Review: Tarnsman of Gor, by John Norman
I don’t usually take so much time reviewing a book. Nor do I usually force myself to read books that I hate. Because, yes, I do hate this book. But after listening to I Don’t Even Own A Television’s episode about Outlaw of Gor (the sequel to this book), I decided to take a look at the first book in the series to see how bad it was. And sweet Jesus, is it ever bad.
Here’s where I’m coming from: I love reading, in general, and science fiction and fantasy, in particular. And if there are two SFF tendencies that I love, it would be “really long series” and “tons of worldbuilding”. I own every single book in the Wheel of Time series (except Crossroads of Twilight, because that shit sucked), for example, and I am a long-running fan of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. I have not finished a single book of A Song of Ice and Fire, but I loved The World of Ice and Fire, that book that was nothing but worldbuilding.
One possible pitfall for my understanding of this book is that I don’t have a whole lot of experience with planetary romance (which is not about fucking planets) or sword and planet stories, so I might miss aspects that are just part of the genre landscape. But I’m not going to dash out and read all of the Barsoom series just to write this.
As far as politics go, I would call myself a liberal, leaning towards democratic socialist. I’m definitely a feminist, a supporter of LGBT rights, and an opponent of slavery. At least two of those things are relevant in this review. Guess which.
And finally, I, like many people, have some kinks. I’m not going to tell you what they are, because that’s none of your goddamn business. All that I will say is that the kinky aspect interested me. And really, really disappointed me. (But we’ll get to that.)
What Is Gor?
Gor is a fictional planet that, in John Norman’s series of the same name, orbits the sun in the same orbit as the Earth, but on the other side. So the sun is pretty much always between us and them, and any inconsistencies can be smoothed out by the magical beings called the Priest-Kings (who are, from my understanding, aliens of some kind; they don’t appear in this book, but I believe they pop up in later ones). Every so often, the Priest-Kings, for reasons of their own, will snatch a man or a woman off of Earth and bring them to Gor. The men are generally meant to be heroes, the women, slaves. (We’ll get back to that, he foreshadowed clumsily.)
This book depicts a part of Gor where the basic level of organization is the city-state, and a balance of power generally prevails. Norman’s notion of social organization is that every household in Gor is built around a “Home Stone”, which is a symbol of the authority of the head of the household, and, if stolen, causes great humiliation for the man in charge. Larger social organizations, all the way up to cities, are built around the same principle, as if they were just really big households.
Gorean cities in this book are generally republican city-states, with men of the “High Castes” holding political power. By tradition, there are no kings, but a city may, in times of war, select a war chief to lead their warriors. When the war is done, the war chief must step down, or be deposed, whether by his own warriors or by other city-states.
The free men of Gor are divided up into castes, based on their occupations. Those castes can be classified as either High or Low. The High Castes are the Warriors, the Builders, the Scribes, the Initiates (who are the priests), and the Physicians. The Low Castes are basically everybody else. The High Castes deliberately keep the Low Castes ignorant about the world around them, encouraging ignorance and superstition.
Women in Gor seem to be slaves of one kind or another. Marriage exists, but the man is always the superior, and he can do seemingly whatever he wants with her. Any woman who is not already taken is fair game for the strongest man who happens to be passing by.
Tarl Cabot is a young British man whose mother is dead and whose father is gone. While hiking in New England, he finds a strange letter from his father, and is subsequently snatched away to Gor, where he finds that his father is a powerful man in one of the Gorean cities. Tarl is trained as a warrior for a mission to topple the dictator of another city who refused to give up his position, and has subsequently conquered a number of other cities, carrying away their Home Stones to his city. They have a plan for him, which involves stealing the other city’s Home Stone during a big festival.
So when Tarl flies off on his desperate mission to destroy his father’s enemy, he decides to ditch the plan immediately, and ends up kind of flying off with the dictator’s daughter on his tarn. I say “kind of” because he subsequently falls off the tarn in mid-flight. But don’t worry, the power of deus ex machina is with our fearless hero, and he eventually ends up leading the dictator’s daughter around as his slave.
