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Readers of Gor: Tarnsman of Gor

GOR - Boris Vallejo

In which Silvia Moreno-Garcia of Ka-Na-Da and Molly Tanzer of Ko-Lo-Ra-Do discuss Silvia's re-read and Molly's first read of John Norman's famous (notorious?) Tarnsman of Gor. 

Tarnsman_of_gor_vallejo_coverSilvia: Tal, Molly Tanzer of Ko-lo-ra-doh. I guess before we get into this review of both the first Gor book and the first Gor movie, I’d like to ask how you discovered these things even existed.

Molly: Tal, Silvia Moreno-Garcia of Ka-Na-Da. May your tarn never get lice.

I actually heard about Gor from John C. Wright, that now-notorious Puppy-supporter and extreme moral panic-monger of the SFF community. In a rant about the SyFy channel’s pledge to be more inclusive by having more GLBT characters on their shows, Wright mentioned Gor derisively:

“I am hoping, of course, that future shows will also portray sadomasochism and bondage in a positive light---we are all looking forward to FLASH GORDON'S TRIP TO GOR, I hope.”

Well, given Wright’s own (possibly former? Who can say) interest in S&M, or at least spanking teenage girls, I had to google Gor - if it was so extreme as to offend him, what could it be? I remember thinking it actually seemed strange I’d never heard of the series if it was so saucy. But the back cover copy of the first one didn’t seem particularly salacious (or LGBT-friendly?), so I sort of forgot about it, because it wasn’t a rabbit hole I felt like going down that day. Years later I learned they were famous for being about sexy slave girls or something, and became intrigued.

How did you hear of Gor?

Silvia: A long time ago, in the 1990s, when we had dial-up and no fast speeds, teenagers had to work hard to obtain salacious material. Girls whispered about Flowers in the Attic and Clan of the Cave Bear. However, since I had a SFF bent I wanted something with more swords or aliens and less boring prehistoric dramas. My parents had a couple of the Gor books and I’m pretty sure I acquired the third book by myself. The covers by Vallejo promised hanky panky and that was my main objective in reading them, to find the naughty bits.

Sadly, just like with Flowers in the Attic, this was a damn marketing fallacy. You’ve probably also found out by now that despite their reputation for being those S&M books, the first Gor book features little sexiness and some dull-ass scenes.

Molly: Some?

I too was disappointed by the reality vs the legend of Flowers in the Attic when I read it. The comparison is an apt one---at least, allegedly? I hear the later books in that series are pretty raunchy, and Gor is supposed to get more about fan-service in subsequent volumes.

I guess we should take our cues from both books’ failures and dive right in to what everyone (probably?) wants us to talk about: the sex lives of Goreans. I mean it’s not like they want discussions of what we had to endure in terms of the long-winded descriptions of things our narrator might have seen if only he’d been there to observe them, which is what tripped me up in the last quarter of the book and delayed this review because I literally could not make myself pick the book up for like a week.

I expected Tarnsman of Gor to be like at least 15% sexy slave girls pouring wine and doing dances in gauzy garments that show tantalizing flashes of their breasts and sexes. Turns out, not so much! There was only one slave girl, whom Our Hero would not bang because apparently sex slavery is wrong. Hell, he wouldn’t even bang her even after he (1) set her free (2) was told in no uncertain terms that she was thirsty for his D.

You’ve read more of these books, does he become more morally relativistic in later volumes, or do we just get a different lead?

Silvia: We get him for the first three books. I also must confess I did *not* remember these books properly, or remembered them as being better written. The nostalgia of youth! So, my recollections are hazy.

As far as our hero, Tarl Cabot, he is a stranger in a strange land, magically transported to the planet Gor, but he doesn’t let go of his 1960s kind-of-conservative mores. That includes him being kind of hooked on monogamy and being... uh… I guess a ‘gentleman’? Or what the author pictures as a gentleman. What I’m saying is it’s not Ann Rice from the Beauty series.

For all the panicked and startled gasps of people when the Gor books are mentioned, the first one is incredibly tame. I know every time we mentioned them on Facebook, men would quickly inform us they read them for the adventure and stopped once the sex started. I just kept wondering when the sex would start!

GOR - Boris VallejoMolly: No indeed it is not Anne Rice’s Beauty books.

