May 042020
Cover illustration by Michael Manning

Tales of Gor (Postmortem Studios, 2017) is the licensed tabletop role-playing game adaptation of John Norman’s notorious Gor series of sword-and-sorcery novels, written by James “Grim” Desborough and illustrated by Michael Manning. Gor is notorious for heavy themes of slavery, sadomasochism, male dominance and female submission, and for long philosophical digressions justifying those themes. Since 1966, there have been more than 30 novels published in the series. The series has inspired a strong cult following, including a small branch of BDSM culture devoted to Gorean style slavery, both in real life and online in Second Life.

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May 152018
Dec 152015

Cover mockup of Gorean RPG, showing a hairy humanoid creature about to attack an armed man, with a chained woman behind him

Cover mockup of Gorean RPG, showing a hairy humanoid creature about to attack an armed man, with a chained woman behind him

Postmortem Studios is working on a tabletop roleplaying game based on the Gor series of fantasy novels by John Norman (a.k.a. philosophy professor John Lange). Published since the 1960s, Gor is a modern version of the Orientalist fantasies of savage lands and slave markets and so on. You can read about their ongoing project on their blog. Gor has a long history of being recreated in Second Life and other online roleplaying environments, so it’s not surprising that someone would try to adapt it to the tabletop, dice-and-paper form of roleplaying.

I learned about this from following the Facebook page of Michael Manning, my favourite (living) fetish/BDSM artist. He’s illustrating the entire book. Manning is primarily known as a fetish/BDSM artist, and it makes sense that he would be tapped for this project. Apart from the standard ferocious monsters, sword-wielding warriors, decadent cities and savage fighting, the books are rife with BDSM imagery. So much so, that there is a fringe subset of the BDSM culture based on the books, Goreans, who borrow the iconography and terminology of the books, such as slave positions and so on. Some of these terms have seeped out into the broader BDSM world.

Gor is notorious for its strong emphasis not only on the world’s apparently universal chattel slavery, but the male-dominant/female-submissive philosophy that justifies it, endlessly reiterated in the books.  That’s what made me pause when I thought about Manning illustrating the book. Manning’s work, starting with the graphic novel The Spider Garden, has a strong bi/queer flair, running all over the map of sexuality from conventional, heteronormative pinups to “sacred androgynes”, cross-dressed men, and other, stranger types of sexuality. This also comes in a time when video games and related media like tabletop RPGs are under a lot of flak for #GamerGate. The games designer, James Desborough, reportedly has connections to #GamerGate and some other controversies. It got me wondering: how will Gor be adapted into this medium?

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Mar 282011 has published a rare (and lengthy) email interview with John Norman (aka philosophy professor John Lange), creator of the Gor series.

Norman comes across largely as you would expect from his prose: long-winded, a bit pompous, and preferring monologue to dialogue. This is a guy who would interrupt one of the innumerable scenes of a woman being enslaved to spend a half-page discussing the etymology of her name and how to pronounce it.

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Jul 302007

Dark Horse Comics is planning to release John Norman’s Gor series in reprints, the first being an omnibus edition of the first three books. Note that this is not a comics adaptation, just a reprint.

JE Remy of the blog Die Wachen views this with some degree of alarm. He’s written three (1, 2, 3) postings urging the reader to contact Dark Horse and make them stop this.

Remy cites another blog posting as to why this is ethically justified and not censorship:

I start with the axiom that people should not do bad things. I assert that publishing a bad thing is itself a bad thing, because it provides the bad thing greater exposure and the opportunity to negatively influence people that it would not otherwise have. I assert that Gor is a bad thing, because it promotes a model for human sexuality and society that in reality would result in immense harm to many people. Finally, I assert that no circumstances mitigate the harm of its republication, because the work lacks historical significance and is of questionable artistic merit not counting its reprehensible sexual politics. Q.E.D.

The argument above says that Gor novels “negatively influence people” and “it promotes a model for human sexuality and society that in reality would result in immense harm to many people.” I disagree because it assumes that, because they read these books, they will do harm that they would not otherwise do. As I’ve argued before, people don’t need any encouragement to come up with sexual fantasies that aren’t nice and gentle Furthermore, it glosses over the distinction between fantasy and reality, or even the “reality” of some internet chat rooms and Second Life neighborhoods. Goreans are never going to be any more than a lunatic fringe with no influence over anybody who wasn’t predisposed anyway.

Another bloggers, Bellatrys, does a good job of laying to rest the Norman-apologist argument that the sexism, anti-modernism, etc. only really kicked in in the later books. Her thorough multi-part analysis proves that Norman was on the maledom-femsub track from the beginning, and if anything he just lost his inhibitions in the later books. (She also provides an overview of the series’ publishing history.)

My concern with Gor is not that it’s badly written (no argument here, but that’s never been a hanging offense), that it’s sexist (it certainly can be read that way, not to mention racist and classist), that it’s politically retrograde (no argument either), or even that it has inspired a cult following. My concern is that, what could have been a sub-parr, forgettable pulp fantasy series by a hack writer with some personal eccentricities somehow became something that people take so literally, including the author.

With Sade, one can argue that he was writing to shock and provoke and/or to indulge his own fantasies of revenge on the world, and none of his books were intended to be taken literally as philosophical arguments or designs for living, even by the author. With Gor, however, there is a subculture of people who view it as a deep philosophical truth, a vision of a true way of life in a fallen world.

