What’s Your Favourite Heinlein Novel, Charles Stross?

Glory Road by Robert A. HeinleinThere are seven deadly words at the end of every fairy tale, words that signal that the train of narrative has reached a terminus beyond which it is impossible to proceed without switching to a different gauge: “And they all lived happily ever after.”

At the end of every fairy tale the girl gets her prince and the wicked witch gets her justly-deserved red-hot dancing shoes; but never should the wisdom of breeding be questioned, nor the justice of kings, the malice of witches and the treachery of the ugly. Inside the sweet pastry of closure there’s a hard and bitter kernel of unbending tradition.

If you want to traverse the rugged and increasingly hostile terrain of broken assumptions and questioned conventions, you need a different kind of vehicle. And that’s what Robert A. Heinlein engineered in Glory Road, perhaps the most mistakenly underrated of his 1960s novels.

Glory Road opens by introducing us to Oscar, naive young sword-wielding hero and GI everyman; fast, deadly, and mistakenly believing himself to be a match for the universe. Discharged from the army and at a loose end, Oscar answers a job ad asking for a hero and finds himself plunged into a perilous quest with a princess and a page at his side. What follows is a high fantasy romp in the pre-Tolkeinian mode: with tongue firmly in cheek and more than a touch of camp to season the stew, the first half of Glory Road reads like Fritz Leiber writing a portal fantasy. Even so, there are intrusions from outside the box. Oscar’s unthinking assumption that his values are universal axioms of civilization is undermined and then dissected with cruel precision: there are signs, even early on, that he is not fully informed as to the true consequences of his actions.

Then, halfway into the novel, the express train of Heinleinian story-telling runs into the buffers of ever-after at full speed and explodes — and we are left to pick over the wreckage with the increasingly baffled and frustrated Oscar, as the lessons of the first half finally sink in. Life is a process, heroism is a vocation not a destination, and the girl comes with unwelcome strings attached.

Oscar has fulfilled the quest, gained the castle, married the princess (except she’s actually an immortal empress witch, powerful and cynical beyond his imagination) … and everything turns to ashes in his mouth.

I first read Glory Road when I was younger and dumber than Oscar; it took me a long time to get what the novel was about, and then I felt even stupider. Life isn’t about growing up and having done things, it’s a process rather than a destination: Oscar works it out eventually, and the novel ends when he decides, rather than passively sitting on his hoard, to follow the admonition on his sword: “Dum vivimus, vivamus!”

Verdict: to a first naive reading Glory Road might be mistaken for a swaybacked nag of a high fantasy experiment that tails off into bathos. But there’s much more to it than that, and once the reader recognizes that Oscar is an unreliable guide to his world the true story comes into focus.

… And they all *lived* happily ever after.

Charles Stross can be found online at


Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve (978-0-7653-1960-9 / $29.99) will be available from Tor Books on August 17th 2010.


Related Links:

5 thoughts on “What’s Your Favourite Heinlein Novel, Charles Stross?

  1. I agree Glory Road is one of his best, as is Double Star, but my favorite remains Citizen of the Galaxy, with Star Beast a close second. For me, the “juveniles” hold up better.

  2. Yeah, there’s nothing of pointless wish fulfillment in the story of an ex-military man who in his aimless wandering is contacted by a stunningly beautiful woman who needs him and wants him regardless of his lack of any skill of interest, both for a quest, and for lots of totally hot sex. His ‘adventures’ are easy and in the land he travels in it’s just customary to sleep with the eldest daughter of the house you are staying in. Doesn’t he get how much sex you can have if you write the book yourself?

    IMO Glory Road was Heinlein at his worst, sex-obsessed, cheesy, dull and poorly characterised wish fullfillment.
    The only book he wrote that was possibly worse, though I can’t force myself to finish it so I don’t know, is ‘The Number of the Beast’ where a bunch of self-inserts swan around the multiverse didactically acting to further his messages rather than the plot and having lots of sex that Heinlein seemed to write with a palpable leer in the text. Possibly advocating lots of incest too, though that may have been limited to the other books in that period.

    Now Citizen of the Galaxy, Orphan’s of the Sky and Star Beast, that’s where it’s at.

  3. Thank you Charlie! I too loved Glory Road. When I was younger I loved the first half without reservation, delighted that Heinlein had written a fantasy and loving his SF spin on the genre. So of course I was disappointed and largely bored with the rest, after the traditional fantasy ending. And then I got older and discovered that I found the second half much more fulfilling, because it spoke of the joy of continuing to live, rather than the fantasy promise of a happy ending.

    I would also note, pace @3 Skiffy, the similarity in structure to Citizen of the Galazy: there, the first half is orphan boy’s adventure to reunion with his family; then when he returns to his inheritance, the concerns become more realistic as he takes up responsibility and begins to understand his ongoing life to come as an adult.

  4. About the first time I do agree with Mr Stross on a subject, apart from agreeing on his writing abilities.
    Glory Road is more subtle than you expect on a first read.

Comments are closed.