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:
- You have an idea for an interesting character(s) and setting and would like to explore how they’d interact
- You have an idea about some technological, social, or other variable and how it might affect society
- You have an idea for an interesting quest, challenge, or other plot device
- 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.