Writing last month about the sexual marketplace prompted me to reread Robert A. Heinlein’s Glory Road. Or try to reread it at least; after confirming I hadn’t misremembered his insights (I use the word loosely) on the subject, I set it down unfinished.
The plot has twenty-one year old veteran “Scar” Gordon (a Vietnam vet though Heinlein doesn’t name the war) unsure of where he’s going next in life. When he responds to a newspaper want ad looking for a brave adventurer he winds up on a cross-dimensional quest with the beautiful Star and canny scientist Rufo. Scar completes the adventure, marries Star but learns that while she cares for him she’s also been using him. He walks away but eventually reunites with Rufo for more adventures along the glory road (a metaphor for adventuring, not a literal location).
There are some fun bits, like Star’s matter-of-fact acceptance of what seems like magic: if that’s how the world works, worrying whether it’s scientific is irrelevant. And in fairness to RAH, something about his style never clicks with me so I might still not have liked the book if it didn’t have the problems I’m about to discuss. But it does.
The problem, for me, is that Scar is an authorial mouthpiece, sharing Heinlein’s wisdom about life with the reader — and he ain’t that wise. I’m familiar with Heinlein’s propensity to expound in his later works (Time Enough for Love, Number of the Beast) but it seems he was into that as early as 1963. The opening chapter is Scar telling us his life story. For the purpose of the book, all we need to know is that he’s a veteran and unsure of his next chapter in life, but we also learn about his military career, how he hates the draft and the educational system but he’s very patriotic and loves his country (it felt like Heinlein was carefully threading the needle in not being too radical). There’s also a rant about how his teachers tried crushing his patriotic spirit; given he’d have been in school in the 1950s when schools were hardly seething with anti-American thought, I’ve no idea what this refers to.
What got me to reread the book was to confirm a line I wrote about several years ago was really as bad as I remember it. It was. As a teen, I knew it didn’t make sense but couldn’t explain why; now I can. During a conversation with Scar, Star tells him that Earth’s sexual mores are unique in the multiverse. Marriage and prostitution (she goes on at length about how buying a woman dinner, flowers, jewelry shows marriage and sex work are two sides of the same coin), both based on “the incredible notion that what all women have an endless supply of is nevertheless merchandise, to be hoarded and auctioned.” In a healthy society without sexual hangups women could provide men with all the sex they need — how screwed up is Earth that relationships don’t work like that?
I don’t know if this was, in fact, a personal belief or Heinlein was just playing provocateur or contrarian. But I don’t care either: he said it and it’s bullshit. As my old dungeon master liked to put it, Heinlein is not playing his intelligence here.
Even in a society without slut-shaming and similar restraints on consensual sex, the sex supply isn’t really infinite. Quite aside from physical limitations, most women aren’t into providing an “endless supply” of sex. Not because women hate sex or have unreasonable inhibitions, but because there’s not an endless number of men who turn them on.
That’s perfectly natural, just as most men don’t want to have sex with every woman who’s attracted to them. Even assuming a party full of women who are looking for sex, that doesn’t mean a specific guy can find a woman who wants to have it with him, or that she’ll be a woman he wants to sleep with or that she’ll want to have sex in the ways that scratch his particular itch. Hence prostituion (marriage is, in fact, a great deal different).
Heinlein’s not the only person who thinks women’s endless supply holds the potential for sexual utopia — Evangeline Walton takes a similar stance in Island of the Mighty (though overall it’s a far superior book) — but that’s no excuse. It’s not just that his argument is wrong, it’s very male-centric. Practically speaking, men can provide an infinite amount of sex too: sure, the penis can only do so much, even with Viagra, but we have mouths, fingers, we can work a sex toy …
Yet Star doesn’t suggest men should get over their hangups and provide lonely women (their partner’s dead, they don’t meet conventional beauty standards) with a sex supply. Glory Road‘s supposed outside-the-box sexual thinking is just a male fantasy where an endless supply of hot women are available for Scar, or any other guy, to relieve their sexual tension, just as believers in enforced monogamy focus on incel men, not celibate women..
It’s about as daring and edgy as a paperback PI novel of the same era.
#SFWApro. Covers top to bottom by Clyde Caldwell, Bob Pepper, (I believe) Robert McGinnis and Kemp Ward.