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Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Monday, January 21, 2013

1964 Hugo Award Nominee- 'Glory Road' by Robert A. Heinlein

Can an author dissect a cliched storyline while at the same time pandering to the same cliches that he sends up?  Ask any director of an anti-war movie who can't resist the impulse to throw in a few explosions and you'll have an answer.  When an author tries to be both pandering and introspective they walk a fine line, make the commentary too heavy handed and you run the risk of alienating your audience, appeal too much to the lowest common denominator and you run the risk of being dismissed.  In the end it's up to the fans, and critics, to decide if the writer has hit the sweet spot.
In 'Glory Road' Heinlein departs from type and delivers a pretty standard fare sword and sorcery novel bookended by a much more interesting commentary on the 'quest' novel  The only problem being that the story itself is exactly the sort of cliche that Heinlein is trying to provoke a discussion about.

This gets the novel wildly different reviews.  Many readers have strong complaints about the story and how wildly it departs from Heinlein's other works.  Other readers complain just as heavily that the actual quest story in the novel is poorly written or too cliched.  This novel is an exception to the rest of Heinlein's work and really stands out when placed next to 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' or 'Starship Troopers.'  This is the only fantasy novel Heinlein wrote and has largely been pushed to the side by history, dismissed as an anomaly among Heinlein's other works.  Readers today are more familiar with Heinlein's other works and not looking for anything like this from the author.  Though some readers do love the book, the edition I read had an afterword by Samual Delany in which he absolutely gushes over the novel.

Heinlein has crafted a story here really reminiscent of the earliest SF, some of the Edgar Rice Burroughs and Flash Gordon stuff.  He even has the character mention Barsoom, and gives the protagonist the last name Gordon, and the nickname 'Flash.  There's nothing hidden about the nod.  The novel contains about the most cliched story in SF or Fantasy, there's a hero, a beautiful woman, dragons, a quest, a dwarfish sidekick, and some of the most hackneyed writing and sexual dialogue you will ever read. The hero is appropriately dashing and strong, the woman the perfect sex object, and the sidekick both comic and resourceful.

Can you fault someone for
not taking this cover seriously?
As far as the writing and dialogue I'd recommend reading Delany's essay to address some of that, but it's important to know that only the most subdued of sexual references could be published at that time (though apparently you could get away with murder as far as cover illustrations go), a lot of stuff that gets published today would never see the light of day in 1964, and even the most risque stuff from back then reads odd and pandering today.  Just look at some of the other SF being published at the time, look at the sex scenes in 'The Wanderer' for example, or if you want to be really grossed out read 'The Reassembled Man' by Herbert D. Kastle (Hint: It didn't win any awards).
If we stick with the idea that the book is really a commentary on the sort of fantastic adventure stories written in the 50s and 60s then the most important parts of the novel are the bookends to the adventure, the pre and post quest portions of the story.  Reading this on my Kindle I was surprised when the quest portion of the novel was over and the device said I was only 75% complete.  I almost expected another twist to the story and another fantastic sword fight but I was more pleased with what we ended up with.  Heinlein shows what a hero's life is like before he begins his adventure, and what a hero's life is like after the quest is complete. 
The pre-quest story is Heinlein's chance to drop a little bit of his personal views (he does throughout the novel but never to the lengths of some of his other works).  Gordon is a war orphan, fights in the Vietnam War, and can't afford to attend college, all things Heinlein has strong opinions  about.  Perhaps the most interesting portion of this pre-quest part of the novel is to look back on this opening section of the novel knowing that Gordon's life was being guided all the while by Star.  In the end she states she shaped his entire life, guiding him to learn to fence and fight so that he would be prepared for the quest to come, it raises the question of whether or not Gordon's views (and thus Heinlein's views) would be the same without Star's meddling, if Gordon had received the money he was owed as a war orphan, or his GI Bill, or the winning lottery ticket, would he have ever gone on his quest?  This is a question Gordon himself brings up in the novel.
It is the post-quest portion of the novel I found interesting.  Heinlein does a good job of sending up what happens after the 'happy ending.'  The submissive sex object of a female protagonist is revealed to be the Empress of the Universe, and all she has done has been in service to the quest, including her marriage to our hero.  The diminutive sidekick is a powerful man in his own right who has nothing to fear physically from the more imposing hero.  Post-quest the Hero becomes nothing more than a pampered sex object for the Empress, finally leaving and eventually discovering that he will never be good for anything but killing, setting out to continue seeking adventure on the 'glory road.'
The problem many reviewers have with the novel is that in order to send up this sort of juvenile fantasy Heinlein forced himself to write one even worse than the cliches he sends up.  Any reader who gives up on the novel halfway through will have a hard time understanding what the fuss is about.  The novel stands on both sides of the fence and it is up to the reader to decide whether the work is worthwhile or not.
The character of Star is a good example of this duality.  Obviously she is a sex object, she's introduced to the reader stark naked and described from Gordon's point of view.  But, in the end she turns out to be controlling most of the action, using the hero from the very beginning to justify her own ends.  Heinlein forces us to question whether the princess in distress ever cared for her knight in shining armor, and even has Rufo, the sidekick, tell him that she does not, and could not.   In the beginning of the novel Star is at least a powerful woman, midway through the quest she becomes more submissive, and retains that posture until the very end when we find out that it was all an act to get Gordon mentally where he needed to be to achieve her goals.  Does this final shift in the character make up for submissiveness and objectification of the majority of the novel?  For the (literal) spanking that Gordon gives her?
I don't know.  I think it depends on the reader.  If you've got a fifteen year old boy buried somewhere inside you who secretly wants to be a hero it might help.  But really it depends on whether or not you can bear the cliches while you listen to the criticism.  It might help to know that Heinlein says he wrote the book in less than a week, and it's obvious he was having a lot of fun.  Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I do believe Heinlein has more going on here than simply retreading 'A Princess of Mars' or the cliches of sword and sorcery.
If you're interested you can find Delany's review here, you'll have to scroll to the end as it's a digital excerpt of the book.  If my review didn't do it for you I'd recommend you read Delany's review as he's a lot smarter than me.  In his review he points out that the champion of the soul-eater that Gordon defeats is actually Cyrano de Bergerac, a fact that I can place absolutely no meaning on.
You can also find a review by Alexei Panshin here.  Panshin doesn't much care for the novel, or any other Heinlein for that matter, but I felt it important to put the dissenting opinion up here as well.

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