In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
At the height of Robert A. Heinlein’s career as a science fiction writer, he wrote a book, Glory Road, which stood out from all his previous work. It was more fantasy than science fiction, with all the trappings and tropes of a fantasy adventure and a heroic quest in a magical world. Wrapped around that exuberant center, however, was a rather downbeat view of life and society, and a deconstruction of some of those familiar fantasy tropes.
I can’t remember exactly when I first read this book. It was sometime in the late 1970s, either late in high school or early in college. The copy I owned was a Berkley Medallion paperback edition, with one of those impressionistic Paul Lehr paintings they used on their Heinlein reprints. While there were parts of the book (especially the non-quest segments) that I didn’t enjoy as much, I read the book a number of times, to the point where it ended up a pile of disconnected pages. And that had me looking for a new copy.
The new edition I found was the Baen 1993 trade paperback edition. The cover is an interesting one, depicting Oscar, Star, and Rufo as a giant metallic heroic sculpture, almost monochrome except for a few tourists standing around the pedestal. Baen, during that era, was partial to the use of metallic inks, satin and gloss finishes, embossing and other effects on their covers, and in this case, it worked quite well. The artist, who was adept at painting metallic subjects, was Stephen Hickman, one of my favorite artists, who sadly passed away in July 2021. Interestingly, I found that I’d never read the new copy after adding it to my shelves, which indicates that my enthusiasm for the book has waned over the years.
About the Author
Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) is one of America’s most widely known science fiction authors, frequently referred to as “the dean of science fiction.” I have often reviewed his work in this column, including Starship Troopers, Have Spacesuit Will Travel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Citizen of the Galaxy, “Destination Moon” (contained in the collection Three Times Infinity), as well as The Pursuit of the Pankera/The Number of the Beast, and Red Planet.
The Hero’s Weapon
The choice of weapons in a tale, especially a fantasy tale, has long been a way of signaling the personality and role of a character. The page “Weapon of Choice” on the TV Tropes website discusses this in great detail (and is certainly worth perusing). If you look at Hickman’s cover illustration depicting a statue of Glory Road’s three major protagonists, you’ll notice examples of this signaling to the reader: Oscar, the hero, is of course armed with a sword, the traditional heroic weapon. Star is armed with a bow, a weapon often used by female characters and associated with composure in dangerous situations. Rufo crouches while holding a spear, a weapon often used by supporting characters (which he is pretending to be for much of the narrative).
There is a long tradition of heroes from history, myth, and fiction naming their swords. Arthur carried Excalibur, Charlemagne wielded Joyeuse, Roland rode into battle with Durandal, Heimdall is the guardian of the mighty Hofud (also called Hofund, Hoved, etc.), Corwin of Amber brandished Grayswandir, the Gray Mouser had Scalpel while Fafhrd had Graywand, and you can’t swing a cat in Tolkien’s tales without hitting a sword with a name and lineage. Heinlein conveniently had his hero’s sword inscribed with a Latin phrase that serves as a theme for the novel, “Dum vivimus, vivamus,” or “while we live, let us live.” Oscar then gave his sword a gender and dubbed her “Lady Vivamus.”
The sword Heinlein chose was not the typical cross-hilted broadsword of European historical fantasy, but is instead described as:
A saber, I suppose, as the blade was faintly curved and razor sharp on the edge and sharp rather far back on the back. But it had a point as deadly as a rapier and the curve was not enough to keep it from being used for thrust and counter quite as well as chopping away meat-axe style. The guard was a bell curved back around the knuckles into a semi-basket, but cut away enough to permit full moulinet from any guard.
This description bears no small resemblance to a naval officer’s sword, which Heinlein would have carried for ceremonial purposes during his days at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. And in his era, officers were still trained in its use. The photo below is of my own sword from my days at the Coast Guard Academy, and you can see how it matches the description of Lady Vivamus in many respects.
The book is narrated in the first person by E. C. “Oscar” Gordon. He is presented as being in his early twenties, but while I bought that when I first read the book, as an older reader, I find the voice unconvincing. Oscar knows too much about too many things, and his frequent digressions on topics like taxes and marriage sound more like a man in his 50s (which Heinlein was when he wrote the book) than a baby boomer just coming to adulthood in the early 1960s.
