Monday, January 23, 2012

Premature Book Review: Tarnsman of Gor (John Norman, 1966)

Superficially, this is an Edgar Rice Burroughs, Princess of Mars clone. The hero, Tarl Cabot, is transported from Earth to Gor. Gor is called the Counter-Earth by Cabot's father, as he believes it to be in our Earth's solar orbit, but in opposition. If this is the case, then Gor's existence is unknown to man of 1966 as the sun is always between us and the Counter-Earth. The similarities to Burrough's Martian tales are not limited to the transport between worlds. There is a Priest-King caste that rules all religious aspects of Gor, like the Holy Therns of Barsoom, and when a man becomes too aged to be useful he will often make the journey to their sacred mountains; a journey none have returned from; this is similar to the Barsoomian journey down the River Iss. There is also a strong class/caste system which is more detailed by Norman than by Burroughs. In the Martian tales, Burroughs is recreating tales of knights and chivalry, so the warriors are the primary class of interest. In the Gorean saga we have a stronger sense of class warfare, particularly over Tarl Cabot's opposition to the Gorean institution of slavery.

Now, the Gorean Saga has the reputation for being a BDSM version of the Martian tales, and I have seen mentions that Norman is pro-slavery. Thus far this is not made clear in the book, though I must assume that Tarl Cabot's point of view is predominantly that of Norman, and two passages seem to indicate his disgust for the nature of Gor.

Regarding slavery:
"The caste system was socially efficient, given its openness with respect to merit, but I regarded it as somehow ethically objectionable. It was still too rigid, in my opinion, particularly with respect to the selection of rulers from the High Castes and with respect to the Double Knowledge. But far more deplorable than the caste system was the institution of slavery. There were only three statuses conceivable to the Gorean mind outside of the caste system: slave, outlaw, and Priest-King."
Regarding caste:
"I was pleased to note that my own caste, that of the Warriors, was accorded the least status; if I had had my will, the warriors would not have been a High Caste. On the other hand, I objected to the Initiates [clergy] being in the place of honor, as it seemed to me that they, even more than the Warriors, were nonproductive members of society. For the Warriors, at least, one could say that they afforded protection to the city, but for the Initiates one could say very little, perhaps only that they provided some comfort for ills and plagues largely of their own manufacture."
To my mind, these passages indict both slavery and religion as institutions. Once Tarl Cabot is given his first (perhaps last) slave, he immediately frees her and returns her to her family. There is some discussion of the various nature of slaves. Cabot speaks of pleasure slaves and how they seem ill-fitted for any other use, where the slave he frees he sees an a worthy person (whom it appears was a slave through capture and conquest). While this might indicate Norman's advocation of sex slavery, it might also indicate his belief that this state exists in our enlightened world despite the fact that we rarely call it by that name.

As for the BDSM aspect, I have not reached anything standard in this regard, though most reviewers seem to point it out. Also, this [right] is the current cover for the book, so it seems the publishers feel the same. Norman also wrote a sex manual, Imaginative Sex which details male dominant role play among couples. I have not read this, and will not comment much, though I will say that the use of "role play" indicates that Norman would not necessarily be a misogynist, no more than Anne Desclos (aka Pauline Réage, Story of O). People's predilections are not always our own, and as I hope is typical of me I will not judge.

In all, the book is nicely written pulp sci-fi. I am a mere 37% into it at the time of this writing, but the Martian tales comparisons are already falling away, though they will certainly return, particularly as the second book seems to deal with the Priest-Kings, just as the second Barsoom book dealt with the Holy Therns. It is hard to not imitate Burroughs. Everyone has been influenced by the man's writings. Thus far I find it to be an enjoyable bit of pulp, with a slight philosophical edge to it. It doesn't ask much of the reader, though you can certainly think about it a great deal if you are so inclined.


T. Roger Thomas said...

This sounds like something that I might be interested in reading.

Darius Whiteplume said...

So far it is good. Lots of people on Good Reads tend to poo-poo it, but I have yet to get to anything overly objectionable or outright stupid about the book.

Mitchell Craig said...

Two of the Gor books were adapted into lousy movies that were rightly savaged on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I have not seen either, but the first one at least is on Netflix. Need to check it out, if only for Rebecca Ferratti :-)

Jeff M said...

When Norman is writing about Gor itself-it's games, government, seasons, food and drink,etc. he is at his best. I'm a fan of the first 6 books. After that the series falls apart for me. The diatribes on slavery start to fill entire chapters, and it gets old really quick. My favorite book of the Series is Nomads of Gor.

Darius Whiteplume said...

I think in a lot of ways the Gor books are a successful improvement on Burrough's books. While I adore the Barsoom stories, they can be a bit naïve, particularly things like "there are no thieves on Barsoom." That is ridiculously unlikely. There must be poor people, and the unscrupulous rich are there and they are what we might call thieves as well.

As for the diatribes, that seems to be a failing with authors who get to into a subject. Sade is the same way. His original Justine story is fairly succinct where the philosophy is concerned, but later versions become unreadable. Not that I don't want to be challenged, even in pulp literature, but things still have to be written in an enjoyable manner.

I'll likely try a few more of the books. I just wish I could find them in a used store rather than paying $8 for them on Kindle.

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