Sequel of Gor

I am ashamed to admit, and also amused at my own expense, that I read John Norman’s Gor books when I was young.

To be truthful, I actually thought the first six books or so were perfectly fine Burroughs-style sword and planet  romance when I read them as a youth. At the moment when Ballentine dropped him and Daw picked him up, I assume the author got obsessed with his message and stopped trying to spin a yarn. But I was too young, or too undiscriminating, or too perverted in my early teen geekhood to notice what was really going on in those books, or perhaps I did know but I did not have the mental or moral vocabulary needed to disapprove of them, or the character.

After the seventh book or so, the quality diminished sharply, the writing became ever more mechanistic, and the action and adventure took a backseat to the sex fantasy, and then was dropped entirely. The same stubborn and misguided loyalty that made me read each and every sequel and prequel to Sherri S Tippers TRUE GAME  trilogy that came out, or each and every trilogy or subseries in the tales of the Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion did not serve me well in this case. Yes, I sought out and read every single stinking wretched hollow-eyed and soulless sequel to what once had promised to be a perfectly serviceable Sword and Planet yarn. Woe is me. I would not wish this upon my foes. I read all the way from the HUNTERS OF GOR to WITNESS OF GOR, and I cannot tell you what pain it causes me to realize that I have spend some of my limited supply of brain cells to memorize the names of those books.

Would I actually recommend the first three to six book? Reluctantly, I would. Let us give credit where credit is due. As Sword and Planet Romances go, John Norman’s conceit is as good or better than, not to pick on anyone, Michael Moorcock’s Burrough’s pastiche WARRIORS OF MARS and BLADES OF MARS. Norman could write an exciting fight scene, and knew how to keep the action moving.

The BDSM stuff is kept mostly in the background in the Ballentine books, and a fastidious reader (such as I wish I had been) can skip those passages with no loss to his enjoyment of the tale.

However, I also recommend that no one read the books until he is over 35 and happily married or taken his vows as a man of the cloth. I cannot think of a worse thing to do to a lonely, randy, young and impressionable geek than to give him softcore kinkporn disguised as adventure fiction, unless it might be to let him read Playboy harem fantasies in Robert Heinlein, or the rape fantasy or adultery scenes in Ayn Rand, or the underage and understated love interest in Philip Pullman, and come away thinking that this is the normal and proper picture of male-female relations, rather than, say, the relationship between Nick and Nora Charles in a THIN MAN movie, Mr. and Mrs. Parr in Pixar’s THE INCREDIBLES, or even the relationship between Romeo and Juliet in a Shakespeare tragedy.

All that to one side, I must compliment the Mr. Norman on the cleverness of his conceit.

You see, the Sword and Planet genre began (as some say American science fiction itself began) with PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It begins, oddly enough, as a Western, and our hero, clean limbed fighting man of Virginia, John Carter, is trapped in a cave by savage Sioux warriors, but finds himself teleported, or reincarnated, into the dead sea bottoms of Mars, a dying planet rich with superhightechnology, such as radium rifles, but also exotic and barbaric enough to have everyone running around naked and wielding mighty swords. Carter rescues a kidnapped space princess and high jinks ensue.

Neither John Norman nor anyone following his the footsteps of Burroughs could copy that idea.Mars was already taken, and by 1960 we knew more about Martian surface conditions to make the conceit that there was life there harder to believe, even as make believe.

Norman postulated a counter-earth, exactly opposite Earth and sharing our orbit, hidden from us by the sun, a smaller planet with a higher oxygen content, so that men of Earthly strength would there be slightly stronger and doughtier. Of course it has two or three hurtling moons. But the clever part was the explanation as to why they both had high tech and fought with swords: their insect overlords, a race called the Sardar or Priestkings, had moved the world from star system to star system over the eons, picking up samples and specimens from various inhabited planets, and keeping human beings as well as other intelligent aliens as zoo specimens on the world’s surface in their native habitats. The aliens, not the humans, wanting the human beings to remain hale and healthy, remove any weapon technology that might prove dangerous, and simply does not allow the men to have anything more dangerous than a crossbow. With some Darwinian coldness, the insect aliens want the humans to fight and die so as to maintain the fitness of the species.

