Trials of Gor: A Brief Publication History of Fantasy’s Most Infamous Series

Saturday , 28, January 2017 17 Comments

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.

  • The early Gor books were true fantasy masterworks on par with Zelazny’s Amber. The slavery aspect was there, but it wasn’t gratuitously overdone.

    The problem with the later books wasn’t simply their excessive focus on sexual slavery. The were boring. Booooooring. Nobody in his right mind swallowed the writer’s viewpoint on women, though there are thriving roleplaying communities today filled with plenty of women and men who use the setting to explore these “forbidden” themes. Like S&M and B&D, these places of fantasy are fine to visit when everything is, ultimately, consensual. And if the literary community doesn’t condemn 50 Shades, it can hardly condemn Gor.

    But Norman jumped the shark early, and another 20+ books never redeemed him. Too bad. I’d have read them all if they’d been as good as the first six. I plowed and skimmed though many of them, searching for the “good parts”–the adventure. Frankly, I wished for an abridged omnibus version that kept the good parts and left out the painfully boring blah-blah.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      I read Tarnsman of Gor, and it was pretty fun. As for Norman jumping the shark, I think he was just churning them out for money by that point — hence why they became boring.

    • Brian Renninger says:

      Yes, I totally agree. The first books were quite excellent as planetary romance. I stopped in the latter books not because I found the topic distasteful (though SMBD ain’t my bag) but, the long soliloquies on the topic put a drag on the plot which makes it boring. A good planetary romance shouldn’t be more than 120 — 200 pages and closer to the smaller end. Adding 100+ pages of padding was just too much. It’s like, Norman, we get it already.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “It is understandable why the organized sci-fi fandom of today would detest Gor”

    Honestly I am a bit confused by it.

    I mean George Rape Rape Martin did not get that name by chance.

    Joe Abercrombie isn’t kind to the Women folk in his first trilogy (anyone else think that over the dinning room table scene wasn’t inspired by a chance pub crawl encounter between Abercrombie and Leigh Alexander?)

    Robin Hobb certainly has some weirdness at least in her her first assassin’s apprentice trilogy (And I am not talking about the ubiquitous cuckoldry…and man does that woman love to write about cucking)

    David Anthony Durham has the rape and the slavery in his book Acacia

    I think there is more then a little hypocrisy going on here.

    Especially with some of the fawning apologetics that comes from the “crowd” over Thomas Covenant’s rape of a girl in Stephen Donaldson’s first book.
    News flash: Same stuff goes on in his Gap Cycle.

    (If I am going to bring up the hard scifi Good ol Verner Vinge should not come out unscathed. Yeah Vern what you did to that woman in A Deepness in the sky (maybe a fire on the deep. I get em confused)…..

    In your writing you seemed a bit overly enthusiastic about it there bud.)

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      George R. R. Martin has been dinged for too much rape in his work. Don’t know about the others.

      Remember, though, that organized fandom is not the same as the large numbers of people who buy the books.

    • I think it’s the difference between including and advocating. Those other fellows definitely included rape and sexual torture and domination (Gap series particularly) and one might infer the authors liked it a bit too much, but Norman preached it like an evangelist, both in his fiction and in real life. It’s the difference between deviance from progressive doctrine by exception (and, generally, the wrongdoers/rapists are presented as such), and pushing an ideology of fundamental inequity, the idea that men were only real men when dominating women, and women were only real women when submitting totally to men. That was the anathema, and IMO there’s no possible apology or justification for that view. Whether or not that pervasive viewpoint within the books is grounds for banning it from the canon of fantasy is another question that can only be answered by the individual reader. That decision shouldn’t be made for him or her. Yes, for her too, as I know of many women fans of the series. One need not swallow the ideology whole to enjoy the adventure of it, any more than one need internalize Humbert Humbert’s viewpoint to enjoy by Lolita as a work of literature, or to accept Captain Ahab’s ethics to be awed by Moby-Dick.

      • Rawle Nyanzi says:

        Those other fellows definitely included rape and sexual torture and domination (Gap series particularly) and one might infer the authors liked it a bit too much, but Norman preached it like an evangelist, both in his fiction and in real life.

        Good point. I don’t agree with that “subjugate women” view either, but I will certainly defend Norman’s right to make the works available.

  • H.P. says:

    Wait, I thought this was about Gwar.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Hooc Ott:

    “(anyone else think that over the dinning room table scene wasn’t inspired by a chance pub crawl encounter between Abercrombie and Leigh Alexander?)”

    OK, now how do I get THAT off my monitor screen?

  • DanH says:

    I liked the early Gor novels but as someone stated once the BDSM and slavery aspects became the focus of every story it simply became boring. There were a few of the later novels that were pretty decent, Beasts of Gor comes to mind, but most beyond the first 7 books were uninteresting.

  • I read somewhere that after the fifth novel, Lange (who was a philosophy professor) hired someone else to continue writing the series. That’s when it got the bad reputation. The first five were good adventures.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know where I read this. Wikipedia doesn’t talk about it. But there was a clear change in tone, which led me (and presumably many others) to stop reading what had been one of my favorite series.

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *