So a reader told me, when I mentioned the Gor series in passing, that he was kind of looking forward to me reviewing a Gor book, and since I own a few I dug them out and perused them, considering the idea. After all, while Gor is not really Sword & Sorcery, the series has definitely had an influence on how the genre is perceived. But then, looking deeper, I decided I didn’t really want to review a Gor book, because that would mean reading one again, and they are, without real exception, garbage.
But then I remembered the Amazon Warrior series, which purported to be an inversion of the Gor tropes but really is not, and the idea was born to cover both series as a whole at once, so I would be forced to read the actual books as little as possible, and hopefully put them to bed right here, so to speak.
John Norman’s Gor series is by far one of the longest-running series in fantasy fiction, as of now comprising 34 books dating back to the release of the first book, Tarnsman of Gor, in 1966. The most recent book, Plunder of Gor, came out in 2016, and Norman (actually a pen name for John Fredrick Lange Jr.) is still with us at 87 and still writing this shit.
Even the first books were not properly Sword & Sorcery, but rather Sword & Planet, being in conscious imitation of the classic Burroughs adventures, at least in the broad strokes. Hero Tarl Cabot (which always looked to my dyslexic brain like a misspelled “Carl Talbot”) is the typical man’s man who does not fit into the modern age, and then he is mysteriously transported to “Counter-Earth” - a planet much like Earth that orbits on the far side of the sun, so nobody can see it.
Gor is inhabited by people who have been brought to it by the “Priest-Kings”, who are actually an insectoid alien race, who have populated Gor for their own reasons. Norman sticks with the Burroughs template for his early stories, often getting very into the travelogue aspect of detailing the world to a great degree, seen through the eyes of his Earth protagonist. Norman’s writing is done in a rather simplistic, declarative style, and does not have much flair, and his hero is a stolid and quite boring human being, much in the tradition of the square-jawed pulp heroes of the 30s who have no weaknesses and show no emotions.
But the plots, such as they are, are not what readers remember about the Gor books, rather it is Norman’s highly detailed and rather tiresome sexual philosophy which permeates the books and gives them their one unique feature. Because Gor is a world of slavers and slaves, and on Gor, all women are slaves, or wish they were. The core of Norman’s ideas is that men on Earth have forgotten how to be real men, and if women are enslaved by real men they will realize that this is what they always wanted, and will be happily enslaved, after some initial complaining.
So it’s not hard to see what it is that Norman faps to, and in fact, after the first three or four books, the plotlines are largely sidelined for endless repetition of the fetish content. Interestingly, Norman does not seem to be that into sex scenes per se, as they are always rather soft-focused and elided, without thrusting loins or anything pornographic. Instead you get repeated scenes where females (always referred to as “females”, like an alien species) are enslaved, whipped, degraded, and always, always chained or tied up, the bindings elucidated in great detail. Norman is obviously much more into the bindings and the psychology of enslavement than he is in anything done with said slaves.
People think I am exaggerating when I say there are no plots in the later books, only repeated enslavement fetish fantasizing, but I really am not. They become genuinely pretty unreadable, because there are no stories, no characterization, nothing but enslavement, binding, enslavement, on and on. If it’s your thing, then hey, I bet they are fine, but they are not otherwise even remotely interesting. The early books got some sweet Vallejo covers that made them look dramatic and cool, and definitely played on the naked flesh aspect, but there’s really nothing to see here.
On the supposed flipside of the coin we have Sharon Green, who started in 1982 with her Amazon Warrior series that was expressly said to be a “refutation” of the Gor books by “creating three-dimensional female characters and powerful female characters in similar fantasy settings.” Let me note how the books completely fail to do this.
The five Amazon Warrior books were published between 1982 and 1986, and they focus on Jalav, the titular amazon herself. Yes, the books are first-person, and so Jalav has a bit more depth than the usual Gorean plaything, but she is not a terribly interesting character, and her rote, declarative interior monologue is often so uninteresting it is hard to stay awake through.
Oh, and maybe if your intention is to refute the Gor books by creating “powerful female characters” then maybe don’t have your entire plot revolve around them being kidnapped and raped all the time. See, the books wallow in the same tropes of sexy enslavement as the Gor books, only depicted from the female point of view. Jalav spends the entirety of her stultifyingly long and tedious saga being repeatedly captured, enslaved, and raped. Though it’s not depicted as icky, realistic rape, but rather the kind where she is slowly, against her will, driven to heights of ecstasy by the attentions of barbaric meatheads who are always referred to as “males”, as if they were an alien species.
I generally have more affection for the Jalav books as they have some sense of fun, and even though they are written in an awful faux-archaic style, they have a bit of charm. Also, the sex in them is a good bit more salacious than in the Gor books, and so there are quite a few “good parts” to be found throughout. Still, I certainly cannot recommend them as “good”.
Both these series crowded the shelves of fantasy sections in bookstores throughout the 80s, and the lurid covers of oiled-up barbarians and naked slave women caused them to often be equated with the third-generation Conan pastiches also clogging the genre at the time. However, there is nothing of genuine Sword & Sorcery to be found here, only a bunch of thinly-disguised fetish porn with plots and characters as thin as the kleenex the fans kept on their bedside tables.