Walking the Glory Road

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?
** Does anyone else see a similarity between the Rufo’s luggage and Pratchett’s the Luggage?
*** Really.

14 thoughts on “Walking the Glory Road

  • January 13, 2010 at 12:03 am
    Permalink

    1.
    Heinlein took various of the tropes and trappings of fantasy and accounted for them as applied science — another exercise in Clarke's any-sufficiently-advanced-technology rule. And it illuminates how scientific explanation and the impossible might be found to intersect (tomorrow's science, today's impossible, that is) — one of the reasons we read the stuff.

    2.
    Heinlein's excursion beyond the story out into the workings of the embedding society is something he also did in Beyond This Horizon. For my money, that opening out makes each of these works far better than either would be without. Heinlein is one of the few writers who could do this and remain interesting to read (though later work balanced story-simple and how-does-it-all-work less successfully). I wish Zelazny had done this with Amber. Who was filling potholes and picking up garbage while the shadow-hopping elite were at their fun and games? Who took care of Customs Inspection, Import/Export and other such chores in Amber — especially challenging chores there.

    3a.
    In re: women and their glands, men have those things too, and they probably have had effects on men's leadership, decisions, etc., in history. It's just that, in men, there's no dramatic bloodletting, and I wonder whether the periodicity might differ from 28 days certainly an individual woman's menstruation can vary from the normative 28 days). I also wonder whether there is more than one glandular cycle, how they offset/reinforce, on what schedule, etc. Could be useful to have the endocrine control Heinlein posits — it wouldn't apply just to the women.

    3b.
    The irregularities (hormonal or otherwise) of any leader are greatly moderated by the whole command and control bureaucracy that give leaders their reach in the first place. No president ever had button-to-launch control of the nuclear arsenal — there were lots of layers to get through before the button became live and more layers to get through between button press and launch. The slowness of bureaucracy, always aggravating, isn't always bad.

    4.
    Didn't L'il Abner have a refrigerator bigger inside than out?

    HDB

    Reply
  • January 18, 2010 at 2:52 am
    Permalink

    Re: #4. And don't forget the Endless Hot Dog. (Or the schmoo. Larry Niven had nothin' on Al Capp.)

    Reply
  • January 20, 2010 at 12:57 am
    Permalink

    As a fantasist it should always be standard to have the last quarter of the quest be the heroes return to the mundane world and come to terms with how he(she) fits into it.

    Reply
  • January 20, 2010 at 12:57 am
    Permalink

    I grew up reading Heinlein, when he first came out with these books, and while you may not always agree with him, there is a certain simplicity in "anyone shooting arrows at me better check their own skin for punctures." His Korean Conflict thinking came in handy during the Viet Nam era.

    Reply
  • January 20, 2010 at 12:57 am
    Permalink

    I never much cared for "Glory Road," even though it was only the second Heinlein book I talked my parents into letting me buy—I'd caught the bug from six books from the library—and I didn't know fantasy from science fiction from a hole in the ground at that point. But I read it several times at the time, and found, when I reread it again after a couple of decades, that I remembered the end of the book—the superhero trying to find himself after having done his deed and fulfilled his quest—better than I remembered the quest itself.

    Reply
  • January 20, 2010 at 12:57 am
    Permalink

    About that "***Really.": Growing up in the 1950s, I heard this rationale given whenever the subject of women being soldiers, police officers, doctors, [fill in the blank] came up. It was a given in the US in 1963. I wonder how many people still [perhaps privately] believe this. More, probably, than you might think.

    Reply
  • January 20, 2010 at 3:43 pm
    Permalink

    Timmi – just as a point of data: the Civics class would have been in 1984ish, which is why the teacher's comment stuck with me. By then, such declarations were unusual to stumble across in public.

    I'm tossing this next quote in because I must have missed something and hope someone reading didn't. In Robert Sarti's essay "Variations on a Theme: Human Sexuality in the Work of Robert A. Heinlein," he states: Glory Road is a parody in which Heinlein creates the ultimate female heroine … in order to satirize the romantic notions implicit in his long line of characters and relationships. Besides this, he tosses in a reversal of conventional sex roles, and flirts briefly with a situation conveying tones of bestiality."

    To which I say – do what now? How did I miss the bestiality?

    Reply
  • January 26, 2010 at 7:43 pm
    Permalink

    Bestality: I think someone went a bit overboard when they read the discussion on how six-legged horses do it in Nevia. Jeeze!

    Reply
  • February 11, 2010 at 7:52 pm
    Permalink

    Oscar saw a woman covered in fur (her own) at a party and mused about what it might be like to make out with her. šŸ™‚

    Reply
  • February 11, 2010 at 7:52 pm
    Permalink

    I'm not a bit surprised that a 1948-ish civics teacher would say that. I was told by a math teacher in 1970 that girls could not do higher math

    Reply
  • March 30, 2010 at 11:13 pm
    Permalink

    Thanks for mentioning Glory Road again. It and Lord of Light are two classics I like to read again. In particular, I find that the last 5 pages or so of Glory Road reminds me again of the sheer joy of doing something that is worth doing. Got any dragons that need slaying?

    I am appalled at the civics teacher, and always confused about where Heinlein stood on these issues — as benighted as a top-level reading of his view of women would be, or actually open to a role-reversal as the ironic interpretation would imply.

    Reply
  • July 1, 2010 at 2:39 am
    Permalink

    What makes you think that Justice Sotomayor still has "bad days" at her age?

    (Heck, what makes you think she has "good days"?)

    Reply
  • December 19, 2010 at 7:23 am
    Permalink

    One of my favorites from RAH, and if I'm not mistaken it was the second of his novels I read. It should be obvious by my username I hold it in high regard, and my website name is derived from another of his books.

    I can't recall where or when I read it (and it might even have been RAH) but the gist of the point was that every 28 days a woman displays uncontrollable emotions which men display every day of the month.

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Anonymous Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *