Saturday, 26 March 2011

The Norman Conquests [Review: Tarnsman of Gor]

If you’re going to create a fantasy or sci-fi series with a (seemingly) misogynistic slant, there’s no point doing things by halves. I mean, no-one’s going to sign up to a “lifestyle choice” inspired by the novels of Ben Bova, are they?*

John Norman’s Counter Earth novels are set on an alternative Earth where are city states ruled by the sword, and where slavery is the norm. The biology and culture of Gor is imagined to a level of detail comparable to Frank Herbert’s Arrakis and while there are some planet-wide organizing principles there is also plenty of diversity. The novels are highly readable pulp fiction with action and dry humour.

Lecturer Tarl Cabot is taken to Gor by the mysterious, unseen Priest-Kings who watch over the planet and set limits on technology. After rigorous Warrior Caste training, Cabot is drawn into the planet’s wars and intrigues and becomes a Boys Own action hero to stand alongside Tarzan, Quartermain and Conan. Is James Cameron secretly a Gorean? Gorean warriors and Pandoran natives bond with and tame their tarn (giant bird) or ikran (flying lizard) mounts with uncanny similarity.

On Gor there are plenty of male and female slaves – but Norman is mostly interested in the male master-female slave relationship which is the theme of the novels. Cabot’s initial discomfort is gradually replaced by a more open-minded perspective. The advantages of being a fiction writer are never more apparent: in your own created world, everything that happens will be in support of your own world view, thus in Nomads of Gor, Elizabeth, a secretary from Earth who finds herself under harsh conditions even for Gor, really does reach an epiphany of self-discovery through slavery. It’s feminism, Jim, but not as we know it. The books have strong adult plots but are almost never explicit – the focus is on the relationships more than the acts; by comparison the trappings of slavery – the ritual dances, the clothes, right down to the first closing click of the collar that no slave-girl ever forgets – are extremely detailed.

It’s not easy to swallow but it’s fair to point out that there are societies and religions on Earth that place more restrictions on women than those of Gor: in Norman’s imagination, it’s possible for women to be enslaved without being devalued. Also there are those who find that the perfect balance of power for their own personal relationships is not the role equality favoured by others: some of whom have chosen the Gorean lifestyle on Earth. There's an interview with John Norman, including some discussion of this lifestyle, over at io9. Personally I think that, if alongside the Goreans and the Archers Anarchists more people lived their lives according to fantasy-based values the world would be a happier place.

*Wannabe Rock Rats feel free to prove me wrong - credentials and photo to

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