Glory Road was published in 1963, halfway through Robert A. Heinlein's career as a professional author. He was fifty-six years old when Glory Road came out. By then, at least two golden ages had gotten behind him, his own as a reader and fan of science fiction, after that a Golden Age of Science Fiction, in which he had played such an essential part as a writer for Astounding Science-Fiction. There is an atmosphere of nostalgia, loss, and ultimately sadness in Heinlein's novel. His narrator and protagonist, Vietnam veteran Scar Gordon, seems brash and maybe a little cocky in the beginning. By the end, he is almost forlorn--stranded and abandoned and alone in both time and space. His predicament is the same as the youthful science fiction fan who has aged into adulthood and can no longer escape as he once did so easily into fantasy. Maybe we can count Heinlein in that group.
The tone in Glory Road is on its surface self-conscious and ironic, also conscious of the history and culture of fantasy and science fiction. "I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom," Gordon writes. "I wanted Storisende and Poictisme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, 'The game's afoot!'" (Emphasis added.) (p. 35) Again and again, there are mentions of and allusions to legends and fictions of the past: Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, King Arthur, Prester John, the Golem, Umbopa, Tarzan, Conan, Hawk Carse, Buck Rogers, Lucky Star(r), Hobbits, Robin Hood and Maid Marian--on and on they go. There are writers, too, including Coleridge, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, and Kerouac. There are even publishers such as Playboy, Gold Medal books, and Olympia Press. As I wrote last time, Charles Fort, Ambrose Bierce, and Kaspar Hauser make their way into Glory Road. But no one, real or fictional, is more of a presence than is John Carter, no damsel more prominent than is Dejah Thoris, and no place more central than is Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
As in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars novels, Heinlein's protagonist journeys to his distant planet in a more or less random, magical-mystical way. There are all kinds of people and cultures on that faraway place, strange creatures, too, including an eight-legged, thoat-like mount, nicknamed a "long-horse." (As in Burroughs, there is also an interest in nudity.) Glory Road is not a Mars novel, though. In actuality, it's a Mars meta-novel: Scar Gordon doesn't want adventure so much as to enter into a fantasy of adventure. Thus the meta-. Thus also Gordon lacks a certain amount of self-consciousness and a sense of irony after all. In actuality, it is Heinlein who is aware of the irony of Gordon's situation and Heinlein who subjects him to sadness and loss and to an ultimate abandonment in time and space. I don't think we can avoid the conclusion that Heinlein felt like Scar Gordon and that the brashness and cockiness of both the author and his protagonist were mostly, if not entirely, a front.
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There are innovations in Glory Road. As a quest, it's in a long line of quests going back to ancient times. But it's also a kind of precursor to role-playing games, namely Dungeons & Dragons, and video games or computer games in which one of the objects is to acquire and have with you the right kind of armor, clothing, weapons, gadgets, etc., for every possible situation. Of course you can't carry all of that stuff with you. What you need is a TARDIS-like carrier. And in Glory Road, Scar Gordon and his traveling companions have one. It's called a "foldbox," and it's a pretty marvelous invention on Heinlein's part. Two more innovations: an invisible fence (p. 157) and a gadget like the 3DBB from Tennessee Tuxedo (p. 173).
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Heinlein put Utopia and democracy into Glory Road, too, neither very favorably:
This non-system [Star's home planet, of which she is empress] holds together by having no togetherness, no uniformity, never seeking perfection, no utopias--just answers good enough to get by, with lots of looseness and room for many ways and attitudes. (pp. 215-216)
[In other words: freedom, individuality, diversity, and tolerance--but also a kind of ruthlessness.]
[Nebbi, a "smooth oaf," speaks in regards to what he calls the American "Noble Experiment":] "I was speaking of the amusing notice of chatter rule. 'Democracy.' A curious delusion--as if adding zeros could produce a sum." (p. 261)
[That's one worth remembering: As if adding zeroes could produce a sum.]
[Scar Gordon's friend Rufo puts in his two cents' worth:] "Democracy can't work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that's all there is--so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group." (p. 262)
[I think "mathematicians" here means essentially the meritocratic elite, or what we might call heroes or the great men (and women) of history. And I guess Heinlein would have disagreed with the later concept of the wisdom of crowds.]
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One more quote: Star, speaking of the monster Igli, says: "Igli can't be killed. You see, he is not really alive. He is a construct [. . . .] (p. 76) That reminds me of some other characters that we're going to encounter really, really soon.
Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley