AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Glory Road by Robert Heinlein

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: During the Vietnam War, Oscar Gordon finds himself recruited to an epic quest to another world to obtain a MacGuffin and win The Girl, and discovers that is only half the story.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Excellent audiobook adaptation; high concept of satire of fantasy hero tropes more relevant now than when written; a waterfall of neat ideas.
CONS: Problems with the major female character; plotting issues in the second half; overbearing politics.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting if badly imperfect audiobook adaptation of a classic Heinlein work.

Glory Road is one of the relatively few forays Robert A. Heinlein made into fantasy and it’s the only novel-length one he wrote. Having read the book years ago, I decided to listen to the audiobook on a recently long driving trip.

In it, Oscar Gordon, cashiered out of the Vietnam War, manipulates matters so that he gets a well deserved break in the south of France. Once there, a not-so-chance encounter with a woman from much further away than Nice leads him on a quest to another world. However, completing the quest and getting the girl is far from the end of Oscar’s story.

Glory Road is simultaneously a fantasy and a deconstruction of fantasy tropes. Oscar is picked for the heroic adventure, complete with The Girl, and a Servant, and sets off across a fantasy landscape dealing with locals with his sword and wits. Get the Macguffin, save the world, woo the girl; at first glance it’s a standard quest fantasy, even more so fifty years after it was written. And yet, the second half of the novel deconstructs the quest fantasy completely. We get to see the not so-happily-ever-after, with Oscar’s discovery that the getting is much more than the having when it comes to his promised rewards. The story of how Oscar was chosen and the setting up of such a quest is laid out by the author in painstaking detail. It’s a ruthless interrogation of the premise and of portal fantasies. That interrogation and deconstruction seems even more useful today than when the book was written.

There are, as per many a Heinlein novel, numerous neat ideas (and some more that feel badly dated). How Oscar deals with Igli, the magic and science relationship and many other bits on the journey are interesting and fun. As per the standard quest fantasy, Oscar, Star and Rufo cover interesting terrain and meet intriguing minor characters. The final conflict in particular is an inspired set-piece.

The narration of the audiobook by Bronson Pinchot — yes, *that* Bronson Pinchot — is is excellent. The diversity and enunciated of voices given the characters, both major and minor, is extremely well done,and in some cases absolutely inspired. Take Jocko, The Doral, for example. A minor but important character who is initially described as being like a Texan in his expansiveness. When he finally speaks, Pinchot gives him an appropriate and convincing Texas accent that simply works. Even in the problematic second half of the book, the narration keeps the book from sinking under the weight of it’s plotting problems.

And the problems of Glory Road are numerous. Yes, even given it’s a product of its time, there are serious problems with the major female character, Star. The fact that she is the only female character with any real lines or characterization in the novel is bad enough. And while the novel is full of satire and deconstruction of tropes that are now even more unwelcome now than they were when this was first written, this is not a well drawn female character by 2013 standards. I am not even sure it’s a well drawn female character by 1963 standards. There are, in fact, moments in the novel that are more than cringe-worthy.

Beyond the problems of Star, though, the novel’s ambitious plan don’t quite work. The MacGuffin is located and rescued halfway through, and the remainder of the book is devoted to that deconstruction and interrogation of the quest fantasy novel. However, its philosophical/social meanderings and theorizing are effectively plotless. Compared to the humming and clicking along of the plot to get the Phoenix Egg, the second half of the novel squanders the momentum entirely. The audiobook does make it easier to take this second half, since it unspools without effort from the reader to slog through the material. And while listening to Heinlein’s theory in small doses is fine (and he provides a sheaf of that in the first half of the novel as per his usual modus operandi), a whole half novel of it without plot or anything to really dilute it is often too much.

Is Glory Road still worth reading (or as in this case, listening to)? Certainly, and especially in the first half of the novel, it’s entertaining enough even given its flaws. Going into it with ears and eyes open, Glory Road is worthwhile for those readers who can forgive it those flaws. This is a case where the audiobook format and allowing the story to unfold aurally might indeed improve the acceptability of the story and the work in this day and age.

4 thoughts on “AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Glory Road by Robert Heinlein”

  1. Read it at age 11, I think. As someone at that time with a developing kinky sexuality, one scene in particular was a favorite.

  2. I know what an academic reviewer would say about the second half of the book: that the aimlessness, the spinning in place, the general feeling of malaise, accurately depicts and reflects the mind-set and attitude of the character, and is therefore an act of genius.
    Setting aside whether or not Heinlein was a genius, I’m reminded that academic reviewers never have to worry about readers putting a book down because of boredom. They can’t do it themselves, and neither can their students, if any.
    As for how Heinlein portrays Star, it’s been said that after a certain period, all his female characters are essentially the same person. However, since he often does that with his male characters as well, I’m not there’s room for feminist complaint on that point alone. There are many problems with how Heinlein portrays women, but as someone who was there at the time, I can assure you that his portrayal is more positive on the whole than that of most writers at the time. Female writers usually did better, but I’m afraid it was only “usually”.
    The climactic sword fight has always been one of my favourites, especially once I figured out who the opponent was. I’ve always wanted to see it staged.
    Thanks for a great review.

    1. I guess I am less of an academic reviewer. We have one of those here; I do wonder what John Stevens thinks.

      And yes, that swordfight is a classic. Have you ever seen the Doctor Who episode The Mind Robber? There is an encounter something in the spirit of that fight, in that episode.

      1. I don’t think I have seen it, I usually remember a good sword fight. I haven’t seen as much Dr. Who as I’d like, we can’t get it out here, difficulties even with internet access, so I wait for the DVDs, and then can’t afford them.

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