He and his captive join up with a merchant’s caravan, which is joining up with an army that has gathered to attack the dictator’s city. In the aftermath of Tarl making off with the Home Stone (and the dictator’s daughter), the dictator has been thrown out, and the other cities that he had subjugated are out for revenge. The leader of the army had previously been hired to assassinate Tarl, but had been foiled, and when he finds out that Tarl is in his camp, he orders him to be left out for the beasts.
After a series of implausible events, Tarl winds up in the nest of his old tarn, which had gone feral, where he finds the Home Stone that he’d stolen, and flies off to get the dictator’s daughter (with whom he has fallen in love, for reasons that are not really explained). But then he gets caught by the ousted dictator and his loyalists, in a sequence that really doesn’t make sense, and manages to evade death, in another series of implausible events.
He returns to the dictator’s city, which is under siege, and bluffs his way into the camp. He hooks up with people he met previously, and tries (and fails) to rescue the dictator’s daughter, who is supposed to marry the leader of the army, after he takes the city. The ousted dictator is back, but now he’s good because shut up that’s why. The city surrenders, because John Norman thinks priests are useless, but Tarl bluffs his way in and rescues the dictator’s daughter, and there’s an ending fight sequence, in which the final boss is defeated (but we never see his body, dun dun dun). Tarl gets Gor-married to the dictator’s daughter, but then he gets sent back to Earth, where he doesn’t seem to be aging anymore because shut up that’s why. The end.
This Book Sucks
Let me tell you this: when I like a book, I can finish it in no time flat. There are just some books that suck me straight in and won’t let me go. Even if it’s really late at night. Even if it’s long as hell. I finished the last four Harry Potter books in less than a day, because I just kept turning the page. I’m a Wheel of Time fan, for God’s sake. When I feel like it, I can read my ass off.
Tarnsman of Gor is about 69,000 words, but it took me four days to finish reading it. I kept wanting to find something else to read. It was terrrrrrrrrible. I did finish it, which is more than some books can say (I’m looking at you, Ghost). But that was largely because I had publicly committed myself to reading it.
His Writing, Which He Did On A Piece Of Paper, Was Really Bad
There are several things about his writing that were terrible, and I’d like to go over them one by one.
- Bad prose. The style is overwrought, which can work, but didn’t, in this case. I don’t know if that was just the prevailing style at the time, or if it was intended as an homage to Burroughs, or something, but I really disliked it. He also keeps repeating things that he told us, in a way that reminded me a bit of renowned author Dan Brown. If it had been originally published in serialized form, I might understand that. But I’ve found no indication of that, and I don’t see why that would require him to remind us that Tarl stole the Home Stone, not that many chapters after we fucking saw Tarl steal the Home Stone.
- Bad infodumping. Infodumps are, for better or for worse, a part of science fiction and fantasy. A well-done infodump can actually be fun, particularly if you, like me, enjoy worldbuilding. Try this list of great infodumps for some examples. But John Norman just dumps a bunch of crap on you through Tarl’s narrator voice, and then keeps throwing in random crap, even when it’s of no use to furthering the plot or the characters. Did you know that Gorean clothes don’t often have pockets? That’s not something we find out in service of the narrative, that’s just something that he throws out in the course of Tarl getting directions from a slave. Sure glad I know that now, John! Another element of this is related to the previous point, in that he likes to repeat worldbuilding elements, as though he doesn’t fucking trust us to remember that “Ubar” means “war chief”.
- Deus ex machinas. The plot of this book is constructed largely out of implausible coincidences that just keep seeming to turn out well for the protagonist. You forgot to strap yourself into your tarn when you took off with the Home Stone? Eh, you’ll just fall into the web of a giant, friendly spider. You’re about to be torn apart by two tarns, to which you have been tied with rope, that are flying in opposite directions? Eh, one of the ropes will probably just snap. What’s that? You say that people on Earth would’ve noticed long, long ago that there was another planet on the other side of the sun from us? Uh, well, magic dudes up on some mountains make it so that we don’t notice it.
