Monday, June 22, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Glory Road

When thinking of fantasy, the name "Robert Heinlein" is not one that immediately comes to mind. Heinlein made a name for himself as a science fiction writer, which is why it's difficult to know what to make of his 1963 novel, Glory Road. The novel had first appeared earlier the same year as a serial in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and, as was once a common practice, particularly for genre fiction, it was collected together and published in a complete form.

Glory Road tells the tale of a veteran named Evelyn Gordon, who is spending some time on the French Riviera after having been discharged from the military after serving in an unnamed conflict in Southeast Asia (presumably Viet Nam, but this is never stated in the text). While there, he answers a newspaper advertisement that puts him in touch with a woman of -- literally as it turns out -- unearthly beauty named Star, who enlists his aid in a quest for a mysterious item known as the Egg of the Phoenix. Along with Rufo, an older man who acts as Star's assistant, Gordon and Star encounter a wide variety of dangers, from tricks and traps to minotaurs and dragons, in their quest for the Egg, an item whose true purpose and nature are very different than Gordon initially imagines and whose discovery opens up even wider vistas for him to explore.

As I noted, Glory Road is an odd book that doesn't sit comfortably within the science fiction genre for which Heinlein was well known. Neither is it a pure fantasy. Instead, it straddles both genres, borrowing liberally from each, which may explain why many modern Heinlein fans dislike it. For myself, I've long felt that Glory Road was Heinlein's attempt to produce a "sword-and-planet" novel after the fashion of Burroughs, but on a stronger science fiction. The result is a very uneven novel, but a fun one, provided you aren't distracted by the typically Heinleinian disgreesions into his then-evolving socio-political philosophy. The book thus has an odd feel overall. Some readers may see this oddity as contributing to their enjoyment, while others may see it as detracting from it. In either case, Glory Road is another book from an era before the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy were less well defined and even a writer as solidly in the former genre could freely borrow from the latter without too much comment.


  1. This was a hard one for me to get my mind around when I read it around the age of 11 or 12. I had just finished a run of Heinlein's juveniles and this was a bit of a shock to the system, to say the least.

    Still, it was enjoyable and certainly helped open the door to fantasy for me back in the day. I've been meaning to give it another go, and maybe this post will get me to dust it off.

  2. This isn't about the book, but its cover. The way they have used the word "etc" in the lower right corner gives the whole thing a very perfunctory air. Odd.

  3. I remember reading the first few chapters when I was visiting my sister at University.
    It must have planted a seed in my mind.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. I wonder what relationship, if any, the Egg of the Phoenix from Heinlein's story bears to the titular Egg from R3 Egg of the Phoenix by Frank Mentzer (later revised/merged with R1-4 in I12 Egg of the Phoenix).


  5. Oddly, as a huge Heinlein fan this is one of my favorite novels by him.

    @grodog Actually, reading the post made me wonder if it is related to the Egg of Coot.

  6. It's been a long time since I've read this one, so I remember little about the particulars. I just remember the general feeling of fun. It's a nice wild ride.

    Of course there are digressions as only Heinlein can digress. The main character was a pretty good collegiate fencer before going into the service, so there's a lot of technical talk about sword fighting, which is pretty cool.

    I also recall a gigantic cubical maze.

  7. Glory Road is one of my favorites, and one of the few Heinleins I keep which doesn't fall into the "juveniles" or "future history" buckets.

    I'm not all that deep a thinker, so I find it a nice romp, with occasional reflections on the care and feeding of the adventurer spirit.

  8. Gro;

    Seeing as Glory Road is one of Frank Mentzer's favorite books, I'm sure the connection is entirely intentional. I think Frank at one time wanted to base an RPG on the Glory Road novel but for various reasons the project never came to fruition.

  9. The errands I ran on my lunch break brought me across the street from Smith Family Bookstore here in Eugene and I popped in to browse for a second - I ended up picking up a copy of this for $3, although the cover illustration on mine is really boring. I really liked Heinlein as a kid (I devoured pretty much every sci-fi book in our local library) so it will be interesting to me to go back and read him now that I have few more years (and pounds) under my belt.

  10. Of all the Heinlein books I've read (which, and this is an important caveat, doesn't include a lot of the really badly regarded ones from the 70s and 80s) this is almost certainly my least favorite. The adventure-oriented stuff in the first half is decent enough, but the second half, where he drones on and on about his cockamamie philosophy, is unreadable nonsense (to me -- obviously not everyone has that reaction). Interestingly, in one of his later books (Expanded Universe, I think) Heinlein mentioned that it took him less time to write this entire novel than the short-short story "Searchlight." IMO, you can tell...

  11. @Carl - Smith Family is one of my favorite book stores I got most of my Jack Vance books there.

    As for Heinlein he just got more out there from the late 50's on - his philosophy is interesting if not completely coherent. It would be pretty hard for anyone to reconcile his sort of hard core libertarianism with his love of military service and he never really quite pulls it off. I remember really liking Glory Road but I did read it when I was a teenager so my opinion may have changed. I'll have to check it out again.

  12. "It would be pretty hard for anyone to reconcile his sort of hard core libertarianism with his love of military service and he never really quite pulls it off." -- Eli Elder

    Never having read anything Heinlein all the way through, I'd hate to defend the philosophy whole-cloth, but from what I understand of his philosophy of 'corporate (as in 'together') individualism', I certainly see its appeal --although I think, like most (if not all) systems, the human element is where it falls apart.

    Some, certainly, could pull it off from genuine desire to see it succeed, but once the population increased within that group, non-adherents would quickly put an increasing strain upon the system.

    > shrug <

  13. I classify it as science fiction as there is a scientific conceit explaining the zany variety of environments, with their own laws of physics. I liked it a great deal, although I never solved its central theme: what to do when the dragon is slain or how does one live ad an adult?