See? Perfect excuse to have energy bulbs and translations machines, but to still have a swordfight every third chapter.

In his first book the author established some background that he later left unexploited, such as the idea that there were other sapient races on the planet, or that they had high tech in every other area aside from weaponry: any use of firearms or explosives or armor or electronic signalling in war would be immediately contravened by sudden and ubiquitous alien death rays from the planetary zookeepers. Serums keep everyone young and ageless, so that all death is by violence or famine, none by age or disease. There is a special caste of intercessors who act as ambassadors and Judas Goats to the alien zookeepers who run the planet, conveying their orders to the humans and other intelligent species (Giant spiders and so on) and enforcing the weapon laws so that their city-states do not get deathrayed from orbit.

The other clever bit of background was the author’s excuse to have the men of the far world act as much like the various romanticized pagan and barbaric days of yore as he might need:  And successive generations of man land on the planet from various interesting periods of human history, as the Greeks, the Norse, Red Indians, and so on. The people of that world were not just the descendants of these interesting periods, they are the people (if they survived), thanks to the eternal youth serums. John Norman mentions once or twice, but he never actually brings out how odd it would be to live on a world with no old age, and your chance of finding a thousand year old scroll is the same as finding a thousand year old man.

Now, I have often wondered what a world would really be like if it were the counter-earth described in the first book:

If your technology could grow to any degree possible, but only the weapon technology was kept artificially low by alien zookeepers and absolutely strict and inescapable gun control laws (even if every engineer of the Engineer Caste knows exactly how to build guns and cannons), then what kind of society would actually come about?

I have often thought that such a non-romantic version of a planetary romance would have to contain the one element John Norman is at pains to remove from his fantasy: the effect of modern ideas on an ancient society. What would all these modern girls (spoiled, rich, bratty, yet yearning for a man to spank them, et cetera et ad nauseam) hauled off to serve as slavegirls actually do to the society they found? They would not all just go native and have no influence.

And not just the abducted slavegirls are sent to Gor, but also men to serve as breeding stock: was there no one sent from the Western lands of Earth in all the centuries between the Fall of Rome and the modern day?

I would have loved to read the book about Solomon Kane, Puritan Adventurer, kidnapped by spaceship and set down admit the barbarians and swordsmen, the gladiatorial arenas and slave mines and wildness areas of the planet.

PURITAN OF GOR! He would not have gone in for all this disgusting pervo sado-fantasy garbage. He could have killed pirates and vikings and prayed to God and still dressed in his dark clothing with a buckle on his hat. If he took the serum, he could still be around centuries later.

I would have liked to see him come up against the AZTECS OF GOR — there is a culture with some bloodthirsty adventure possibilities. And if the alien zookeepers made a raid on Japan during the Tokugawa era, Solomon Kane could have run across the SAMURAI OF GOR. I am sure the old school Japanese and their rather unchristian treatment of women would have fit right in to the counterearth.

But the successive new immigrants, slave or free, would influence the ancient cultures. Like the black slaves among the plantation owners of the south, or like the slaves in Rome, some slaves are used as nursemaids, teachers, and so on. Even if not, certain ideas would naturally and natively percolate from the slave classes to the master classes, willy nilly.

Some slave with one semester of Economics could tell the brutally handsome yet handsomely brutal master men of the scholarly caste the economic advantages of standardized coin money, fractional banking, and freedom of labor to move across caste barriers. The alien zookeepers do not interfere with economic arrangements, but only with weapon technology.

Someone else would mention the self-evident fact that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Even if the warlike alpha males of the counterearth dismissed or despised the idea, it would be present in the background of their culture. (Norman also gives them Hellenic notions of Democracy: all the armed men gather to debate public issues, and only some city-states appoint warlords or ‘Ubars’ to act as dictators for the duration of the emergency.)

And, of course, like wildfire among dry leaves, all the slaves, all the oppressed, all the dalits and untouchables and outcast and unloved of this pseudo-Greco-Roman world would react to the smuggled-in message of the Gospel, if the conditions were the same on counterearth as they were in Imperial Roman Europe in the Second and Third Century.