- “I am foreshadowing,” he foreshadowed. Perhaps I’ve just read too many books in the genre, but every time Norman foreshadowed something, it stood out so fucking obviously. Tarl frees a slave and returns her to her home city. Does she show up again at the end of the story? Why, yes, she does. When Tarl falls off of his tarn and finds Talena, the dictator’s daughter (who threw him off, then got thrown off herself), she doesn’t have the Home Stone. You know what happened with that, obviously, but when I saw that, I knew that he was going to find the Home Stone with his tarn. At one point, while Tarl and Talena are walking along, they spot the Gorean version of a leper, an “Afflicted One”. Does an “Afflicted One” play a role later on in the plot? Why, yes, he does. In the beginning, we’re told that Tarl’s father mysteriously disappeared and was never found dead. So it comes as basically no surprise that his father quickly shows up, in the flesh, definitely not dead.
- Fuck Tarl. Oh, you’re an orphaned dude who lied about his academic credentials to get invited to America? How about we send you to a far-off world of magic and shit, where you’ll somehow turn into a warrior capable of great feats of endurance? And while you’re in this world where slavery is basically the law of the fucking land for women, how about you make a few mental noises about how terrible that is, then just fucking accept it? How about you go ahead and fall in love with the beautiful daughter of a powerful and cunning warrior (whom you subsequently best in the most inept “battle of wits” possible), even though you’ve treated her as a fucking slave, and her falling in love with you seems to happen like the fucking flipping of a switch? One moment she hates your fucking guts for humiliating her, the next she’s all smiles and love dances. Tarl is a shitty character, and I hated his stupid guts. Which is a problem, because he’s also the narrator.
John Norman Is A Real Fucking Creep
Let me quote an excerpt from the Amazon blurb for this book. After you have the brief, unrevealing summary, you get this gem: “Rediscover this brilliantly imagined world where men are masters and women live to serve their every desire.”
And this gets to the worst part of this book and, indeed, the series as a whole. John Norman has some really fucked up ideas about women, and a quick skim of several of his other books suggests that they haven’t yet been un-fucked. He seems to be putting forward the notion that women are inherently submissive, and that the only thing that can truly satisfy them is to submit to a man, even if that requires torturing them into submission.
Now, just because an author writes sympathetic characters with views that a reader might consider abhorrent doesn’t mean that the author holds those views. You can get an interesting story by putting the reader in the head of a repulsive person. But I have no reason to give John Norman that kind of benefit of the doubt. And I have two reasons to believe that he really believes this stuff.
The first comes from the fact that this seems to be a recurring element in his other books. In the early 90s, he published a science fiction series called the Telnarian Histories. I’m going to be quoting Wikipedia, because I’m not going to touch any of these other books with a mile-long stick: “The depiction of slavery in the books resembles that found in the Gor series, with female slaves dominated by male masters…One novel concept explored in the second and third books of the series, is that Dira, the goddess of love and beauty in the pantheon of the Telnarian empire, is also the goddess of slave-girls, and herself enslaved among the gods.” In 1975, he published Time Slave, a stand-alone novel which, according to Wikipedia, centered around “a modern woman sent back in time twenty thousand years or more”. “Time Slave features Norman’s social philosophy of male-dominance (as also in his Gor series), and expresses an unexplained connection between female sexual subordination and the speeding up of the development of space travel.” Last, but not least, he wrote a non-fiction book about male-dominant heterosexual BDSM in 1974.
The second is straight from the horse’s mouth. In a 2010 interview in an online magazine that seems to be defunct, he defended his books, claimed that he had been dropped by DAW in 1988 because of “blacklisting”, and said this: “I think that most of what I might like to say to my readers, my friends, is said in the books.”
