Readers of Gor - Outlaw of Gor
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
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 the first four of John Norman's famous (notorious?) Gor series.
Silvia: Tal, Molly Tanzer of Ko-Lo-Ra-Do. Well, when last we saw our hero Tarl Cabot (what kind of name is that? I still can’t say his damn name) he had returned to Earth. But not for long! Soon he’s back in the world of Gor, where men are manly men and women are very pretty but like not threatening, like you totally could ask that chick out and she’d give you her phone number instead the number of a local deli shop. It’s obvious something has gone terribly wrong in Gor and now Tarl is a, gasp, Outlaw of Gor!
Okay, so I think part of the problem with this book on a technical level is that the first person point of view is just super annoying. Tarl is supposed to be writing all this shit down and it’s like for fuck’s sake, I’m bored. I’m so bored. Write funner, or something. Bad narrator.
Then the other problem is that every time the writer has some kind of great set up he kind of ruins it. It happens again and again. Someone told me in book 8 there is a fight with a shark in a salt mine and you know what, I’m not going to read it. A fight with a shark in a salt mine sounds fantastic, the kind of thing I’d line up for on a Friday night, but now that I’ve re-read two Gor books I’ve realized the author would probably have the shark pontificating on the natural superiority of shark-men or something, while it rests in a big bath tub.
Outlaw of Gor opens up with a kind of okay premise. Nothing new, but a portal fantasy that at least promises more thrills than the previous book because now we are going to get to a city of Dominating Women. Oh boy oh boy. And then nothing erotic, fun or very exciting happens.
So on a scale of saucy sharks where five saucy sharks is the highest, this book gets half a shark. A very small, very limp shark.
Molly: Let me say first thing that I’m sorry I doubted everyone who told me that the Gor books are primarily misogynist fantasies. The first one is sexist, sure, but hardly “put it on the top shelf of the bookstore” material, as Moorcock apparently advised. Well, just like I didn’t understand the hullaballo over Twilight until I read New Moon, I didn’t get the massive side-eyeing of Gor (book 35?) until I read Outlaw of Gor.
I mean, it’s not 50 pages in and there’s a weird plot-interrupting mini-dissertation on how the ladies love to be stolen and forcibly enslaved, and how it softens them and makes them ready for sex, and is a good and true way of doing things... and it just gets worse from there. Because actually this book ought to be called Feminist Bitches Secretly Crave the D (of Gor).
I hated it.
Silvia: I have nicknamed it Mansplainer of Gor.
Okay, I have to mention this. Someone this week was saying that the Gor books kept Ballantine afloat. I have a hard time imagining this. I mean, I don’t even know if this is true, can someone confirm or deny? I read that the books sold 5 million copies, but I don’t know how many books are we talking about. Book one to what? Apparently the first book went back for nine printings. Just putting it out there.
I’m all over the place, but alright. I read an essay in Xenograffiti: Essays on Fantastic Literature, which says:
Tarl Cabot as depicted in the early books is a strong, attractive male figure with ideals, a sense of honor, immense self-confidence, qualities of leadership and intelligence.
And I thought, he is?! According to this essay Tarl later on become a joyless, moody figure. But, anyway… did you ever like Tarl, Molly? I thought he was a very lame hero from the get-go and he didn’t improve for me in the second volume.
Molly: Tarl Cabot is gross, an icky loser from almost moment one. The single thing I liked about him in Tarnsman of Gor was when he used his English accent to get a job in the States because they all assumed he was smarter than he actually was. That is amusing. But after that, no, screw him, screw these books! His he is self-confident because he is a terrible cannot-fail Gary Stu, his intelligence is a part of that, naturally, and his leadership qualities stand out simply because he is endlessly presented with situations in which his talents will allow him to reign supreme. As to his “honor” and his “ideals,” in book one that amounts to him basically being presented as progressive because he’s unsure if sex slavery is cool. That's a pretty low bar. Anyway in Outlaw of Gor, said ideals/honor have already shifted to “go on, rape an entire city of women, they were bitches anyway” so yeah, woo ideals and honor. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t really make a male figure “strong” or “attractive” to me.