That was an interesting reaction from many men in re: Gor, the sort of “I read it for the articles!” defensiveness, which is hilarious because anyone on my social media feeds knows I’m a weird prurient pervert. I actually have more questions for those who stopped reading when they got sexy. I mean the first one is basically fanfic of A Princess of Mars, which, let’s face it, isn’t all that great to begin with. The sex slave angle is pretty much the most unique part! That and the big birds I guess. 

I was hoping we’d get a bit of XXX action after Tarl rescues Talena at the end, but still, no deal. The only racy bit is when he strips off her silken mantle to show all he has claimed her and then they ride away on his tarn, which just grossed me out. I mean there are at least two discussions of tarn-lice before that, which, omg, lice right on her cooze. Gross.

I was definitely sad this book wasn’t the blush-when-it’s-mentioned fantasy novel everyone seems to remember it as. Because seriously, even the adventure wasn’t that great! I like a hero who struggles a bit, and Tarl Cabot, in spite of being Academic class, is taken to Gor and basically becomes a warrior overnight, while learning an entirely new language and also how to ride not only a giant vicious bird, but the giant-est, vicious-est bird of Gor. Bleh.

Silvia: Yeah, it is definitely fanfic and Tarl is a self-insert for the author. Gary Stu alert. I would like to return to the “I read it for the articles” reaction of men at some point, but for now, let’s talk about the first Gor movie. I think it suffers even more from overnight hero syndrome than the book because, at least in the novel, there is some hand waving of how Tarl trained and learned the culture. In the movie, however, you have this 1980s yuppie who in one montage sequence which is supposed to demonstrate, I dunno, that 3 days have passed, suddenly knows how to wield a sword. The movie is definitely something, so why don’t we jump to that and maybe discuss how that is dated in its own special way even though it tries to gives us a “kick-butt” heroine. Which, come to think of it, many movies keep giving us the exact same type of woman. Only now she doesn’t have such big watermelons for breasts. So, the movie, Molly. Did you love Gor or did you super love it?  

Molly: Shockingly neither? It was just dreadful! Like “what is happening”-level dreadful. I was actually surprised it wasn’t better. I mean, Jack Palance would be in any old shitty movie, but Oliver Reed? Gosh. The only thing that impressed me was how many horses they could pay for. A lot!

Watching Gor, I felt like someone’s nephew had written a portal fantasy script that was his ode to Star Wars and the 1982 Conan the Barbarian, and some marketer had the bright idea to graft it on to some semi-popular fantasy series. It would explain so much, like that Gor is sort of Charles Atlas Planet. I’m pretty sure in Tarnsman of Gor our hero doesn’t have sand kicked in his face before he becomes a tanned god among men.

I think my favorite part was everyone hollering “TARL” at him all the time. It’s not a name that especially rolls off the tongue. Especially when the tongue is attached to a horrible yuppie bitch or a mouth-full-of-marbles Italian actress with, yes, simply giant bazooms.

Silvia: You don’t insult Bazooma Woman in front of me, she was the best...uh...visual asset in that film.

I remember one of the things I liked about the book was that Talena was a total bitch. Reading it again, I still liked her bitchy attitude. I became disenchanted towards the end because Talena was fun and then she gets all, I dunno, overtaken by love and ceases in her awfulness. And I was sad that on screen the Italian actress was very nice, bland. Mouth-full-of-marbles had more of the Talena attitude but not the right look.

Gor, despite having a reputation for being transgressive, is super normative. The ultimate lessons are that men want to be manly men and women want to be dominated. That doesn’t make it terribly kinky. And then the movie removes any of those elements which makes it a paint-by-the-numbers cheap sword and sorcery fantasy. There’s also no nudity, although plenty of barbarian bikinis. This has you wondering why they ‘adapted’ it. For comparison, see Deathstalker. Or Barbarian Queen, where our heroine kills a man by squeezing her vagina muscles too hard.

Gor is just not trashy or stupid enough to manage anything on screen but a few chuckles. The book suffers from the same problem. The author is too coy. There’s strange lulls in the action, like you’ve pointed out, where rather than fighting enemies or riding his big bird, Tarl is simply thinking.

I kinda of don’t know where to go next… well, yeah. We were both recently featured in a piece about SF “tribes” and at one point the author mentioned that “John Norman’s Gor novels amounted to little more than misogynistic S&M fantasies.” So I guess I want to loop back to the fact that so many men seemed freaked out on Facebook when we were discussing these books, kind of assuring us that they were not into that kinky shit. Is SFF in general a bit wee prudish? Or what? Talk to me, Molly.