Norman’s books are what happens when you distill the romantic primitivism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edgar Rice Burroughs down to toxic levels of concentration. I recently read The Culture Cult by Roger Sandall, who says that the discipline of anthropology has been hijacked by neurotic bohemian malcontents (ever since Rousseau) who dream of living in a fantasy world of personal and sexual freedom instead of the conformity and colorlessness of modern civil society. These romantic worlds are located in the distant past, in Africa or the Australian outback or, in Norman’s case, on a duplicate Earth hidden on the other side of the sun.

Sandall’s book has many flaws, but it did get me thinking about what he called romantic primitivism. Dom/sub is based on slavery and feudalism, two real-world social systems that are antithetical to liberal democracy. Why do we practice such social customs voluntarily?

Because they mean something to us. My theory, going back to previous postings on Turner’s theory of initiation rituals, is that people have a need for initiation rituals, for the process of finding, entering and becoming a new social role, whether temporarily or permanently. The Gor novels function as that kind of initiation, both in the protagonist’s initiation into Gorean society and the endlessly repeated scenes of women being initiated into Gorean slavery. I’d argue that Norman is not so much obsessed with slave women as with free women becoming slaves.

The Gor texts themselves function as a medium for initiation, learning the ways of Norman’s intricately detailed (though highly implausible) world and sub-Nietzsche philosophy, and then joining the sub-sub-culture of Goreans.

JE Remy seems to view the Gor series in the same terms as, say, the white supremacist epic novel The Turner Diaries (said by some to be inspiration for Timothy McVeigh), and that it should be self-evident why Gor should not be published, in the same way that some random screed about Jews emasculating the white race through fluoridating water need not be published.

Bellatrys picks up this thread too:

I find fascinating the rabid insistence on all quarters that the only reasons for loathing the books are 1) “Political Correctness” and 2) not having read (with implicit “dared to) the books themselves, but only taking the liberal zampolit’s word for their badness. If you only gave them a chance, you’d see how beautiful and noble and wonderful and liberating they are! is the cry from the Gor fans.**

It seriously not only doesn’t occur to them, but is apparently outside their comprehension that anyone could have actually read the damned things and made up their minds about them on their own. That maybe we are at least moderately familiar with the pulp genre as a whole, and are capable of doing compare/contrast on our own – and maybe, just maybe, we can make the judgment as to whether the worldview presented as “normal” in Norman’s Counter-earth is dehumanizing and degrading to both women and men on our own, based on the primary texts…

I don’t think Gor is “a negative influence” on its readers, or the world in general, or at least no more so than many, many other books. As I’ve said before, I’m a very strong supporter of freedom of expression, and letter campaigns to publishers, even against books I find almost unreadable, make me nervous.

I also suspect that Remy’s efforts are in vain. Even if there are no more reprints, the untold copies lying in various used bookstores around the world (a cursory search on eBay for “gor norman” produced over 100 items) will still be there. And eventually people will start pirating them and putting the text files online. The tarn has left the barn, so to speak.

Simone de Beauvoir
wrote an essay in 1955 called “Must we burn Sade?” Perhaps there needs to be another essay, “Must we burn John Norman?”

May 202006

I figured something like this would happen sooner or later. The BBC has a spot on the police raiding a Gorean community.

Durham Police discovered the bizarre sect after raiding a home in the area, after receiving complaints that a woman was being held against her will.

But a spokesman said the Canadian was a willing participant and the other people involved were consenting adults.

The group, called Kaotians, follow the Chronicles of Gor novels which depict a society where women are dominated.

The 29-year-old woman is said to have voluntarily attended the sect after finding out about it over the internet.

“It’s one thing that everyone’s missed out on so far is, even in our organisation, if that’s what you want to call it, women can be free and they can be dominant, we don’t stop that,” [Lee Thompson, age 31] added.

“But the majority of women in our organisation are obviously slaves because women have a submissive streak in them.”

Most of the stories I’ve read on this incident have been pretty even-handed. The police also went away when they didn’t find anything criminal. This is a lot better than some other encounters between the police/legal system and kinksters.

For instance, look at the Mark IV raid in 1976 for how it could have gone. In that case, the police treatment included “handcuffing the defendants, forcing them to kneel or lie face down, then carting them in a crowded bus to jail for processing, denying them the opportunity to use the toilet, and taunting and photographing them at the police station.”

I’m not a Gor fan, although I remember reading some of those books raptly as a young perv. I even had a copy of John Norman’s Imaginative Sex for a while (copies sell for US$50 and up these days), which in hindsight most impressed me with just how narrow Norman’s sexual imagination was. Nearly all of the scenarios are just variations of the same old maledom-femsub theme. Norman’s god-awful prose didn’t help any. I seem to recall a footnote than ran on for three solid pages of a single run-on sentence, divided by dozens of semi-colons.

I think a lot of newbies find those books and imprint on them, attaching themselves to an image that’s really a pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard and other Orientalist/colonialist 19th/early 20th century story, just with the latent sadomasochism turned up to 11.

Gor will definitely get a mention in the book, to show how the fantasies that drove Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick in the 1850s are still operating today.