Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Strange Case of the Planet Gor

John Norman is the pen name of Psychology Professor John F. Lange. “Norman” is notorious as the author of the 27-book long Gor science fiction series (26 volumes published so far), as well as other less well known titles. His books depict situations in which strong men have adventures, while women are subservient to them, and in many cases are actual slaves. This has offended the sensibilities of some readers. Perusing comments about the Gor books in particular, on various forums, however, is to get the impression is that many people are offended by the notion of Gor, without having read any of the books.

 Norman’s career as a science fiction writer started innocently enough. In 1966 and 1967, Ballantine published Tarnsman of Gor, Outlaw of Gor, and Priest Kings of Gor. These were an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose writings were finding a new audience after being reprinted a few years earlier. In particular, the first three Gor books mirror the first three of Burroughs’ Mars books. An Earthman is transported to another planet, where he becomes a mighty warrior and wins the love of a princess. He is then cast back to Earth, and spends the second and third books trying to regain his station, confronting the rulers of the planet in the third. Norman wrote in an era of “free love” and greater tolerance for sexuality in entertainment, so he spiced up his books with slave girls and hints of dominance and submission play.

 The first Gor books were very popular, so Norman continued the series. His hero, Tarl Cabot, engaged in two further adventures, Nomads of Gor and Assassin of Gor, with a new lady by his side. The real change in the series began with Book 6, Raiders of Gor. Norman now started to give psychological issues a greater role in the stories. Cabot finally failed on one of his missions, and when captured, chose to become a slave instead of accepting an honorable execution. Until that time, he had considered himself a man of honor, but after regaining his freedom, he turned to a career as a merchant and slaver.

 Book 7, Captive of Gor, was the first to not be related by Cabot. The earlier volumes had been told by his character, in the first person. This time, a young woman kidnapped from Earth by slavers wrote her first person account of arriving on Gor, and gradually learning to accept her place as a slave girl who pleasures men. In the course of her story, she meets up with Cabot’s lost princess from the first book, and eventually comes to be owned briefly by Cabot. He instigates her writing of her experiences, and upon reading her manuscript, is motivated to go on a quest for the princess, who is being held captive in a far away wilderness.

 Ballantine had had enough by this point. They wanted adventure stories, even ones with a little spice, but not accounts supposedly written by enchained women who learned to enjoy their lot in life. Book 8, Hunters of Gor, related Cabot’s journey to the Northern Forest, his enslavement of his former partner from Books 4 and 5 along the way, and his ultimate failure to regain his princess. She is herself enslaved, and by a cruel twist of fate, becomes the property of Cabot’s best friend, after one of his ships happened to purchase her at a trading location. Cabot is left half paralyzed, after a sword fight, in which he feels he “recollected” his honor for a moment, but was cut by a poisoned blade.

 Ballantine rejected the manuscript for 1974’s Hunters of Gor, and Donald Wollheim’s new DAW Books science fiction house became Norman’s publisher. Ballantine kept the first seven books in print into the 1980s, and sold millions of copies. DAW had similar success, publishing the series through 1988’s Magicians of Gor (Book 25). A 1986 DAW catalog states that through 1985 the company had sold over 5 million of Norman’s books, which included two non-Gor titles. Along the way, three more Gor novels had been told by Earth women turned Gorean slaves, and three others were told by Jason Marshall, an Earth man who was brought to Gor while trying to rescue his girlfriend from Gorean slavers. Along the way, Cabot had adventured among cultures transplanted from Earth, including Vikings, Arabs, Inuit, Black Africans, and Native Americans. Five of the last six books had seen him caught up in a version of the Second Punic War, and the storyline wasn’t finished with Magicians of Gor.

 Donald Wollheim was an old man by 1988, and his daughter Elizabeth took over running DAW Books. She had already considered the Gor series offensive some years earlier, as artist Ken Kelly relates in his book Escape. He discusses the issue briefly while giving some background to his cover painting for 1981’s Guardsman of Gor. The series was very popular, but DAW now refused to publish any more Gor novels, and it took another 15 years before Book 26, Witness of Gor, was finally released. Norman had to essentially start his own publishing house to do this, and at this writing, Book 27, Prize of Gor, has yet to come out, despite the manuscript existing for many years.

 As I stated, the series was popular, selling millions of copies. The perception was, and still is, that the books were read by horny adolescent males, who found the slave girls titillating. I was one of those adolescent males myself, back in the day, but most such readers were lost along the way, as the amount of action and adventure decreased, and the discussion of the merits of female slavery became more and more prevalent. I know from my point of view at the time, that reading a book narrated by a slave girl didn’t interest me.

 The open secret was that reading about slave girls, especially from their own point of view, held great appeal to many women! Norman came to accept that, as the series wore on, he was writing a version of Romance novels. These were stories in which a strong, roguish man makes a frigid woman finally feel some sexual heat. There was such a market for this action-oriented science fiction version of the Romance novel that Sharon Green has made a successful career out of writing very similar books with an obvious Norman influence (and also published by DAW, until they dropped her too). It amuses me to think that Elizabeth Wollheim thought she was ridding the world of books that offended women, when she actually was depriving many of her fellow women of what they wanted to read!

 I’m also amused by the politically correct comments made mainly by men on various blogs and sci-fi review sites. They assert that they have no interest in these “macho-BS fantasies,” without having a clue that men were and are a minority among Norman’s readers (and even more so among Green’s). If you doubt me about Norman’s audience, do a quick websearch for the sites of where people role-play being Goreans. Look up some reviews on Amazon. Modern print on demand and ebook publishing have finally, in the past two years, made it cost-effective for the first 26 Gor books to be easily available, without a publishing company having to worry about getting politically correct hate mail or calls for boycotts (Green, meanwhile, sells her books mostly in electronic format, via her own website). Norman is still alive, and in his late 70s is having the last laugh! 

I'm editing this to note that I'm pleased to discover a mistake in my post! Prize of Gor was in fact released in late November of 2008, so not quite two months ago! You can read about it on the publisher's website, from which I've linked this particular post by the company's Editor:

1 comment:

Magicjar said...

It's great how sometimes stories about storytellers are so entertaining. I noticed the big gap from 1988 to 2001 in the Gor book releases, but an explanation was hard to find. Thankyou for making that information publicly available. I'm certainly not an adolescent but I've just read the first 2 books of the series. A great yarn even though the chauvinism is slightly cringeworthy.