Molly: Gah, okay… I have a lot to say. (Including adding Hawk the Slayer to the list of shitty fantasy movies that were still better than Gor.)

So, yeah, it was fascinating on social media how many fellas were like “Not me! I read Gor for the action!” I found this more concerning than if they’d been into the cheesecake, actually, because while I’m fairly forgiving of people who read sexy stuff because it’s sexy, I’m concerned and bemused by the idea of anyone reading Gor for the exciting adventure, fashion, and fame. Or whatever. Because really, there was exactly one good scene in Tarnsman of Gor - and here I have to disagree with Silvia - as it’s not an action sequence. It’s when when Talena begs Tarl to let her submit to him, after playing at being his slave for a chapter or so, you know, just to keep up appearances and all that. She begs and begs for him to use her, collar her… downright tantalizing, especially after she’s been such a bad little girl the whole novel. It’s a breath of fresh air because two humans with actual human emotions are expressing them in ways humans might, at least while role playing (pencil & paper or in the boudoir). But of course, it’s short-lived; barbarians attack and she’s whisked away before sex happens, because Tarnsman of Gor is the most prudish novel with sex slaves ever written, and this is not a novel for humans with human emotions.

The worst thing about this little denouement (and digression) is that I must now pipe up in Gor’s defense to say it is transgressive to be a woman who wants to be sexually dominated, or a man who wants to dominate - now more than ever before, to my mind at least. Whereas women used to be considered naturally submissive and men dominant, we’re socially moving away from that backwards idea - but that means now that women who desire domination can feel backwards, fraught, even though it’s a conscious choice instead of a problematic natural order thing. After all, it plays into stereotypes, smacks of allowing the patriarchy into private life, or worse. All of that baggage can be a difficult to overcome in terms of finding sexual fulfillment, for some women.

But of course here is where I stop defending Gor, because yeah, Gor is just not a power-exchange utopia. It’s actually dystopic, as it is largely proscriptive: men are expected to fulfill a certain role, as are women. To be fair, we haven’t gotten to the promised juicy stuff in the books, but poking around online it’s apparent there are male slaves in Gorean culture, but they’re fewer and there are still gender hangups surrounding their slavery, including (apparently) being "despised" by the free male population, whereas girl slaves seem to be considered pretty valuable. (I’m not sure if the sexual subculture that has sprung up in the wake of Gor is less proscriptive than the books themselves - it might be? I at least hope so!)

Getting back to the point, sort of at least, we’re much more open about sex as a culture these days, but domination and submission is still considered a bit outre. I wonder if a lot of the fellas on social media were hasty to be like “well I liked the giant birds but not the sex stuff!!” because while we’re all so open and honest about sexuality these days, in that we at least admit we have it, most people aren’t quite ready to happily broadcast that they want to sexually dominate a woman or be a slave themselves. Which is fine, of course - I just don’t personally need to be reassured that a man doesn’t have D/s inclinations, as those sorts of fantasies don’t bother me in the least. I wasn’t one of those who snickered at all the moms reading 50 Shades of Gray. As long as it’s all consensual, go nuts, for all I care.

So yeah, as much as I appreciated that article in which we were mentioned, and like its author, there is a tinge of something-or-other to that crack about Gor books being “little more than misogynistic S&M fantasies.” Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, in regards to the “misogynistic” nature of them---I haven’t read enough to bring down the hammer that way. And until I see otherwise (and I may! I'm keeping an open mind) I can't help but wonder if feelings about BDSM might be coloring people's readings. I mean, according to Wikipedia, Michael Moorcock, who is no stranger to kinkiness, suggested they be placed on the top shelves of bookstores, as:

"I’m not for censorship but I am for strategies which marginalize stuff that works to objectify women and suggests women enjoy being beaten."

It's tough. I'm definitely not a fan of objectification... but on some level that requires conceding that some women do enjoy being beaten! If the later ones are S&M fantasies… so what? No need to sniff at people for liking them, as they’re no sillier than anything else, really. But the sort attitude in both quotes might explain the haste of those men to disavow any enjoyment they might have felt beyond that of a rollicking adventure tale, which Tarnsman was most assuredly not.

What were we talking about? Anyway, yeah!! Next time: Outlaw of Gor, if it ever arrives from the used bookseller.