The Greatest Adventure Series that Never Happened
In 1966, Ballantine Books released the first book of John Norman's brilliantly conceived series of novels chronicling Englishman Tarl Cabot's adventures on a planet named Gor. As of 2013 this series boasts 32 novels, suggesting it's one of the most successful science fiction series of all time. Yet many fans who've read the entire series consider it a complete failure. Here's its story:
Tarl Cabot was a educated English gentleman who, upon graduating from Oxford, secured a position in a modest New England college for men. His life appeared to be progressing as expected when, during a Christmas camping trip, he was kidnapped and transported to a planet named Gor. Rumored to exist in myths on Earth, Gor turns out to be real. It's been hidden from Earth because it occupies the same orbit as Earth but on the opposite side of the sun. Gor is ruled by an advanced race called Priest-Kings, who maintain the technological state on Gor at a level corresponding to that of the Roman Empire. Men fight with swords, spears, axes and bows and arrows. There are no machines more sophisticated than windmills and water wheels.
Gor is divided into city-states, each ruled by a king or Ubar. Many of these states are at war with each other, which is the source for most of Tarl Cabot's adventures. But everything is not as it seems. It turns out that the Priest-Kings are not the only technologically advanced civilization on Gor. The Kur are a race advanced beyond 21st century Earth but behind the Priest-Kings. They are tolerated on Gor as long as they play by the rules, i.e. no advanced weapons. The Kur live in huge metal worlds in the asteroid belt. Their goal is to take over Gor for themselves, and after that Earth.
The Priest-Kings brought Tarl Cabot to the world to be trained as a warrior. Their survey of the entire male population of Earth led them to believe he had the unique combination of physical and mental capabilities required to help them overcome critical challenges on Gor, particularly dealing with the Kur. What they failed to predict is that these same qualities meant Cabot was his own man and couldn't always be counted on to toe their line.
In addition to following Cabot's adventures on Gor, the books also show how he evolves from an English gentleman to a warrior, assassin, slave, city leader and eventually soldier of fortune.
What this clinical description of the Gorean saga fails to convey is John Norman's mesmerizing writing style that makes even the simplest passages draw readers into a world so unbelievably rich in detail that once started, is impossible to resist. Exotic life forms, minute but interesting technological details, characters so full of reality and life that it feels like they're sitting next to the reader, huge, sweeping plots, deliciously subtle humor, and landscapes so colorful the readers long to visit them pack these novels with so much life that after reading the first novel you're trapped into reading the entire series.
The first six novels accomplish the unprecedented in that each one is better than the last. The series climaxed with one of the most entertaining adventure novels of all time: Raiders of Gor. Any readers who'd gotten this far were addicted for life. Tragically, that's when everything went horribly wrong.
In as much as Gor was designed as a predominantly male fantasy, it's not surprising that slave girls would put in an appearance from time to time. During the first six novels this part of Gorean culture was treated as a secondary theme just to add color. If the reader found the concept unbelievable, or even offensive, it could be acknowledged that it was at least consistent with the series' context. The problem is that starting with the seventh book of the Gorean saga John Norman decided to make the care, feeding and psychology of slave girls the dominant theme for most of the rest of the series. With this decision he murdered what could have been the greatest adventure series of all time. Each book that came out had less plot and fewer adventures. Instead what we got were chapter-long dialogs between male masters and their slave girls about why all women secretly long to be slaves. Even if the reader was the sort of insecure male who enjoys this sort of thing, the mind-numbing repetition of virtually the same scene being repeated time and time again becomes nauseating. Toward the end of the series the situation became intolerable to even the most ardent fan. For example, number twenty-six had 750 pages of men chaining, starving, kicking, beating, whipping and raping innocent young girls kidnapped from Earth with the ridiculous result that they fell helplessly in love not only with their tormenter but all men in general and admitted that only by being enslaved could they become truly happy and fulfilled women. Only a paltry 17 pages three-quarters of the way through the book had any plot or action.
Ignoring the ridiculousness of this concept, the biggest problem is endless repetition. Some books have the same master-slave scene, except for minor changes in dialog, repeated with the same characters four times. Then it switches to different characters and they have the same conversations all over again. There were times when it felt like Mr. Norman was using copy-and-paste to repeat the scenes then changing a few words here and there in a weak attempt to make them appear different. And this doesn't happen in a single novel, but over and over in book after book. Even the best of the later novels, such as 29 (Swordsman of Gor) and 30 (Mariners of Gor), have half of the book dedicated to long, boring, repetitive dialogs on how all women really want to be abused and enslaved.
And if, after reading the above, someone who enjoys scenes of women getting raped thinks this is the series they want, even they will be disappointed. After excruciatingly long dialogs leading up to the girl's violation all the reader gets is something like: "...and she became red silk." There is no pornography on Gor.
Besides these issues, Mr. Norman also abandoned many universally accepted principles of good writing. In particular, he began introducing long introspective monologues that killed any action. He also started writing single paragraphs that went on for as long as two pages. While grammatically correct they were monotonous to read.
The question anyone not familiar with these books is asking themselves right now is: "If the series got so bad, why did people keep reading it?"
I think it was wishful thinking, The first six novels were so good fans hoped Mr. Norman would return to that style of writing. Additionally, from time to time there were bursts of brilliance harkening back to those first great novels.
The second question has to be: "Why did John Norman abandon excellence for repetitive mediocrity?"
I can only guess at two possibilities.
First, it's hard to write a novel and almost impossible to write a great one. I've written four short novels of pedestrian quality and therefore have some understanding of this. After completing six outstanding novels in a row, each better than the last, I think it's plausible that Mr. Norman simply burned out. He needed to keep pumping out new product to pay bills and discovered that stretching a short story to novel length by padding it with repeats of essentially the same dialog scene was an easy way to fill pages.
Second, the single-mindedness with which John Norman pursues the slave-girl theme suggests he's become obsessed with it. If so, it's unfortunate that he had to destroy an outstanding adventure saga to foist his fixated fantasy on his fans.
So that's the saga of Gor: the greatest adventure series that never happened. For myself, I admit to being hooked on Gor. I will continue to buy and read every book released. I've developed a good facility for recognizing within the first sentence the approach of yet another action-starved scene consisting of painfully long monologues or dialogs concerned with the psychology of slave girls and quickly flipping through it. I wish some publisher would re-release the series with all of the drivel about slave girls removed, not because it's offensive but because after the first few repetitions it becomes boring.
If you want to explore Norman's Gor, I recommending reading novels 1-6, skipping 9, 11, 19 and 22 because they are all written from the slave girl's point of view, don't involve Tarl Cabot and are the weakest of the books. I'd also avoid 26, 27, 28, 31 and 32 because they are excruciatingly heavy in slave girl silliness and almost devoid of plot. Another three to avoid are 14, 15 and 16 because while more action based, they don't feature Tarl Cabot but a different hero so similar to him you have to wonder why Norman took the time to change the character's name. Finally, I can't recommend number 17 or 18. Whereas most of Gor is Greco-Roman, this one's more cowboy and Indians and seems jarringly out of place. Also, 17 starts with Tarl beginning a quest to save his Kur friend Half-ear. Yet they don't meet until the very end of 18 and even then for less than one page. Novels after number 6 have to be approached with the understanding that unless the reader likes long diatribes about how all women want to be slaves they are going to spend a lot of time flipping through wasted pages. Starting with the mid-teens, most Gorean novels have 60-percent or more of the pages devoted to long ramblings about the psychology of slave girls.
For a detailed list of the plots for the books I recommend www.anglefire.com/zine2/gorean/books.html.
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