The picture above by Gino D'Achille is the cover picture for the 1970 Ballantine edition of Assassin of Gor. A later and rather sexier cover by Boris is shown for this same book on the Sword& Sorcery Modern page. At this point the Gor books could apparently still be thought of in terms other than those of sexual Dominance/submission.
Are the Gor Books Pornographic
Pornography has been a common charge againstthe Gorbooks, but not one that that the average reader can take seriously. For one thing, back in the late sixties and early seventies, that more innocent time before the internet, the Playboy channel, and HBO specials these far tamer books recieved little special notice or comment. Apparently since that time a number of people have reverted to virginity. For another thing, pornography has become for the Anti-sex League of feminism a code word for any expression of sexual interest between male and female.
Pornograpy is readily identifiable by two traits: it celebrates the ugly, and it's normal direction is toward death, or at the least a sort of mechanical or non-human existence that is equivalent to death. Why are porn movies so bad?--bad in terms of plot, dialogue, and acting. Why do you feel dirty after seeing one? Couldn't someone make some "good" porn? No, "good porn" is a contradiction, for then the work would be merely erotic, and have a different, and less wide appeal. In porn everything is either dirty, or has to be made that way.
In Gorean communities on Earth, however, the woman accepts the situation voluntarily, and can, in actuality, leave it when she chooses. This makes a world of difference. Also, becoming a Gorean slavegirl on Earth is not something society at large recognizes, understands, or respects. Even if one creates a community, it is still inside the larger community. The best hope for such a community is in cyberspace, if virtual reality ever develops that far. There the problems mentioned above could be eliminated. This is an element of what Catherine and I have tried to do in our novel, Mythosphere.
This page is already quite long, and it somehow vanished on me once when nearly done, and had to be recreated. Therefore, I have saved a discussion of individual books and of on-line Gor to another page. To reach it, use the button on the left of the red bar.
I could go on, but this is the general spirit of my reservations about Gor. They reflect no hostility to either the author or those who would make Gor their model for a lifestyle. I confess to having enjoyed all twenty-five books, and even to cheering the tirades before they became so many and so long. I am greatly interested in the development of Gor on-line, and in the various attempts to create a Gor lifestyle, though here I have a couple of reservations as well. On Gor most slavegirls were captured, and have virtually no chance of escape, or to change status by their own actions. And once the are slavegirls, they are a fully recognized and generally accepted part of the social fabric. That they adapt quickly agrees with something I once read about slavery on Earth. Africans captured by Arab slavers were understandably distraut at first, but as they got farther from home and closer to their destination, the women tended to become more cheerful and optimistic, while the men grew even more sullen and despondant. Women are more adaptable than men. For an Earth woman on Gor, being on another planet would certainly give a sense of inevitability, while a Gorean woman woud already know the odds.
Psychologically, too, I have a problem--Gor is too much of a "one- size-fits-all" situation for Masters and slaves. Of course people are more collective and less individualized in most pre-technological societies than in the modern west, but Norman pushes it a bit far. This is a consideration not so apparent to those who spend much of their time on Gor channels, for there they are constanty among like minded people, and there are a great many of them. In terms of the overall population, however, the numbers are minute.
I have other reservations as well. For Masters to be as effective and slavegirls as well disclipined and beautifully trained would involve a lot of time. However, what is common and readily available, in this case beautiful women, inevitably becomes devalued. Even in our comparativiely repressed world many people, both man and women, are not very strongly sexual. Also, the author presents the situation as though the overwhelming majority of Masters were intelligent, sane, sensible, and essentially decent. That would probably not be the case quite so often. But even in the books the girls get knocked and thrown around quite a bit; it is lucky theyare fairly rubbery, or scars, injuries, and broken limbs would be far more common. Of course the environment is fairly benign as well; there are a few insect swarms, sand storms, and such, but the regular plagues of travelling with few or no clothes--sunburn, insect bites, injured feet, infected scratches and jabs by thorns, and so on seem almost nonexistant. Also, considering the amount of heavy lifting the girls sometimes do, and their fear of disobeying, one might expect far more injured backs and hernias than we ever hear of. Of course we do not want to hear of such things in genera fiction, but in real life one of the really serious factors are all those "indignities that flesh is heir to."
My other big reservation is the fact that if Gor is the model for real human society, why has it never really existed on Earth? Most of the elements have, of course, existed here and there, but never anything like the whole package. Part of the problem is that man's relation to woman is presented mostly in terms of being lovers, while there are actually at least five important ways a woman can relate to a man--as mother, as daughter, as sister, as wife, and as lover. In the Gor books only small boys seem to have sisters; daughters exist only to be enslaved sooner or later; mothers are fairly rare; wives are inevitably unbearable until the husband wises up and enslaves them. The social situation is much narrower in this respect than on Earth.
On the other hand, if Mr. Norman did make such statements, he may be merely protecting himself from responsibility for what some oversexed nut might do in the name of following the books. And it is hard to believe that all those passionate and repetitive rants in the later books are merely bad decor. What the author seems to suggest is that these stories are a sort of social experiment carried on in the imagination, the sort of thing Zola, the father of Naturalism in literature, did. If this is the case, I do have a few reservations, two of them quite large. First, Norman intentionally creates a false picture of the human condition. People on Gor have enormously long life- spans, and they stay young and vital almost to the very end. It is the approach of age, lost strength, energy, and beauty as well as the fact of death itself that gives an urgency to what we do, and that makes time valuable. This central factor is missing on Gor. Further, we are given little hint of what the social and psychological consequences of such a change in the human condition would be. This is the sort of thing I could see Ursula LaGuin working out in great detail. I will admit that we have somewhat the same situation with Mythosphere, where electronically reproduced identities also have a kind of immortality, but there the implications are still largely up in the air because the place is not old enough for that to bean issue yet.
Don't ask me how they eat or breathe,
Or other science facts.
Tell yourself it's just a show--
"I really should relax."
Many fans of the Gor novels speak of a Gorean philosophy and lifestyle, and some have attempted to bring the attitudes and values expressed in the books into real life. One should ask, therefore, how philosophically valid these works are. I have read a number of quotes, all second hand, from Mr. Norman that seem to imply that these are merely books of fiction, and not to be seen as anything more. Possibly. In writing Mythosphere, which I think is, on the whole, more realistic than the Gor books, I often justified a detail in my own mind with a verse from the Mystery Theater 2000 theme song:
I cannot say a great deal for the originality of concept in these books. The series began about the time the Burroughs Mars books were being reissued, and the similarity is striking. Mars is no longer usable as a site for contemporary civilization, but in its place Mr. Norman provides an Earth-like planet occupying the same orbit as Earth, but always opposite it, and so hidden by the sun. The hero, Tarl Cabot arrives on Gor in he same semi-mystical way Burroughs' John Carter arrives on Mars, and returns to Earth the same way. Norman's world is a similar combination of barbarism and a little high-tech as Burroughs', and makes the same appeal to repressed sexuality. Norman, though, does two things Burroughs does not. He is always tinkering around with the small details of Gorean life and technology, so that we end up knowing as much or more about Gor as we would about any real place. Burroughs is content with broader strokes. Norman also takes the D/s element which had traditionally played an important, but limited role in fantasy as well as in romance literature, and made it central. This was not a brilliant idea, but it was a solid one, and spawned a series of twenty-five books, as well as influencing many others. Burroughs is not a great writer, but his works and influence are still with us, and the same seems destined to be true of John Norman and the Gor books.
The best thing about the Gor books is the sense of a very solid and real world. Customs and lifestyles vary from place to place, but there are core values that are strongly expressed, and which give the world of Gor a solidness and cohesiveness rare in fantasy literature. Many of the societies are elaborately thought out and are convincingly presented. Like Tolkein, Norman is better with societies than with individuals. None of his characters are deeply realized, and his dialogue is seldom convincing. He is adequate, at least, in the speech of Goreans, but it is almost impossible to believe that any of his Earth characters would ever have used the terms and language he gives them. Many women have praised his understanding of female psychology, but I can only suppose they mean general female nature, for none of his females are very believable as individuals. Most of them originate on Earth, but whether withdrawn or social, all arrive on Gor as virgins, a surprising fact for the end of the twentieth century.