After we’re given a mysterious hint of a world different than our own, we learn that Oscar is not in a good place, mentally speaking. The story begins with him telling his draft board to send him his notice, and soon he finds himself on the front lines of a conflict in Southeast Asia that is not quite a war yet (this being written in 1963, we can imagine it growing into the Vietnam War). The young man is a good fighter, but a cantankerous soldier, making corporal (at least seven times, in fact). As Oscar spins out his tale of woe, you begin to wonder when the adventure promised on the cover of the book is going to begin. In fact, if there is a single word that describes this book other than “adventure,” it would be “ennui”—“a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.” Breaking down the 294 pages of the book, I discovered that it consists of 33 pages of Oscar complaining about his life, 31 pages of Oscar preparing for his quest, 143 pages of Oscar engaged in his heroic quest, and the rest describing Oscar dealing with the aftermath of the quest, again battling ennui, and discovering that “happily ever after” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. All adventure books have their share of non-adventure content, but this one has more than its share of curmudgeonly complaining.
What changes our hero’s attitude is his meeting with a beautiful and mysterious woman, who he calls Star, and who in turn gives him the nickname of Oscar. I was enchanted by Star in my youth, but as an older reader, I find both the physical descriptions and behavior of the character grating. Star is a richly imagined character, with agency in abundance. But she is described strictly from the perspective of an objectifying male gaze, and for a capable and powerful woman, she comes across as frequently submissive to Oscar. She and a mysterious older man called Rufo take Oscar to another world, Nevia, where firearms do not work. Rufo unfolds a backpack that is far bigger on the inside, containing an armory full of weapons, food, and a whole wardrobe of clothing. The first threat they face is an indestructible monster named Igli, who is defeated in a clever manner by Oscar. They then must face Blood Kites, climb down a 1,000-foot cliff to meet the vicious Horned Ghosts, and venture through an almost impassable swamp inhabited by creatures called the Cold Water Gang. This was my favorite part of the book, as we got exciting adventure, well told in a manner that made it feel immediate and real.
But then, in the midst of the narrative devoted to the quest, which already make up less than half the book, we get about forty pages devoted to sex. Not people having sex, just people talking about sex. Our intrepid adventurers arrive at the estate of the Doral, an old friend of Star’s, who treats them to an impressive banquet. And then, when everyone retires for the evening, Oscar is offered company by their host’s wife and two of his daughters, and refuses. This turns out to be a major snub in Nevian culture, almost gets them killed, and gives Heinlein an excuse to go on for pages and pages with his opinions on sex and relationships. And I will just say that, personally, the less I read about Heinlein’s thoughts on these issues, the better. That’s probably why of all his books, I like the juveniles the best. This passage ends with Oscar and Star deciding to marry, after which she behaves even more submissively.
With that out of the way, our heroes return to their quest, which involves battling fire-breathing dragons, with the mechanics of this ability being very well thought out. Our heroes then travel to yet another world, one where gravity, the atmosphere, and the nature of reality itself is unpleasantly different. They must make their way through a maze within a massive tower to retrieve the Egg of the Phoenix, the MacGuffin of their quest. The combat through the corridors of the tower becomes surreal in a way that is described very evocatively, and there is a masterfully described sword fight as Oscar meets what video gamers would call the final boss.
Then, at the point where most tales would end with the heroes living happily ever after, there are more than seventy pages to go before the story concludes. Oscar finds that the greater universe (or multiverse) is as grim and problematic as the situation he left behind on Earth. He has not been given the whole truth about the nature of his quest, and finds he has been manipulated at nearly every turn, even before he met Star. His wife turns out to be a kind of Empress, and not just a leader of worlds, but of a reality-spanning polity. And Oscar finds that being a retired hero, and consort of a powerful ruler, is not the most satisfying of roles. There ensues a lot of discussion about the meaning of life, the value of work, interpersonal relations, sex and gender roles, and more than a few heavy dollops of ennui, although Heinlein finds a way to end the book on a hopeful note.
As a youngster, I read Glory Road into tatters. There were parts I loved, and a few parts I didn’t, but I found all of it interesting at the time. As an older reader, there are still parts I love, but the other parts I find pedantic, and my overall impression of the book is definitely mixed. The adventure is still first-rate, and the book is a very convincing presentation of a portal fantasy that might feel insubstantial in other hands. But the lecturing on politics, and especially on sexual issues, is grating, and if I would recommend this book to a new and younger reader, I would do so with definite caveats. As a youngster, I didn’t mind authors preaching to me. But now that I am old enough to have formed my own opinions, I don’t need someone else trying to use fiction to force their philosophies on me in an overbearing manner.
I am sure a lot of you out there have read Glory Road, or other works by Heinlein, and have your own thoughts to share. I look forward to hearing them, but do ask you to keep the responses civil and constructive, and let’s keep our discussion focused on the book itself, rather than debating the merits of the author’s personal viewpoints.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.