It wouldn’t surprise me if they kept Ballantine afloat, I mean, they are the type of adventure books people liked back in the day. Plus, there is sexy stuff… I mean, I guess, depending what you’re into. I’ve never felt too aroused by the type of hero who’s pining hard for his lost love but still will nail a hot piece of ass who throws herself at him (I mean, whatever, I don’t expect monogamy from heroes or heroines, but the “woe betide me for I mourn my love - now spread, Lara of Tharna” doesn’t really work emotionally for me.
Before I move on, it’ll probably help our readers who haven’t recently re-read Outlaw of Gor (bless you!) if I summarize the plot of this book. As Silvia alluded to earlier, Tarl returns after several years back on Earth to find his city of Ko-Ro-Ba razed to the ground, and its people scattered to the four corners of the earth, for the Priest-Kings have declared that no two stones and no two men of Ko-Ro-Ba may stand side-by-side ever again. So he goes to Tharna, which is famous for its hospitality, only find that it is a joyless place full of sad men because women rule there, and women - especially these women - are some stone cold bitches. They go around with silver masks over their faces, and their bodies covered even to wearing gloves, and unlike every other city of Gor where men rule, there are no sex slaves, or singing, or bright colors; the marketplace is not alive with the laughter of the people.
Tarl gets caught up in a bit of intrigue after he refuses to assassinate the Tatrix of Tharna, and is imprisoned. Eventually he has to do some gladiator shit, wherein he has to battle his own tarn from back in the day, but conquers it, and absconds with it and the Tatrix, whose name is Lara. When he returns the Tatrix, she is betrayed by her coded lesbian lover, Dorna the Proud, who is the stoniest bitch of all the bitches given that she sells Lara into sex slavery and sends Tarl to the mines. He escapes by teaching the other slaves their own masculine value, stages a revolt, then rescues Lara by buying her from slavers, and in the process finds out she’s always had secret sex fantasies of being dominated by a man.
So they go back, let Tarl’s ex-slave friends rape the entire city of women, their silver masks are melted down, they’re given six months to get hitched to a man or they become public property. Dorna escapes on tarnback, presumably to get raped later, either off the page or in a future book, Tarl puts Lara back on the throne because she’s now woke to the fact that her personal sex fantasies should become a way of life for all women, and everyone in Tharna is happy. Or at least the men, are and that’s what matters! So Tarl can now go fuck off to the Sardar Mountains and find out what is up with the Priest-Kings. The end!
So! Speaking of Lara, and Dorna, the two women who star in this book, what did you think of them? I know you liked Talena. There’s another woman, whose name I can’t recall, who is made a slave in the dungeons for the crime of loving a man, which, there’s not much to her other than that she’s a “good” woman I guess. Buh.
Silvia: I… like bitches?
Okay, let me just say I saw the second Gor movie and I have a mega crush on the actress who plays the “evil” woman in that film.
As another aside, I did not remember the second book at all. I had some vague recollection that there was a city of lesbians, but reading it again there wasn’t any explicit lesbianism. So that was a sad moment.
I liked Dorna. One of the biggest problems for me with this book is I don’t find Tarl appealing as a hero. He is like, I’m sure on Earth he walks around with a little fedora and negs women, let’s just put it that way. So every time he is doing his Gary Stu I was like ‘pass, where is the evil chick?’ I really would have been interested in learning more about Dorna and Lara pre-Tarl. Or sans Tarl.
One of the problems with fiction is it doesn’t allow women to be bitches and get away with it. So it may come as no surprise that Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester are in more than one list of top romantic heroes I’ve read, but the women are not allowed to be bitchy, or simply complex. I am all for women who push people’s buttons, for women who don’t seek redemption, women who bitch and rail and roar. Therefore, I enjoyed these women, who are presented as monstrous and anti-natural by the author, but for me they are a delight. But then they are neutered, of course, and whatever spark they had is snuffed out.
It’s very similar to these black and white Mexican noirs I used to watch, where the sexy dancer would corrupt men for ¾ of the film but in the last quarter she falls in love with some idiot and kills herself. Or is killed. I loved those freaking things when the girls were bad and mad and dangerous to know.
