During the long, long break, I re-read Glory Road. And, again, by way of caveat, there is no particular reason – other than sheer whimsy – I chose this particular title off of my Heinlein shelf.
Glory Road, for the uninitiated (or those who need a refresher), concerns the journey of a hero, E.C. “Oscar” Gordon as he reclaims an item of power* for a very important woman, Star, who turns out to be the Empress of a collection of universes. The first three-quarters of the book follow the standard quest narrative – start of journey, obstacle, victory, obstacle, victory (lather, rinse, repeat), climatic battle and ultimate success.
But the last quarter of the story doesn’t hew to the predictable script. Oscar has to figure out what to do with himself once he’s fulfilled his destiny. My knowledge of pre-1963 fantasy is not vast. This twist, however, does appear to be a new one for the time. I know blog readers won’t hesitate to set me straight on this point.
Two things struck me during this re-read:
1) I can now pinpoint this book as the source of all of my confusion about the difference between fantasy and science fiction. Ostensibly, Glory Road fall into the fantasy camp, what with all of the sword fights, horse analogues and feudal lands. Heinlein, however, keeps tossing out science-based explanations for all of the goings-on, like the Empress explaining that the pentagrams that allow them to travel between universes are really just complicated circuit diagrams.
Take Oscar’s defeat of the Igli, a ferocious, unkillable beast. What the hero does is “feed the Igli to the Igli” or, put another way, start stuffing the Igli’s appendages into the Igli’s mouth and rolling the body into smaller and small balls until they disappear. As the Empress explains, this solution wasn’t mystical but geometrical:
What happens when you place an insupportable strain on a mass, such that it can’t remain where it is? While leaving it nowhere to go? This is a schoolboy problem in metaphysical geometry and the eldest proto-paradox, the one about the irresistible force and the immovable body. The mass implodes. It is squeezed out of this world into some other. This is often the way the people of a universe discover the Universes — but usually is as disastrously as you forced it on Igli; it may take millennia before they control it. It may hover around the fringes as ‘magic’ for a long time, sometimes working, sometimes failing, sometimes backfiring on the magician.
Heinlein, with one frequently-recited swoop, is able to wave his hands and turn magic into avenues of math that we haven’t yet discovered. It’s a neat trick — and one that makes me wander down the thorny path of what fantasy (or science fiction, for that matter) actually means.
On a more practical note w/r/t “magic:” I want one of Rufo’s folding boxes.** Because, origin stories aside, the ability to store all of your stuff in another dimension would be a handy way to solve my yarn storage problem.
2) When I was in Junior High, I have a clear memory of a male civics teacher explaining that a woman could never be president because she would never be able to control her mood at certain points during her menstrual cycle and would wind up nuking Russia because she’s a hormonal mess.***
Which is why this passage stuck out:
By endocrine control of some sort [more magic, it appears -am], Star was left free of Eve’s rhythm but in all ways young–not pills nor hormone injections; this was permanent. She was simply a healthy woman who never had “bad days.” This was not for her convenience but to insure that her judgement as the Great Judge would never be whipsawed by her glands. “This is sensible,” she said seriously. “I can remember there used to be days when I would bite the head off my dearest friend for no reason, then burst into tears. One can’t be judicial in that sort of storm.”
Which makes me wonder how both Heinlein and that civics teacher would feel about women on the Supreme Court. Does Sotomayor hand down especially vindictive decisions every 28 days? Can women have positions of power only after they’ve passed menopause (which brings up other issues about what a women is worth)? Or is the whole monthly cycle thing just a convenient excuse to continue to discount the higher reasoning skills of half of the species?
* Does anyone else see a similarity between the Empress’ Egg and Zerika’s Orb