The literary qualities of the Gor books are not particularly high, though on a par with the competition. It's not a field that has tended to draw the literary giants of the age. Oddly, many of the most impassioned Goreans have spoken very negatively about the readability of the books, while at the same time treating their content with the literalness and faith that fundamentalists do the Bible. I am not sure why this attitude; the Gor books are written clearly, in simple, straightforward prose. The latter ones have picked up a few annoying quirks of diction that earlier books did not have, and all the books do violate a number of basic creative writing commonplaces. The worst qualities, which are only apparent in the later books are repetitiveness and occassional flashes of mean-spiritedness, both the result of the increasingly heated debate with the feminists. It is a shame the author did not ignore them. Instead, he has allowed them to detract greatly from the appeal of the books. Over and over, in book after book, and worse, in chapter after chapter, we have lectures, all in nearly the same words, on how Earth values are lifestyles are life-denying, contrary to nature, and destructive to health and happiness. It is a creative writing commonplace that one should show, not tell. Mr. Norman does show, but then he also tells . . . and tells, and tells, and tells, and tells.
Twenty-five is a large series, and the many copies of earlier books available used must have been a drag on the market. However, the books were still selling, and so one has to suppose that either the publisher caved in to outside pressure, or a reshuffle in management brought in people with an ideological agenda. That pressure did exist is shown by the sudden, almost complete disapperance of D/s themes in fantasy literature. Sharon Green, who is still publishing, has greatly toned down this element, and other writers have dropped it. As for the company that took up the series, it has been a tough time recently for smaller publishers, and one can suspect that the Gor books probably had little to do with its demise. As for Visions Entertainment, their plans did suffer a setback from Canadian censorship, but the real killer was the fact that the huge number of projected advance subscriptions simply did not materialize. In short, there was obviously a problem with censorship, but it would be paranoid to extend the fact to a grand conspiracy.
Were the Gor Books Censored?
After the twenty-fifth volume the publisher suddenly dropped the series from publication, raising charges of censorship. Some have pushed the charges further to blacklisting and conspiracy, citing the fact that when the series did finally find a new publisher, the company went bankrupt, and that Visions Entertainment had to drop a very ambitious plan envolving a Gor magazine and graphic novel.
Much of the hostility to these books, and the effort to censor them in Canada and Germany comes from the Dominance/submission theme, primarily male dominance. It is ironic, therefore, that the largest single group among the creators of webpages, and in the Gor chatrooms are female. In fact, a very important theme in much of the Gor writing by women is that of freedom, that they have been bullied consistantly by society in general and feminists in particular to fit into an unnatural mold, and to be ashamed of their sexuality. For them, discovering the Gor books was a liberation. A typical example is a website I found recently that was a tribute to John Norman. The woman who created it desribes how in her early teens she slipped one of the books out of her brother's room and read it with both delight and amazement. Women were taken seriously, and were more real than in any fantasy books she had read before. This was better than Tolkein, where there were few women at all, and real women were clearly inferior to elf women. This is a close parallel to many, many statements by women on Gor pages and channels who have felt the need to be liberated from their self-proclaimed liberators.
There are hundreds of Gor websites on the internet, and following the general way of things, one might suppose the work of disciples would be coarser than that of the master, but here this is not the case. Nearly all these sites are attractive, and some are very much so. Probably at least half are designed by women, and do not sy away from what might be considered very feminine decor. Even most of the less attractive sites seem to have failed in taste or talent rather than in intent. Further, many of the them strongly express love, or at least affection. Real love and affection do not exist in pornography, except as emotions to deface or ridicule.
The Gor books are oriented quite differently. They continually celebrate beauty and vitality. Norman is not a particularly beautiful prose stylist--few are--but he is continually stressing the beauty not just of women, but of cities, of the landscape, of the day and night sky, of primal emotions, of craftsmanship, and so on. Vitality is also stressed, and many readers have been drawn to the books by the idea of a more vital and alive world, a world without hypocrisy, where one may be more in touch with one's real instincts and drives.