Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) was certainly his most read and most influential novel. The one that followed next, Glory Road (1963), was perhaps his least. In terms of basic literary substance and quality, it represented no slackening on his part, but it fell afoul of a genre-oriented readership that expected Science Fiction from a writer who had done as much as anyone to define the form in the mid-20th century. Instead, Glory Road most nearly approximates heroic fantasy, albeit in a subversive manner consistent with the Cabellesque, satirical inclinations already on display in Stranger in a Strange Land.
If it were to be given a Cabell-style subtitle, Glory Road might well have been called “A Comedy of Vocation.” Heinlein’s not-thoroughly-sympathetic protagonist “Easy” Gordon is a young US army veteran of the “police action” in Southeast Asia. As he is trying to sort out his future, it seems as if he might have a winning sweepstakes ticket that will put him through college. It turns out that he himself is a winning ticket (a.k.a. “hero”) for a sorceress from another dimension who needs his help to reclaim an invaluable artifact from a hostile world. So roughly the first two thirds of the book is the gradual disclosure and accomplishment of this quest for the “Egg of the Phoenix.”
But the final third of the book is far too much for a “happily ever after,” and even exceeds what might be classed as a denouement. In this structural respect, as in several others, the book reminded me of Fleming’s Casino Royale from about a decade earlier. (Substitute fencing for baccarat in this case.) Gordon discovers that being a “retired hero” does not suit him, and that having achieved greater rewards and higher luxury than he could have possibly imagined, he is dissatisfied without work to suit his character. The resolution of this dilemma, complicated through personal relationships and extradimensional migration, is the concern of the final arc of the story.
Like Stranger, Glory Road is sure to offend some 21st-century shallow readers who want to collapse the sexual prejudices of its protagonist onto its author–despite the protagonist overcoming some of those prejudices, and despite the story upending a variety of gender preconceptions within both the ‘fairy tale’ and ‘fantasy adventure’ paradigms. A few of Heinlein’s personal fetishes (sexual or otherwise) are likely on display, but these are gestures I wouldn’t begrudge any author. An epigram from George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra is the first instance of a leitmotif regarding cultural difference and moral relativism that is sounded throughout the book, not just in the later sections that portray the social commerce of a multiverse.
But “cultural pluralism” (as it is called in the Samuel Delany essay about the book appended to my 2004 Tor edition) is not the central conundrum of the book. As noted before, it is about the necessity of finding and cleaving to a calling, despite convention, cowardice, and any sort of distracting appetite. Gordon discovers what is needful in order to do that one thing which is the true purpose of his sojourn, and that makes him a hero.