Glory road and WTF Heinlein?

Just finished reading Heinlein’s Glory Road, one of his few (only?) forays into something akin to fantasy, although technically it is more of a science fantasy/planetary romance type thing. Which is to say there is magic and dragons and sword fighting, but it all takes place on another planet in our universe (or our multiverse, I guess, there is talk of other universes too).

Glory road is not in Gygax’s Appendix N to the DMG but it could be, as there are several other “planetary romances” listed there. Anyway my review:

Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed a lot about this book. There were some good characters, some decent action, interesting challenges for the heroes, and a dungeon-like tower that has some fruitful ideas for D&D. (I don’t rate books on how well they provide fodder for D&D but it doesn’t hurt!) There are some genuinely funny jokes, and a few emotional scenes that work, and some interesting ideas. But...

My big gripe with a lot of fiction is when the author knows best and uses his characters to preach his views. This happens in a lot of genres but in science fiction it can be really annoying, as the mouthpieces are usually given “authority” and “perspective” by being extraterrestrial, highly advanced (technologically, socially, intellectually), and “objective” (they aren’t from here). Heinlein does this a lot in Glory road. He posits a galactic empire that has been stable for thousands of years, and hammers on his social and political views by telling us the empire has lasted and is superior because it follows his politics. I know this sort of preaching is common in bad science fiction, but I’d hoped more from Heinlein, as I really liked some of his books when I read them twenty years ago (Stranger in a strange land, The cat who walked through walls, etc.) Now I’m thinking I liked them because I enjoyed reading his unconventional, perhaps scandalous, views when I was a teenager. I am hesitant to revisit those books now, as I’m afraid I’ll find them, in parts, just as juvenile as Glory road is when it comes to promoting the author’s social and political views. (Which is not to say his views are juvenile. But a lot of them are.)

To back up, the main character is a Vietnam veteran, about 25 years old, who is cynical and selfish. He is proud of his patriotism (which the horrible education system of the early 1960s tried to crush) and self-reliance, but at the same time schemes for easy money, government handouts, and feels very justified in looking for ways to avoid paying income tax. Which is to say that apart from his occasionally progressive views in other areas, he is a sort of proto-Tea Partier, who loves his country in the abstract and hates his government in the abstract, but also expects his government to give him everything it owes him by virtue of his citizenship… Maybe that is an unfair assessment but I just can’t understand someone claiming to love democracy and simultaneously hating democratically elected leadership. I guess Heinlein should get a pass here because as the book goes on, democracy itself is rejected as a silly experiment that should pass away and make room for an aristocracy of merit. I suppose I’d find all the political sloganeering more agreeable if Heinlein could find a way to express his views without such transparent mouthpieces. For example I still love Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., whose political and social messages are expressed through satire and … showing, not telling.

I have not read a lot of “planetary romances.” I’m somewhat familiar with E.R. Burroughs, who certainly had his views but did not necessarily feel the need to put them all in the minds of superior aliens. (Carson of Mars Venus, for example, ridicules Nazism in the guise of the Venusian “Zanis,” but in a much less heavy-handed way than Heinlein seems capable.) I understand the appeal of writing them (there is a built-in excuse for heavy exposition and you get a main character from our Earth who we can readily understand and empathize with, etc.) and reading them. I don’t get why you’d write one if you really wanted to write a political manifesto.

It seems to me there are many, many reasons to write a planetary romance, a fantasy, or science fiction:

  1. You have an idea for an interesting character(s) and setting and would like to explore how they’d interact
  2. You have an idea about some technological, social, or other variable and how it might affect society
  3. You have an idea for an interesting quest, challenge, or other plot device
  4. You want to put your views (on politics, mores, religion, etc.) into the mouth of someone or something with “authority” to illustrate that your views are correct

1-3 are all perfectly valid reasons to write a novel or story. 4 generally results in fiction that I’d call utter crap. There are shelves and shelves of “religious” fiction like this, and radio talk show hosts’ novels, and the worst science fiction. There is nothing wrong with exploring political and moral controversies in fiction. There is something wrong with using fiction merely to pontificate.

Which brings me (sort of) to the other thing that bothers me about Glory road — the social views it expounds. I don’t mind sexual liberation and cultural relativism. These were sort of revolutionary ideas when Heinlein was writing this. But the only real growth or development that is evident in the hero, apart from a slight increase in his nobility/willingness to help others, is that he loses pretty much all his inhibitions about sex (ok) including his revulsion at the thought of sleeping with underage girls (WTF?). I checked out Heinlein’s Wikipedia page to see if this theme is something others have picked up on, and yes, I am not the first to think he winks at pedophilia. His fans and defenders apparently deny that he endorsed this, but the narrator seems pretty unambiguously moving from revulsion to acceptance of it. (Basically the hero spends some time in a country on another planet where the age of consent is whenever puberty hits, and he turns down a young teenager’s advances, and then decides later he will take her up on it some time.) I’m afraid that crosses a line for me, because the narrator is generally presented as a mouthpiece for Heinlein’s views. (If the narrator was just being presented as a character, flaws and all, that would be one thing, but Heinlein generally seems to endorse his narrator’s views.)