But as I read this and poked around at some of the other books in the series, I realized that there was a bit of cognitive dissonance that reminded me of something else I’d read recently. So I opened up my ebook of The Fall of the House of Dixie, a history book about the effects of the Civil War on Southern society. And right there, at the beginning of Chapter 2, was this:
A fascinating quality of the human mind is its ability to hold firmly and simultaneously to contradictory ideas. Slave owners were a case in point. They regularly rhapsodized about how pleased their “people” were in slavery. In his famous 1858 speech, South Carolina planter and ideologue James Henry Hammond confidently declared that the South’s slaves were “happy, content, unaspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations.” Former Florida governor Richard K. Call enlarged on the subject in an 1861 letter to a northerner. The black man’s “inferiority,” he wrote, “physical, moral, and mental,” showed he was “designed by the Creator for a slave.” And because his limited brain was simply unable “to contemplate slavery as a degradation,” he was typically “docile and humble,” both “cheerful and contented.”
But even as they tirelessly repeated these stock phrases — and at one level believed them, too — slave owners also worried that their slaves secretly longed for freedom and would seize it if given the chance. “Slaves are human beings, and as such, are endowed with volition and reason,” noted one Georgia newspaper editor. That fact made “property in slaves more delicate and precarious than that of any other species of property.” Frederick Douglass summarized the masters’ problem more completely. The slaves’ human intelligence combined with their equally human striving for freedom endangered the masters’ power, he said. For that reason, “no property can require more strongly favorable conditions for its existence.” Tennessee master Oliver P. Temple confirmed that judgment retrospectively. “The supersensitiveness of slaveholders as to slavery was not unnatural,” he wrote. Because of “the inherent weakness of the institution,” they “had to guard it against attack, whether from without or within, with the utmost vigilance.” They could therefore tolerate no open “opposition to it, without danger of the most serious consequences.”
My question to John Norman is this: if women are intrinsically made to submit to men, as you seem to believe, how have women ever challenged these gender roles? If this is just an intrinsic feature of all womankind, why would they need to be tortured into submission? Why would you need to keep them in bondage, out of fear that they might get loose?
Shame of Gor
And the thing is, it didn’t have to be this bad. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy, there’s nothing wrong with worldbuilding, there’s nothing wrong with kink. None of the story elements here are inherently bad. I think you could make a good story, or at least a fun one, with all of those elements. I’d like a kinky fantasy story. I think, ultimately, part of what kept me going was that I could see a way in which it could’ve been better.
The big stumbling block for me, ultimately, was Norman’s bullshit philosophy. It was presented with all of the subtlety and finesse of Ayn Rand, and with about the same level of debate. I’m not saying that you can’t create fictional systems that someone might find abhorrent. What I’m saying is that you owe it to the reader to challenge those systems in a non-trivial way, even if you personally believe in them. Especially if you personally believe in them. Filling your narrative with strawmen/women to knock flat may satisfy you and people who agree with you, but it makes for a damn poor story.
And now, because you’ve managed to get to the end of this review, which got even bigger than I expected, here is the full MST3K version of Outlaw of Gor, a loose adaptation of the second book in the series. I haven’t had the chance to watch it, but I’ve heard that Norman and his fans don’t think much of it, which is honestly a mark in its favor in my book.
- The Encyclopedia of Fantasy entry for John Norman is on point:
[A]s the series progresses, the plots begin to revolve around a singularly invariant Sex fantasy in which a proud woman — often abducted for the purpose from Earth — is humiliated, stripped, bound, beaten, raped, branded and enslaved, invariably discovering in the process that she enjoys total submission to a dominant male, and can derive proper sexual satisfaction only from this regime. Later volumes feature interminable discussions which end, invariably, in an affirmation of the Gorean status quo.
Yeah, that really makes me want to dig into the other books in the series.
- One element of his treatment of women that I’d also like to highlight is that there are basically two named female characters. Not only are both of them enslaved at various points, they are both defined largely in terms of who their male relatives are. Sana, the slave that he returns home, is notable because she would fetch a high price at market, and thus probably has a powerful father. Meanwhile, Talena, the “love interest”, is defiant, but it’s always cast as the sort of defiance you’d expect out of a war chief’s daughter. It’s not about Talena herself having an independent personality. It’s about her being the daughter of a powerful man, and thus consequential (and also that she’s supposed to avoid being “dishonored”).
- UPDATE: I have learned that Marion Zimmer Bradley, who was published by DAW at the same time that John Norman was, wrote a short novel in response to the Gor books, called Warrior Woman. I may check it out.