In Tharna, something similar happens. Women are proud and bitchy, but then a man kisses them and they turn to mush. And there’s no lesbianism, remember that. Hetero all the way.
[Editor's note: I could only find the French trailer!]
Molly: I liked the Dorna-analogue (I guess that is what she is?) in the Outlaw movie. I too am often wooed by a heinous bitch… the best part of, for example, the dreadful Red Sonja movie from back in the day is Sandahl Bergman as the evil Queen Gedren. Faint praise, sure, but still praise. I also liked the Black Queen of Sogo, AKA The Great Tyrant (I wish I had a cool title) in Barbarella. Hell, I love the Misfits as much as I love the Holograms, you know?
That said, the novel version of Dorna the Proud didn’t do it for me. In a better book, her betrayal of Lara might have been complex and interesting… but in Outlaw of Gor, it definitely has the feel of a man showing how women just can’t get along. Plus, her betrayal is handled with all the subtlety of Wile E. Coyote getting hit with an ACME truck.
This isn’t to say I liked Lara or the rando slave girl any better. No, indeed. Rando Slave was only in the book to show us that feminism hurts women most (ughhh) and Lara, as I said, is just a mess. Again, a better writer could have done something interesting and fun with Lara’s desperate sexual frustration in the first half of the book. “She who must rule wishes desperately to serve” isn’t necessarily a bad setup for a sexy fantasy novel; it becomes a bad setup when a misogynistic author has the just and reasonable conclusion of said book being said ruler deciding her personal sexual awakening should become literally the way of life for her entire population. Unacceptable!
I’m sure I’m not the first person to wish the Gor books were better, but the thing is, I just see so much potential in it… like, the sexy world of slaves and masters and adventures could be really good. (Maybe.) But even more than the first book, Outlaw of Gor just has a dreary feel to it. It is obviously plotted only to serve Norman jerking off while he bloviates about feminism, which, let me tell you, I have had enough of male opinions about that subject. I had had enough of it when Outlaw of Gor was published, before I was born or even conceived. And that said bloviating comes with a creepy warning to all women everywhere just makes it even worse.
Tarl muses about how “the pendulum had swung too far” in Tharna… because, you see, women once had it super-bad, before The Rule of Bitches. But women (of course) had taken their liberation too far, and the pendulum would now naturally swing back in the opposite direction (correct, as everyone just sort of cheers and shrugs off the mass rape that happens at the end).
Will Lara and Dorna be the story’s OTP in your Outlaw of Gor fanfic, Silvia?
Silvia: Ha-Ha. I don’t think Lara and Dorna are well written, full-realized characters at all. But having watched the movie and fallen a bit in love with the movie Dorna the Proud (let’s assume she is the movie equivalent of Dorna), I like the *idea* of them a lot more than I like Tarl. So in terms of fanfic, yeah, they’d be my OTP.
On the thing about the pendulum, I think that was the paragraph where I laughed the loudest because the explanation is that men, having fallen in love with women and noticing that they were not animals, gave them more rights (elevated them, I suppose), until they ended up dominating their society in a cruel and unjust way. Which is similar to the fear racists have that visible minorities, if they get the upper hand, are going to go around murdering, raping and mistreating whites. That fear comes from a place where the wrongdoers are terrified one day they may have a taste of their own medicine, and be subjected to the sort of humiliation they subjected others.
Moving on to the finale, the grossest line was the one where the author states that the men of the city, having had a taste of women, will now never let this issue go and basically demand pussy.
It begs the question of what these over-sexed men were doing when there were no women around. One imagines that it was a bit Chuck Tingle-like, Taken in the Ass by the Sexy Gorean Dude, but as usual, Norman remains oddly coy. No erotic scenes, and nothing that might indicate anyone might have homsexual tendencies, even though the society he delineates might be inclined to follow that train of thought due to their social separation.
That is one of my biggest nays about this series. I heard from people how the world-building was the best aspect of the series, complete with intricate social customs, but it seems rather lazy rather than elaborate, though Norman does go on about certain things.
