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Glory Road
by Robert Heinlein
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1963


Glory Road is a science fiction/fantasy novel first serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the July through September issues of 1963. It was written mid-way through Heinlein's career, about the same time as he published Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and Podkayne of Mars (1963). It was quite popular at the time, but does not hold up as well as many of Heinlein's works.

We start with a 30 page biography of our hero, E.C. Gordon, as he grows up disillusioned in a disillusioning America, is drafted into the Vietnam war, and bums around Europe for a bit. The story really starts when he comes across a strange newspaper ad looking for adventurers, which seems to be tailored to specifically target him. He responds, is quickly signed up as an interdimensional hero, and the adventures start! Except... only sort of. This is not primarily an adventure novel, but a novel of ideas. Unfortunately, the ideas under discussion are no longer new and interesting.

The first and primary idea is The Perfect Marriage. It is an open marriage, with lots of sex with lots of people, and also one in which the man threatens to beat the woman if she disagrees with him. (It's okay though, because she likes threats! Also, she is allowed to disagree as long as she is polite and deferential, so you know, it's not really misogyny.) The misogyny is an ongoing subtext; the free love is an argument made explicitly and in some detail.

The second idea is that there might be multiple universes connected to ours, through which one can travel. While this is not a new idea even in 1963, Heinlein hits hard on the idea that these universes might not just have alien/mythical creatures living in them, but that they might have cultures different from any Earth culture, and moreover, that they might have different natural laws. This last bit blows our hero's mind, and he needs to have it explained to him four times before he accepts it. From a modern perspective, it is more notable that Heinlein treats the other cultures as something more than 'aliens being weird' or simple parodies of Earth cultures, perhaps making this an early example of pop anthropological science fiction.

The third big theme takes up the last quarter of the book, and so might be considered a spoiler; if you don't want to know how the book ends, skip the rest of this paragraph. It's no surprise that our hero kills the monsters, completes the quest, saves the princess, and saves the multiverse. However, the story doesn't end there, because Heinlein doesn't actually care about the quest; he mostly just wants to tell us about the indomitable and restless spirit of a True Hero. Gordon decides that being rich in a super-advanced civilization is not enough (nor, for that matter, is the love of a good woman), and rushes off to have another adventure to finish his college degree. Earth now proves likewise dissatisfying, and insofar as any moral can be derived, it appears to be that a real man does not settle down nor much appreciate civilization.

In between all of this, monsters are killed, democracy is roundly demolished as a fool's political system, more monsters are killed, much sex is discussed, and more monsters are killed. This is perhaps the least dungeon-crawly dungeon crawl in the history of fantasy, but a dungeon crawl it is. Without the bookends of personal ennui and angst, this would be a lightweight but entirely typical example of 1960s science fiction/fantasy (albeit with a rather atypical subplot of polyamory).

All in all, this is one of Heinlein's lesser works, and I don't particularly recommend it. It is interesting in that it is one of his few works that can fairly be termed fantasy (although the characters would argue that it is all perfectly scientific). Perhaps the most telling review of this novel is simply that I have now read it three times, not because it is much good, but because I always read it in the middle of a Heinlein binge, and then can't remember enough about it to avoid it the next time. On the other hand, it was popular in its time, it is unmistakably Heinlein, and it does have a well-developed social message, although perhaps not one well-tuned to the modern reader.

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