developed, then the relationship will wither with the sex drive. It's like driving uphill on a low tank of gas. It will only take you so far and if there isn't a gas station, you'll get stuck in the middle. The only difference is that you must build the station or else.

Sex, however, never loses its potency (hehehe, almost never). It become more than just plugging a stick in a hole, much more than simply having an orgasm now and then. And it does not appear to be a cultural thing, unless one concedes that most cultures are similar in that respect. Sexuality is intimately tied to the way we perceive ourselves and in the way we think others perceive us. When your girlfriend sleeps around, it's not simply "Oh well, sex is natural, this is to be expected." But something like "Shit. What did I do wrong? Why am I not enough? And why is this bitch doing this to me?" It's as simple as that, no matter how evolved or civilized you think you are. God help you if you are in love with said bitch. Then it will hurt, and I mean hurt, a hell of a lot more.

That's why depression is much deeper and suicidal when one's partner leaves instead of just dying. We all grieve, but the latter loss can be overcome more easily because it does not place a lasting blot on one's self-esteem. Death is painful but it's not your fault. On the other hand, when your love leaves, you are shattered not just because of this loss but because your sense of your own worth is out the window too. Ask psychiatrists and you will see. If you are going to leave someone that loves you, better make sure you're dead if you at all care for him/her.

Casual sex is fine as long as your partner does not find out about it. And since they invariably do sooner or later, you might as well forego the momentary pleasure. (I have to note here that the finding out seems to be a female skill. I think that if my wife fooled around and did not want me to find out, I will never find out. Your mileage may vary. Not by much.) That's why the openness that Heinlein tries to propagandize in Glory Road (among others) maybe kinky but is not realistic enough to be plausible. Therefore, moral claims to the side, there's nothing to be flustered about here.

Item: Oscar is an example of the naive romantic hero, a Boy Scout really. Oscar is unbelievably chivalrous, no doubt about it. I can swallow him being so struck by Star's beauty that he forgot to ask directions. Maybe I can swallow that he would agree to an adventure without asking for specifics. But I refuse to swallow that he would go through all that without trying to find out why they have to do all these things. There's a brief passage where Heinlein brushes this off, but it is not sufficient. The lack of curiosity is stunning especially coming from a Hero, who should be interested in everything.

At first, Oscar refuses to bed the three beautiful women because the youngest one seems too child-like for his tastes. Contrary to what some critics (e.g. Alexei Panshin) claim, this reason is valid. Most normal men in our culture would go limp when they think the girl is too young, and it does not matter how old she really is as long as she looks too young. It is not that Oscar is naive sexually, it's one of these cultural things. There are places where young teenagers are seen fit for child-bearing, but not here, not in the Western world. Oscar reacts exactly as one would expect him to and this has nothing to do with him being afraid of sex or being prudish. (Heinlein makes it perfectly clear what the reason is: he even talks about Oscar not going to bed with Vietnamese girls because they look too child-like too. Many would disagree on this one, but the point is obvious.) It is worth noting that he manages to sleep with at least the older ones later. It is never made clear what happened to the youngest.

Oscar's relationship with Star is also used as an example of Heinlein's naivete with respect to sex. Although Star is perfectly willing (and clearly states so on a number of occasions), Oscar would not touch her before he marries her. This, however, is not because he clings to the ritual and because he is old-fashioned, but because he is romantic, in a way that many girls dream that men would be but men seldom are. There's one thing that is invariable when it comes to romance: stupidity. In mean this in a good way. Romantics do things that would look embarrassing to hardened rationalist creatures. They may look downright stupid too. But that's why they are so endearing. It takes a lot of guts to chuck self-esteem out the door and go for broke. Oscar's actions seem naive in the extreme: why wouldn't he sleep with Star at first opportunity? Why insist on getting married? Because getting hitched is a symbol, it is a formal way for one person to say to another that s/he has accepted responsibility for the other's physical and emotional well-being. Ceremony is irrelevant, even the simplest wedding vows are binding because they are spoken in front of the only witness that matters---yourself. All the more believable is for Oscar to insist on marriage before sex, at least he won't be suspected of jumping the sword just to jump in the hay with Star.

One thing that does remain mysterious is Oscar's quick disposal of jealousy. It is simply unbelievable that a Western guy deeply in love with the most beautiful woman ever would be so understanding and forgiving about that. But then Heinlein is tricky: these are Oscar's pronouncements. In fact, Star does not really believe them because she tries to hide as much as possible from her past before him because she realizes how unreasonably hurt men can about this---Why is it that we always want our girlfriends to be whores in bed with us but virgins before they meet us? Where do we think they learn that sex thing? What's more, she very carefully lets him know that she has been monogamous ever since they "jumped over the sword." Rufo insinuates that this is not so, but then quickly makes sure that Oscar has no doubts about it. Even when Oscar leaves with the knowledge that there will be others in Star's life while he is gone, it's the sort of thing that one can live with because there's always (a) hope that she stays faithful for some reason, and (b) is she does not, she'll have enough sense to hide it later on. So who's to say whether Oscar got rid of his jealousy? He never had it tested.

So why didn't I like Glory Road this time around? First, as I mentioned, the treatment of sex is too casual and unrealistic to be convincing. I guess this casual attitude toward sex is what attracted me years ago to this novel, but now it does not work any more. Second, Star's complete submission to Oscar in their relationship is disgusting. "Milord Hero" and "Yes, Milord Husband" sounded cute back when I was in high school but not anymore. Okay, so Star continues to run the Universes, so what? She had apparently found strength to split with her first husband when the brute demanded that she refuse the job. That's good. But then she melts and totally surrenders to another brute, Oscar, who starts to whine about his self-esteem almost as soon as he finds out that he's been reduced to being Her Wisdom's consort. I do believe that one can get bored with riches, but I totally refuse to believe that the way out is to become a draftsman in some dinky Californian company.

How come Oscar could not find what to do with himself? If he wanted adventure, he could have gone adventuring. If he wanted to improve himself, he could have continued with his studies. That there's too much to learn should not stop anyone. There's always too much to learn. He could have taken up painting, writing, calligraphy, religion, whatever. All these things take lifetimes to master. But he did not. He whined, and bothered his busy wife, and finally quit. The coward ran home to mama with his tail between his legs. Self-made man? Sure, sure, especially with all this money in Swiss accounts.

I guess Heinlein wanted to say that one cannot rest forever on past glory. So much is true, glory is a tree that has to be periodically watered with adventure. Or it withers. Oscar had had his 10 minutes of fame and naturally craved more, only he did not realize it. He thought it was all about doing something useful. But it was not. It was all about staying at the top. He failed to realize that his Top was not the same as Star's Top which he could not hope to conquer. But everyone should be so lucky to have found his/her own Top to conquer. Heinlein holds out hope in the end, though, when Oscar finally realizes that he has to walk the Glory Road again... and again, and again. Heroes should never die of old age.

August 21, 2003