Being something of a fan of guns myself, I actually think it would be difficult or impossible to grant womenfolk the vote and the right to own property if the military matters and personal duels were still settled by sword and ax blows, and if the culture retained anything of its ancient Hellenic background: admire the ancient Greeks as you like, but only the Arabs, of all the races of man, were more oppressive of women, or kept them under tightest control. Practically the only women we hear tell of from ancient Greece are hetaera (courtesan) like Aspasia, or Neaira, and Thaïs. And there is at least an indirect relationship between the level of violence a faction can bring to bear, and it position among the political factions: I am always a little dubious about pre-gunpowder societies rejoicing in female equality. It is something that strikes me as needing an explanation.

Just as an intellectual exercise, I have wondered what CONSTANTINE OF GOR would be like as the Christians gained control; or JULIAN THE APOSTATE OF GOR as they were flung out of power again; or WASHINGTON OF GOR as the fierce Sons of Liberty or gentleman farmers kidnapped from Virginia sought to overthrow the opulent tyrants of Imperial Ar; or WILBURFORCE OF GOR spreading the doctrine of emancipation among the slave-castes or conquered spider-people; or SUFFRAGETTES OF GOR.

I call it an intellectual exercise, because the whole point of a Sword and Planet Romance is to indulge the (somewhat Nietzschean) daydream that the pagan days of yore were  exciting and manly and brutal and filled with honor and hardship and sudden death, but also with a vitality and a liberty sadly lacking from the modern day, and the narrow and conventional confines of civilization.

It is not without reason that PRINCESS OF MARS begins as a Western. The idea behind Sword and Planet Romances is the idea is that, once the Western frontier, the last place where a man would measure himself against outlaws and savages and merciless nature on his own, with just his brawn and his wits, has been fenced in and made safe and sterile, secure and dreadfully boring, therefore only on a far world can nature raw in tooth and claw, exotic beauties, exotic dangers, and flashing swords gripped in hard-thewed hands yet be found.

I have never yet read a Sword and Planet tale where the far world with its strange admixture of radium technology and swordfighting, was redolent of the knights and crusades of the High Middle Ages. The far world is always something like Cathay or Egypt or pagan Rome.

A book such as I speculate about above would defeat the expectations of the honest reader picking up a Sword and Planet Romance, since what I am discussing above is the examination of the social turmoil caused by modern, particularly Christian or Enlightenment ideas, into the savage lands of the far world.

Now you may ask what is the best of the genre of Sword and Planet stories?

That I cannot answer, since there are too many offerings in the field I have not read. I have not had the pleasure of reading Alan Burt Akers or Otis Adelbert Kline, for example.

But I will say the best I have read, and the most imaginative. The Planet of Adventure series by Jack Vance.

The author’s conceit is that Earthman Adam Reith is the only survivor when his space vessel, lured by a series of radio signals, come to investigate the planet Tschai orbiting the star Carina 4269. The world, unexpectedly and impossibly, is inhabited by human beings. It seems that in the Neolithic, not one, but three star faring races came across Earth in the remote past, abducted the natives to use as thralls, mutating and breeding them to serve their purposes. A series of ancient and interstellar wars has forced the aliens to establish bases on Tschai.

Over the eons, the humans have adopted with worldview and pscyhology, each race of man to his alien master race, and over the steppes and seas and wilds of Tschai, half-breeds, escapees, and manumitted men have established their own tribes and cults and cultures and cities. Each of the aliens maintains either tenuous contact with its home worlds, or none. The aliens maintain starfaring high technology, at least in places: otherwise the humans fight with the preferred weapons of the Sword and Planet genre, the sword.

Each one of the four books describes the hero’s attempt to find his way offplanet and back to Earth, either by recovering his downed spaceship, or finding, or stealing, or buying another one, and each book showcases one of the four truly alien aliens and the truly odd human serfs.

If course, Jack Vance defeats some of the expectations of the genre. The kidnapped space princess certainly does not end up living happily ever after with her Earthman rescuer, for example, and the space hero still retains his binoculars, energy cells, and energy pistol, at least for the first book. He relies more on his wit than on his mighty thews for his triumphs, but he is not without considerable might when it comes to a clash of arms.

This book has something of the flavor and character I was speculating about above, only because Adam Reith is the only free born man from a high tech human civilization. Everyone else on the planet knows the aliens to be superior in strength and technology, and humans to be born low, without rights and without hope. It is rather dry and understated, but the just the attitude of the freeborn Earthman on the crushed spirits of the men of Tschai is refreshing to behold.

For the Jack Vance character does not just go native like the normal Earth-loathing denizen of a Sword and Planet adventure story. Something of the value of our world is carried with him, and acts like a lamp in a dark world.

The books are:

POSTSCRIPT: I did once meet John Norman (not his real name) at  science fiction convention. Let no one think that my somewhat caustic disapproval of the later books from his pen mean I hold the man himself in any disrespect. He seemed, at least from my very brief encounter, to be a perfectly polite and soft spoken albeit somewhat shy fellow. This is just my first impression based on perhaps a minute’s worth of words — I pretend no insight in human character. But he impressed me as something of a melancholy figure. I shook hands with him, and told him (truthfully enough) in my normal saturnine and leaden way of speaking that I was a fan of his books. My pretty young wife chimed in, explaining in her enthused way of hers that I was a fan. He gave her an odd and perhaps lascivious look, no doubt speculating whether or not I tied her up and spanked her, and so on.

I did not at that time draw the hidden blade from my sword cane and run him through for the untowardness of that look, and this for three reasons.

First, the expression may have been caused by gastric gas or some other cause. It would be a sad thing to kill a science fiction writer, or, for that matter, even a muggle, because of some odd twitch of the eye at an inopportune moment.

Second, my mighty sword blade is not sharpened, and could probably not be used with success to open a letter, much less open a science fiction writer from stem to gudgeon to splatter viscous viscera upon sundry shrieking bystanders, some of whom where in costume.

Likewise, my mighty thews are mostly turned to mighty flab in my egg-shaped manly rotundity, so I would stand a better chance of overcoming a fierce foe by sloshing myself upon him sumo-wrestler style to crush the hapless wight beneath my bulk than I would blade in hand, matching my awesome swordsmanship against his deadly skill. I think I remember how to hold an epee from my college sporting days, and I can manage a parry four and a parry six. I am neither as competent as Inigo Montoya, nor yet at the level of Roronoa Zoro.

Third, I have unwisely and irrevocably consigned my soul to a peaceful religion of brotherlove which frowns, nay, even scowls on unprovoked acts of murder in the first degree, even when the honor of a lady is at stake, and I feared the penance that my father confessor might impose should I breach so flagrantly the dictates of our creed. Once trapped in the confessional booth, the penitent may lawfully have imposed on him any penance the father confessor sees fit to impose, provided it is not cruel or unusual — and the normal protections against self incrimination, unfortunately, do not apply.

I think there is also some secular regulation against it or something, at least in some jurisdictions.

But, with the closing of the Western frontier, there stood I, unmanned, hemmed in by softness and regulation, civilized and cosseted, unable to carry out the ferocious yet noble impulse of my reckless pagan nature! Staggering outside, I saw the sweep of the night sky. As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination–it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron. My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation (Mars is also the patron planet of science fiction writers) and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space. Or, actually, I was drawn across the parking lot to the immensity of my van where I had parked.

So I am still here on Earth, completely civilized. Pouting (but I think of it as a manly and mightily thewed pout) I turned to my pretty young wife, saying, “Did you see that look on the face of John Norman, not his real name?”

“It may have been caused by intestinal gas,” she commented.

“I think he may have been entertaining the notion that I treat you with less than the perfect respect for your equal person-hood a feminist loving suffragette supporting modern man is wont to display! I think he thinks I am some sort of oddball who thinks wives should submit to their husbands! What an outrageous, archaic notion! Have I ever let show by word or deed any such sign of disrespect to your perfect equality, homogeneity and sameness to my life-gender-preferences in any way?”

“No, master.”

“Do science fiction fanboys ever have such sick and perverted fantasies?”

“Indeed not, master. Everyone who reads science fiction is sexually normal in every way.”

“Good! Thought so! Now put on your Slave Leia costume, and have the other wife in the harem paint herself green like an Orion Animal Woman, let the drums begin to throb with the sultry and barbaric music of love, and and make me an egg salad sandwich. Being so normal and well adjusted sexually leaves a fanboy weary and faint with hunger!”