So what does an author do after writing one of the most beloved science fiction novels of all time and in the process picking up his third out of an eventual four Hugo awards? That was precisely the conundrum that future sci-fi Grand Master Robert A. Heinlein faced in 1962, after winning the Hugo for Stranger in a Strange Land, and he responded to the problem by switching gears a bit. His follow-up novel, Glory Road, was not precisely Heinlein’s first fantasy piece — his 1959 novella The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag had contained a large dollop of very strange fantasy mixed in with its central mystery — but, as far as I can tell, it was his earliest full-length creation in the fantasy vein; one that was itself nominated for a Hugo award, ultimately losing to Clifford D. Simak‘s charming Way Station. Initially appearing as a serial in the July – September 1963 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (which itself copped a Hugo for Best Magazine in 1963), it was released in hardcover later that year.
A lighthearted blend of hard fantasy (the book features 20 different universes, fire-breathing dragons, assorted monsters, giant rats and boars, the use of magic and spells, and so on) and rational science (much of the fantastic elements are given pseudo-plausible explanations), the book is a pleasing creation that most readers deem a sort of dividing line in the author’s work. After this novel, and beginning with 1964’s Farnham’s Freehold, Heinlein’s right-wing libertarian voice began to obtrude ever more shrilly, in a tone that most people seemingly cannot describe without using the word “hectoring.” Glory Road does find its author grumbling about the state of the world, in what Scottish sci-fi critic David Pringle has called a “grouchy but amusing auctorial tone,” but more restrainedly than in later works, and lightened with a good deal of mordant humor.
Glory Road is told in the first person by a virile young man in his early 20s with the decidedly unmacho handle of Evelyn Cyril Gordon (he understandably prefers the nicknames E.C. and Easy). After being struck in the face with a bolo during the early phases of what the reader presumes to be the Vietnam War, Gordon is discharged and decides to spend some time in Europe before returning to college in the States. On a nudist beach on the Ile du Levant (that’s by the French Riviera), he espies a beautiful, naked blonde woman, whom he speaks to briefly. The next day, in Nice, Gordon responds to an ad in The Herald Tribune looking for “a brave man… indomitably courageous,” for “very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger.” He is surprised to learn that the ad had been placed by that very same blonde Amazon, whose name is Star, as it turns out. And before Gordon can even think twice, he and Star’s assistant, the diminutive but able-bodied Rufo, are being whisked along with the sorceress to another world, in another universe, as they begin their valiant quest on the “glory road”…
Surprisingly, the actual quest that Gordon engages in is of secondary concern as the tale proceeds. Yes, Gordon must fight the Igli monster and the Horned Ghosts and those dragons and a master swordsman (Heinlein, who had been an accomplished fencer at Annapolis, describes this sword fight brilliantly) and an entity known as the Soul Eater en route to the attainment of his goal — and wisely, we are kept in the dark as the tale proceeds as to just what that goal is (I’ll only say that it involves something called the Egg of the Phoenix), ratcheting up curiosity and suspense. But Glory Road‘s initial section, in which Gordon gives us the mundane details of his history, and the book’s entire final third, after the quest is finished and Gordon ponders the fate of the retired hero beside his lady love, might be even more compelling. Along the way, the young man takes the time to rail against modern Earth society as compared to some of the idyllic worlds that he visits. Heinlein, thus, is able to take some digs at the military, the selective service, the economy, taxes, sexual mores, prostitution, nudity, marriage (the book is probably not a good recommendation for the prudish, as the author does not seem to be overly fond of the concept of monogamy), alimony, cocktail parties, street traffic, and on and on.
