CriminOlly thinks: Ridiculous, offensive, derivative but enjoyable pulp fantasy. 3/5
Title: Tarnsman of Gor | Author: John Norman | Series: Gor #1 | Publisher: Ballantine | Pages: 224 | Publication date: 1967 | Source: Self-purchased | Content warnings: Yes | Tolerance warning: Yes
To say that John Norman’s ‘Gor’ books are problematic is an understatement. Set in a fantastic and brutal “Counter Earth”, they describe a society where slavery is a natural part of life (for both slaves and their owners) and women typically submit to men in S&M style relationships. The mix of pulp fantasy and misogynist philosophy made the books very popular in the 70s and 80s and has even spawned a Gorean sub-culture which lurks both online in places like ‘Second Life’. Despite being in his late 80s now, Norman is still writing the books, albeit at a much slower rate than he did in their heyday. The most recent, ‘Avengers of Gor’ is number 36 in the series.
I was fascinated by the books as a teenager, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has seen the covers of the Star books editions in the UK, but I don’t think I actually read any of them until I was well into adulthood. Like many pulp fiction works, they challenge the modern reader to answer the question – is it okay that I’m enjoying this horrible book?
Plot-wise this is typical sci fi/fantasy fare, with a definite nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Hero Tarl Cabot is a university professor in the USA (as was the author) who gets whisked off to Gor in a flying saucer type thing. Once there he meets his father (who had vanished when Tarl was a child) and becomes immersed in Gorean society. This involves him learning to fight and then going on a quest to steal a relic from a rival city state. Along the way there are plenty of slave girls, giant birds which people ride (called tarns), huge intelligent spiders and lots of fighting. We’re also introduced to the concept of the ‘Priest Kings’, mysterious creatures who rule the planet and restrict technology to keep it in a kind of medieval state.
Despite the promise of those covers, there’s no explicit sex at all, although there is a lot of S&M style paraphernalia, with the slave girls wearing handcuffs and hoods. There’s also a romantic sub plot involving Tarl and a princess, who is at first his sworn enemy but who he manages to dominate to the point she falls in love with him. You get the picture.
For all it’s appalling philosophising on gender politics, it’s an entertaining read. It moves at the right pace for this kind of thing, is packed with action and colour, and has the kind of energy that makes pulp adventures fun. Whilst it’s impossible to put the misogyny completely out of your mind, it didn’t ruin the book for me. Your mileage may vary.
Tarl Cabot has always believed himself to be a citizen of Earth. He has no inkling that his destiny is far greater than the small planet he has inhabited for the first twenty-odd years of his life. One frosty winter night in the New England woods, he finds himself transported to the planet of Gor, also known as Counter-Earth, where everything is dramatically different from anything he has ever experienced. It emerges that Tarl is to be trained as a Tarnsman, one of the most honored positions in the rigid, caste-bound Gorean society. He is disciplined by the best teachers and warriors that Gor has to offer…but to what end?
Content Warning: Sexual violence.
Tolerance Warning: Misogynist.