So long, Heinlein. I think this is last book of yours I’ll be reading (which is too bad — Job looked interesting).

I was always leery of the rabid fans of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers who think that the film is a travesty for mocking militarism (it may well be a poor and subversive adaptation but that doesn’t make the book right), because I hate to mix politics with literary criticism. But Glory road goes far beyond repulsive politics, and achieves repulsiveness in morality. Not because it depicts repulsive actions — I can make the distinction there — but because it seems hard to read the book except as endorsing morally repugnant behavior. I sure hope I’m misunderstanding Heinlein on this, but I doubt it.

UPDATE: OK, a little cursory research shows that Heinlein tended to be a contrarian and simply disliked the notion that anything could be “taboo”. To some extent that’s fine, I guess. It’s a little puerile to break taboos just because they are there, and couch all of his pontifications in the safety of “that’s a character, not my opinion” when some of the contrarian opinions expressed by his characters are transparently his, but I don’t need to bring the wrath of Heinlein Society down on this blog over my distaste for some of his writings. I’ll assume Heinlein is not really advocating tax-dodging, the overthrow of democracy, and the total abolition of all sexual taboos. That’s just his characters talking. His Heroes, and selfless Galactic Empresses, and so on, but just characters. Right.

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (23)  
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  1. Get it right, Mike. It’s Carson of Venus, not Carson of Mars. He never got to Mars.

    I liked Glory Road as a teen/young man, but certainly not because I spent any time thinking about the politics/morality of the hero. I simply love the idea of escaping this reality to a simpler one where magic and sword fighting really can solve problems. Most of Heinlein’s works, starting with early juvenile novels like Podkayne of Mars, are about escape from mundane reality.

    Heinlein’s views on sex and politics are informed by a kind of pure reason that sort of makes sense on an individual hedonistic level. He preaches self reliance and self responsibility and fuck the larger universe. They seem to make sense to me when I am reading them, they make sense at any given point, but when looked at as a whole philosophy system, they’re just plain crazy. I think he liked to dream about what might have been. In reality Heinlein had one wife, Virginia, and she was not the woman to allow any of the kinky crap he put into his novels about Lazarus Long or Scar Gordon.

    • Oh, when I’m retired i’ll have time to proofread and fact-check my blog 🙂

      I could be over-reacting to this book. Heinlein just seems so…self-righteous, though.

      And I don’t mind if the hero is a cad. That’s not the problem for me. It’s that Heinlein uses the hero to argue that it’s ok for a grown man to have sex with a kid.

  2. Not to defend Heinlein, but did he mention the novel in later interviews or address any of the points you bring up? He wouldn’t be the only author to regret something he wrote in the sixties or view a certain subject in a different way later in life.

    Also, where does the main character originate from? Perhaps Heinlein was mocking something/someone, or there is some subtext that isn’t coming through in the pages?

    • Those are valid questions. Maybe he softened his stance or changed his mind later on. Maybe I’m reading into the novel too much. The hero mocks himself for certain foibles in the book, but on the sexual ethics issue it seems clear that the message is “Earthlings are totally hung up on sex and should adopt the absolutely no-holds-barred norms of the [galactic empire]”. But I was not an English major and should probably leave the literary criticism to the experts, eh?

      • God NO!

        Never trust the truth to people who have marinated in ‘literature’ too long.

        Never, never, never!

  3. There’s a fantastic chapter on Glory Road and other Vietnam-era sci-fi in a book called Vietnam and Other American Fantasies by H. Bruce Franklin. The whole section on Glory Road is available here on Google Books if you’d like to check it out

    • Thanks, Jamie! I’ll take a look,

      • I got hooked by that and read it last night; read the whole excerpt, actually, though there are several places where it skips pages just as it’s getting good. I want to buy the book now, which is probably the idea. 😉 I think the author’s a little harsh on Heinlein; the “little brown cousin” line, for example, is taken as indicative of racism, while the character does not appear to be substantially racist, and most of Heinlein’s work is quite the opposite.

  4. Looking at Heinlein’s total body of work, it’s not possible that he personally believed or advocated everything he put in the mouths of his narrators. Even coming out at different times, it’s simply not possible. There is a broad ongoing theme of personal responsibility and competence, but once you get past that the apparent moral of Starship Troopers contradicts The Moon is a Harsh Mistress which contradicts Stranger in a Strange Land, all of which contradict his earlier youth market sci fi. (I admit I haven’t gotten to Glory Road yet.)

    I happened to start with Starship Troopers, and even before I’d read anything else I took it as skillfully walking a line between utopia and dystopia. So, an exploration rather than a manifesto. Granted the characters do preach at times, and that part isn’t so skillful, but I still take it as an exploration of other societies and cultures. In other words, your reason #2 above, but laid out plainly in the voice of a character who really believes it.

    • Well, obviously I did not claim he believes everything his narrators say or anything like that, and I was describing the extreme preachiness of Glory Road specifically. Glory Road is the only book of his I’ve read lately, and the narrator there seems, broadly, to mirror many of Heinlein’s established views (the aristocratic outlook you mentioned, and the general libertarianism he often espoused, as well as his more admirable views against racism, etc.), as do other characters. Oscar Gordon, the narrator, is perhaps more sexist than Heinlein would appear to be in later works. But my main issue is the preachiness of the book as a whole (not just the narrator) and the narrator’s arc from unwillingness to willingness to abandon the taboo mentioned. Looking at my original post as a whole I think that is pretty clearly what I said.

      Having read the book, I just don’t think it is credible to say Heinlein is agnostic about all the social and political views expressed, by the narrator or others in the book.

      BTW I think some readers of Starship Troopers — at least the most vocal fans — seem to have missed the dystopian elements entirely and, rather bizarrely, see it as mainly utopian! I think his later works may have had more success at being explorations. But Glory Road reads like a manifesto.

  5. @Dave R: I tip my hat to using the authors other works to create a groundwork for a logical proof. That’s awesome.

    @Mr. M: This may come across as dumb, but is it possible he was taking a swipe at the planetary romance concept (or some aspect of it)?

    • No, that’s not dumb at all. The narrator mentions many planetary romance and sword & sorcery heroes in the first part of the book. But ‘total’ sexual liberation is certainly a recurring theme in in Heinlein’s works too, and on this topic and others his views strike me as over-the-top and irresponsible at best. Like I said, I don’t mind the wide-ranging speculation. It’s the self-righteousness in his “not only does anything go, but you the reader are primitive screwhead for having any scruples about this stuff” that puts me off.

      • In terms of sexual morality, Heinlein was of the firm opinion that intelligent, consenting adults always make their own rules about sex, and that most cultural taboos about it are backward. Remember that when he was writing most of his books, homosexuality was illegal in most places, as an example. Now, I don’t think this ever included winking at pedophilia. IIRC, the young girl in Glory Road is not a “young teenager”; she’s culturally more equivalent to a college student. Now, here in my thirties, I have a hard time conceptualizing a relationship with a college age girl; they’re almost assuredly going to be too immature for us to be compatible in that sense. But a tryst between a character in their 20s or 30s and an 18 or 19 year old doesn’t seem to me to fit the definitionn of pedophilia.

        I do think Heinlein had a tendency to belabor his points on this subject, and that the ideals of non-jealous, plural relationships shown in some of his books (Stranger, Time Enough for Love, Number of the Beast, etc.) are unrealistic. But I think they’re unrealistically idealistic; he believed in love, in generosity, and in the potential of human beings and in our better natures. The protagonist of Glory Road is protrated as selfish, cynical at a young age, jealous and possessive; the point being hammered home in the book is that the character needed to grow up, not just the reader.

  6. Heinlein certainly believed in some wrongheaded things at times, and his characters have sometimes been mouthpieces for his ideas, good and bad. Though I agree that there are too many contradictions between his characters’ beliefs to think that most of them belonged to him. Context is important too; remember that his thoughts on sexual morality were forming before and during the Sexual Revolution, and were understandably speculative and exploratory. Starship Troopers was written in a period of anger and dismay, when the USSR was ahead of the US in the space race. For all that, I’ve always seen more good than bad in him. Even if I look at the politics of Starship Troopers in a somewhat more informed and incredulous light than I did when I first picked it up and fell in love with it at the age of 12.

    • Yeah, I’ve liked others of his works and yes, even Glory road has its merits. I guess my disillusionment with Heinlein on reading this book spoils some of my appreciation of his work though and that as much as anything else is why I wrote the post.

      • Overall I was disappointed by Glory Road as well; but I think part of that is that the protagonist is not as much of a hero as he, the story, or Star want him to be. The philosophical/relationship stuff in the latter half was definitely a letdown after the high adventure of the first half.

        If you’re annoyed by Heinleins personal philosophy/soap boxing, I definitely recommend still checking out more of his early stuff. I mentioned Moon is a Harsh Mistress before, and Tunnel in the Sky, but forgot to mention The Puppetmasters, which is another all-time classic.

