Back down that ol’ glory road

I read Robert A. Heinlein as a kid. He was overwhelmingly the most influential writer I encountered between the ages of about seven and fifteen. The first Heinlein book I came across was an old Gollancz edition of Citizen of the Galaxy at the local library. That would have been around 1971 or so. Somewhere not too long after New English Library published an edition of his fantasy novel, Glory Road, in a cheap paperback edition with a bright pink cover. I think it might have been by Bruce Pennington, who did a lot of Heinlein covers for NEL, but I’m not sure. I do remember some kind of big beast, and a scantily clad woman, both of which made a big impression on my ten-year-old self. I gulped the book down with great enthusiasm, as I did every Heinlein novel (except Farnham’s Freehold) written before I Will Fear No Evil. It had adventure, cool sounding descriptions of the lead female character and a male lead that sounded just like the kind of guy I wanted to be when I grew up (I was young, remember).

Well, I’m not seven or fifteen anymore, and it’s been close to fifteen years since I last read a Heinlein book, but he’s been on my mind of late, what with an early novel being published for the first time last year and his centenary coming up, but I had no active plans to re-read any of his work. Not until, that is, the nice folks at Tor Books sent me a galley of their new reissue of Glory Road. It arrived a couple weeks ago at the office and I looked at it, smiled, remembered enjoying it years ago, and set it to one side. And it sat there for a while, and I thought, maybe I’d check it out. Try one of the old favorites again, see what 40-year-old me thinks of it. And it was interesting.

The first thing I noticed was that Heinlein’s writing style was still very clean and readable when he wrote Glory Road. Going by the publication date of the book I’m guessing he wrote it in 1961 or 1962, and the book shows few of the excesses that came to bog down his later work. It zips along. The next thing I noticed, unsurprisingly, is that Glory Road is very much a book of its time. More than anything else, the feel of the book reminded me of the Fawcett Gold Medal ‘Travis McGee’ novels by John D. McDonald, which were full of adventure, laconic wit and all kinds of strange social mores that no longer quite translate for a modern reader. There is an almost casual sexism displayed by Oscar, the book’s lead male character, in portraying all of the women in the book, that took me aback. I also was thrown by the extent to which he objectifies, the female lead, Star, who seems to be an extraordinary woman by any standards, and yet is still mostly a sex object. There are also odd descriptions of non-Caucasian folk, people performing service type tasks and so on. Basically, attitudes that I imagine sat pretty well with middle-class America in the ’50s, leavened a little by the lechery of a man hitting his own mid-50s at the time. I was then struck by just how ‘thin’ the book felt. I don’t mean the length of the book, but just how little world building is in fact going on. Heinlein spends very little time building his world, gives it very little depth, and instead focuses on whipping us from one scenario to another before we realize just how rickety the cardboard sets are. And the story itself. Well… The book is set early in the days of the Vietnam conflict and in another dimension. The descriptions of our world seem ok, but the mechanism for moving between dimensions recalls nothing so much as the wish-fulfilment of Bur roughs’ John Carter traveling to Barsoom, and the first main battle scene is actually ridiculous.

Which quickly brings to me to one of the biggest questions when reading a book like this one: does it stand up today, or is it strictly of historical interest? Honestly, as much as I loved it when I was young, and as much as I’ve admired Heinlein all these years, it’s hard to see Glory Road as being anything other than one for the history books. The style of the novel is fine, but it’s pulls you up short again and again, and it’s just not that well done. Where a ten-year-old me didn’t question much, and just went along for the ride, 40-year-old me found himself going “but, that’s dumb” and “that doesn’t make any sense at all”. While I really believe Tor are to be applauded for republishing the novel, I think it’s not really for the modern or casual reader. And for this reader, it makes me think I’ll be more cautious about re-reading old loves. Some sleeping dogs should be let lie.

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