Any thoughts on this?
Molly: Well, my assumption is that during the time of the pussy-ban in Tharna, a lot of men were doing what we see in the first few chapters, which is just keeping secret sex slaves. After Tarl returns to Gor, and is heading for Tharna, he comes across a woman running away from slavers. It turns out, they are men of Tharna, who live outside the city and keep sex-slaves outside of the vision of the Tatrix and her agents. Awesome!
Anyway, it’s not in the “world-building” that I can remember, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if there were brothels outside the city, too, where the men of Tharna can get their dicks wet, since even procreation is done via the Gorean equivalent of a turkey baster. Yeah, Norman lets us know that detail, but doesn’t bother to let us know what men do in the awful city of bitches. It makes no sense.
I’m no judge of what is and isn’t great worldbuilding, honestly… I can never tell. I’m not entranced by descriptions of social customs and magic systems. My favorite fantasy series is Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy and the standalones that came after… there’s very little traditional world-building in those. It’s just sort of presented as “a vaguely European world where magic works, but only sometimes.” That’s enough for me. And I’m not being 100% fair - sure, it’s different. They call their deity the Maker, there are little details, but the crucial stuff in the book is all the people and what they’re doing. What I find interesting about novels - fantasy or otherwise - are the characters and their decisions and how they affect what happens. Imagine that! All the “we bow this way except at these times and our festivals are called this and that and also here’s how we tie our shoes” intricacy doesn’t do it for me because so often it has nothing to do with the actual plot. Ugh.
So, does Gor have good world building? Beats me. I certainly don’t think so, but I also have no interest in the world he’s trying to build. A rapetopia isn’t my jam. I’m not fantasy shaming or policing here. Obviously these books were super popular and still have an enduring fan base - something speaks to people about them. And like every fandom, there are sane people and terrible people who participate. I know someone who knows a bunch of Goreans who go camping together and spend a weekend every once in awhile sitting around campfires in furry underpants with their women on leashes, and have a fine time. I think that’s some varsity level biz right there, but it’s not substantially more ridiculous than any other LARPers get up to. Then there are Goreans like this guy, who was jailed for three years for forcing one of his, ahem, kajirae to have sex with people. Clearly, the world-building of Gor is convincing enough for these people to base part of all of their lives around it. Your mileage (or whatever they have on Gor, pasangs?) may vary.
Silvia: Ooof. Yeah, I’m not super into world-building either. Many times, I think it’s an excuse to masquerade the inherent flaws in a novel. I’m very lean in my work, but I have noticed lots of people are like DETAIL MORE DETAIL OH YEAH DETAIL. It seems fantasy readers, especially crave this. Not so much science fiction, except for those who particularly love ‘hard’ science fiction.
The world-building in Gor is not spectacularly good, certainly not good enough I’d forgive the bad dialogue and other weak spots. I just thought I’d bring it up because the people who do say they like it mention it as a strength, but as you pointed out, while Norman sometimes provides certain details (the turkey baster) he is coy about other stuff which might be important to our understanding (In the city, are men in homosexual relationships? If so, are they in sub/dom relationships or not?).
The result is a very lopsided experience where I knew women used to be thrown on rugs and wrapped with certain cords, but I can’t tell you what mother-child relationships are like in Tharna. We know that Tharna is very dull (everything is kind of gray, there’s no fun taverns, poetry is forbidden, etc), but why are the warriors who protect the ruler men? Would it not make sense that her royal guard was made of women? This is the kind of thing which might be important to know. Norman glosses over many of these aspects of the society, which are frankly quite big deals.
Lara and Dorna are outlines of women. They have no real inner life. And the same goes for Tarl or the world of Gor. I may know that “the sleen hunts, that six-legged, long- bodied mammalian carnivore, almost as much a snake as an animal,”* but well… frankly, who cares?
We must bid everyone adieu with this. Next time we journey to see the Priests-Kings of Gor. Maybe we’ll eat a sleen and roast it on the way there.
*M: This was my absolute favorite line in the novel. Snakes aren't animals? Just on Gor, or...??