  7. I read a few of Heinlein’s books in high school and college, starting with The Number of The Beast and hitting the usuals like Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, Girl Friday or whatever, and as I grew older couldn’t deal with his tedious fetishes for protocol, chapter-long item-by-item descriptions of how they managed to stow everything in a very small ship, and accounts of incest, etc. Not being well-read in his work, I have the impression that he’s basically a fascist, and for me a little fascism goes a long way, and I just don’t need to be hit over the head by the man’s writing. Others who know better here suggest that his views evolved, or were provocative for the sake of provocation, and maybe this is so, I can’t say.

    I tend to withhold my total condemnation of Heinlein since reading P.K. Dick’s personal take on him, which is quoted from a 1980 introduction on the wikipedia page for Dick (, and excerpted here:

    “Several years ago, when I was ill, Heinlein offered his help, anything he could do…. He wanted to buy me an electric typewriter, God bless him—one of the few true gentlemen in this world. I don’t agree with any ideas he puts forth in his writing, but that is neither here nor there. … Robert Heinlein is a fine-looking man, very impressive and very military in stance…. He knows I’m a flipped-out freak and still he helped me and my wife when we were in trouble. That is the best in humanity, there; that is who and what I love.”

    Hmm, “I don’t agree with any ideas he puts forth in his writing”. I identify more with Dick’s worldview than Heinlein’s (which maybe doesn’t say much for me) and if he has this estimation of the guy as a person, maybe there was more to him than his writings suggest. This doesn’t make me want to read his books, but it does open the possibility that’s he’s not merely writing fascistic, militaristic, sexist masturbatory fantasies ad nauseum. Opens the possibility, anyway.

    • Dick knew Heinlein as a good and kind person, even if someone of widely-differing political views.

      He has a couple of books you could legitimately call militaristic, out of dozens of novels. He never wrote any books anyone could reasonably describe as fascist. The people who use that word to describe Starship Troopers either don’t understand the book or don’t know what Fascism is. He definitely has some sexism in some of his books, but then most of his later stuff seems to put women on equal or superior footing to men. “Masturbatory”, though perhaps a low blow, may be the fairest of that collection of slings and arrows. He definitely indulges in some sexual fantasies, though never explicitly. I don’t think I’ve ever read an explicit sex scene in any of his books.

      His later works are definitely more self-indulgent. It looks to me like you hit a number of the late ones (Friday, Number of the Beast), and may have missed some of the absolute classics. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is great. Almost any of his early juveniles (young adult fiction) are excellent. Tunnel in the Sky, for example, is highly recommended.

  8. I just scanned the comments, but it seems to me most of the reviewers are focusing on petty details and completely unable to see the woods for the trees. Heinlein was always interjecting his (not necessarily consistent) opinions into his stories, so what? The point is that THIS IS A FAIRY TALE. It follows perfectly the arc of the classic fairy story in which the impoverished younger son meets the endangered princess and, by his skill and daring, saves her from the dangers that beset her. Heinlein just makes it a bit more realistic. In the first place, his princess is not a naive maiden, but the the highly educated product of centuries of aristocracy, while he is a country bumpkin. In the second place, he tackles the problem of of what said country bumpkin, whose only knowledge is of fighting, will do in the “They lived happily ever after” phase as the consort of an educated and realistic ruler. The answer, of course, is nothing. He has served his one purpose and she has no further use for him. She keeps him around, out of gratitude, as a sort of imperial lap-dog. Naturally he can’t take this and bails out, only to realize that being a lap-dog is better than life without her. That’s life.
    A word of caution: When Isaac Asimov got a story idea he typed it at blinding speed, stuffed it in an envelope, and mailed it without even reading, much less editing it. He had neither time nor use for subtlety. When he sat in on a college class where one of his stories was being discussed, he was was astounded by all the abstruse psychological interpretations the lecturer put into into it. When challenged, the lecturer said “What makes you think you know anything about the story just because you wrote it?” Moral: don’t over-analyze.

    • Part One started well and meandered downwards. Part Two began awful and stayed there. I won’t bother with Part Three.

    • Praise be unto Allah! You are the only other reviewer who has really understood this book. Perhaps all the over-analyzers didn’t read fairy stories when they were kids, but I did, and the truth fairly leaped at me. My review on Amazon said almost exactly the same thing, but not half so well. It is still my favorite fairy tale because it looks beyond “and they lived happily ever after” at what really happened after the hero slew all the dragons.

  9. I’d like to tell you what a doofus I think you are. I think instead, I’ll let Robert do it for me.
    “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers…. It is an invitation to think — not to believe.” – Robert A. Heinlein in reference to “Stranger in a Strange Land”. I imagine his purpose here (other than to entertain and get paid) was no different.

    • Wierd how he needs to keep inviting readers to question taboos surrounding age of consent though. I’d give him a pass if he didn’t keep going to same well.

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