By now, the Gorean Saga’s reputation is well-known among fans of sci-fi and fantasy. Its long, extended discourses on the greatness of female sexual slavery are legendary, so much so that according to TV Tropes, “a mention of Gor is equivalent to trolling” and several large message boards ban its discussion. It is understandable why the organized sci-fi fandom of today would detest Gor, but these attacks on the series long predate today’s politicizations. Through attacks on the Gorean Saga during the 90s, we can see the roots of the current shaming campaigns that would later impact SF/F as a whole — and the solution that diminished much of their power.
In 1966, John Frederick Lange Jr. published Tarnsman of Gor, the first book in what would become the Gorean Saga, under the pen name of John Norman with Ballantine Books. The book — and the subsequent series — was “sword and planet” fiction in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series and Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark stories, with a man from Earth going to a faraway planet to have swashbuckling adventures with medieval-style weapons. Like pre-1950s pulp works, Gor mixed science fiction and fantasy elements with great skill. The books gained a cult following, and Norman continued writing sequels as a result.
However, the Gorean Saga had an aspect that Burroughs’ and Brackett’s works lacked: extensive sexual slavery of young women. From the seventh book onwards, this aspect became the dominant theme of the series, over and above the adventurous heroism of its early installments. This became a source of titillation for readers — and a source of trouble in the future.
In 1974, with the publication of the eighth book, the Gorean Saga moved from Ballantine Books to DAW Publishing. At first, there was no major change apart from a stronger focus on sexually charged events.
However, in the early 90s, Donald A. Wollheim, the original owner of DAW, died. The publisher was then taken over by his daughter Elizabeth R. Wollheim, more commonly known as Betsy Wollheim. Under Betsy, the Gor novels were discontinued, reportedly due to poor sales. But according to a 2014 message board post by author Mercedes Lackey, Betsy had long planned to discontinue the series.
Organized fandom in the 90s made their opinions on Gor quite clear: they despised it. Remember that even then, publishing was a strongly progressive industry, and much of fandom not only shared these progressive opinions, but networked with those who worked in publishing. In this time, however, there was no Kindle Store to circumvent the big publishers and the internet culture as we know it today did not exist, so the Gor series was left without a home and without anybody to publicly defend it.
The attacks on Norman and on Gor culminated in Norman’s rejection from a Worldcon panel in 2001. Norman had taken his displeasure public, and several members of SF/F fandom weighed in on the matter. Norman became keenly aware of organized fandom’s power that day, a power that many authors, even today, could attest to. Later in the decade, Dark Horse Comics was pressured to cancel a planned Gor omnibus.
However, the grip of fandom could not last forever.
Thanks to Amazon’s Kindle devices, John Norman had the last laugh. As of today, the entire Gorean Saga is available in e-book, paperback, and audio formats. There have even been some limited attempts by organized fandom to reconcile with Norman: pop-culture site io9 did a long interview with Norman and allowed him to state his opinions without being attacked. If not for the changes in the publishing industry, the Gorean Saga would not have seen the light of day again. This simple story of Gor’s rise, fall, and rebirth shows publishing as it used to be — and what is possible with publishing as it is now. The old gatekeepers have truly lost their power in these latter days of the 2010s.
As the legacy publishers leak money and face shrinking fortunes, the power of the gatekeepers wanes. The changes not only allow newer stuff to come to the fore, they rescue older work as well, rendering them impervious to whisper campaigns and public denunciations alike; actual book content is king. Now a contemporary reader can enjoy these books and read them for themselves.
As long as Amazon stays accommodating, of course. But even they aren’t invincible.
P.S.: For more information than you ever wanted to know about Gor, go here.