As previously mentioned, though, he leavens this grousing with a good deal of humor, bantering conversations and saucy badinage (I love it when he uses the word “fiddlewinking” instead of, uh, another F word), and the results are quite winning. How amusing it is when Heinlein reveals that he thinks the Irish are the most logical people, and when he tells us the sources of the incubus legend and the “Eye of newt and toe of frog…” recipe in Macbeth. (There’s also the occasional groaner, such as when Gordon puns “Just don’t make a hobbit of it.”) And speaking of Macbeth, Heinlein’s novel is filled with literary references, from Tennyson and Longfellow quotes to passing comments on Conan the Barbarian, L. Frank Baum, H. Rider Haggard‘s Umbopa, Sherlock Holmes, and Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom. Despite the fact that he tells us that books put him to sleep, Gordon seems to have consumed an awful lot of fantasy literature for such a young athlete (a possible boo-boo on the author’s part). Still, the book is enormously entertaining, a genuine lark, with big laughs to be had amidst the numerous action set pieces. The three central characters are extremely likable, and it is fascinating to discover just who Star is, as we learn about her detailed background. Without giving away too much, let me just say that the woman, gorgeous and athletic blonde that she is, has yet absorbed the knowledge of over 190 deceased men… including, thus, the in-depth knowledge of what men like and desire sexually. Now that’s what I call a REAL fantasy!
Robert A. Heinlein is best known for his science fiction, of course, but he did write some fantasy, too. Glory Road is a science fantasy story which was originally serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1963 and published as a novel later that year. Glory Road was nominated for, but did not win, a Hugo Award for Best Novel.
Evelyn Cyril Gordon, known by his army buddies as “Scar,” has finally been sent home from Southeast Asia after too many tours of duty. After wandering aimlessly for a while, hoping the G.I. bill will cover some educational expenses, and lamenting about taxes (a favorite theme of Heinlein’s) he reads a personal advertisement in a newspaper:
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 in 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.
Except for the coward part, it fits him perfectly and, therefore, makes him curious. When he answers the ad, he meets a beautiful woman who calls herself Star and decides to call him Oscar. Then he sets out on a grand adventure and becomes a hero.
Up until Oscar answered the ad, I was enjoying his story, but as soon as Glory Road turned into a fantasy novel, it spiraled downward fast. Oscar has been hired by Star, who turns out to be the empress of the universe, to help her recover the Egg of the Phoenix. There’s a sidekick named Rufo, and together they fight monsters and complete the tasks needed to get the Egg. All the while, Star simpers and calls Oscar “my hero” and all the other women he meets (including a mother and her two young daughters) try to get him into bed (at the same time). Meanwhile, there is much commentary about Star’s perky breasts, how she needs to be spanked (even though she’s the empress of the universe), and other titillating nonsense. Not only is this section of the novel silly and trite and an embarrassing exhibition of Heinlein’s fetishes, but it’s actually boring, too.
After the quest is over, Oscar and Star are in love. (Why? Because she’s beautiful and he’s strong.) It’s not all happily ever after, though, because Oscar discovers that being a retired hero is not good for a man’s morale. I actually really liked some of this part of the story in which Heinlein muses on the importance of meaningful work for a man. He also displays his love for classic literature, making mention of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, James Branch Cabell, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Talbot Mundy, and others. Unfortunately, he also decides to bring in some of his views on politics and sexual relationships, and the whole section goes on far too long.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s recent production of Glory Road which was narrated by actor Bronson Pinchot. I have greatly enjoyed Mr. Pinchot’s performances in the past, but this was not one of my favorites. Most of the problem is the novel of course — for example, Heinlein has Star simpering, so Pinchot simpers when he reads those lines. I couldn’t stand it, but that was how it was written. I also didn’t like the French accent he used for Rufo because it was sometimes hard to understand, and I was annoyed at the way he drew out the words “She” and “Her” into three-syllable words when Rufo spoke of Star. Notably, the parts of his performance that I didn’t like were also the parts of the story that I didn’t like. Pinchot’s interpretation of Glory Road was probably accurate and my disappointment probably reflects my distaste for the novel.
I feel the need to mention that many of Heinlein’s fans love Glory Road, and it was nominated for a Hugo Award. This is one of those cases where it probably comes down to personal taste. I liked the first and last third of Glory Road, but absolutely hated the middle section. I imagine that many readers will feel differently. If you’re a Heinlein fan, and especially if you like his later work, you should give Glory Road a try.