An Experiment in Gor: What Are John Norman’s Books About, Really? The Hidden Secret of the Counter-Earth Saga is an Over-Abundance of…

An Experiment in Gor: What Are John Norman’s Books About, Really? The Hidden Secret of the Counter-Earth Saga is an Over-Abundance of…

tarnsman_of_gor_vallejo_coverI’m positive that I read the first book in the [Counter-Earth Saga/Tarl Cabot Saga/Chronicles of Counter-Earth/Gorean Cycle/Gorean Saga/take your pick], sometime back in junior high. That would be Tarnsman of Gor, first published in 1966 by Ballantine, which recounts how Earth professor Tarl Cabot is mysteriously transported to our solar system’s hidden tenth planet orbiting the sun in a position exactly counter to Earth’s. There he encounters a Barsoomian-inspired sword-and-planet environment. He quickly adapts, becoming a Gorean swordsman and assimilating into the culture of his adopted planet.

If I read any of the sequels, I can’t recall — although I remember enjoying the first book, at least the first part of it recounting Talbot’s strange experiences (involving a mysterious package, I believe) and subsequent relocation to another world. As The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), a huge tome sitting here on my bookshelf, notes, the first Gor books were passable Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiches, and that’s the impression I came away with too. As a boy, I was a huge fan of ERB’s John Carter of Mars stories and was looking for something else along those lines.

The Encyclopedia goes on to condemn later volumes in the series (which now total 34), noting that they “degenerate into extremely sexist, sadomasochistic pornography involving the ritual humiliation of women, and as a result have caused widespread offence.” DAW, which published the series from volumes 7 through 25, apparently dropped Norman for this reason (Naughty Norman!), and the subsequent 9 volumes are only available in e-book editions.

As a collector and purveyor of vintage sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks, I happen to have several Gor books sitting in a pile here beside my office desk. I will be posting them to eBay soon. I have, on occasion, picked one up and opened it at random to read a paragraph or two.

Just a bit of curiosity, you see. Wondering if, in the later books, Norman is really as obsessed with sadomasochism as the critics contend. Maybe there’s more to Gor? I mean, it is one of the longest running fantasy series of all time by a single author (1966 to the present: with the release this August of Plunder of Gor, it hit the half-century mark). Major sci-fi/fantasy publishers were behind the first 25 books — first Ballantine, then DAW. And those great, classic pulp covers by the likes of Boris Vallejo and Ken W. Kelly are bound to pique one’s interest…

assassin-of-gorBut — and I KID YOU NOT — every time I have done this, I have found myself reading about the protagonist showing a proud woman how to be submissive, breaking her to the collar, demonstrating to her that a woman’s true fulfillment is found in slavery, etc. Really, what are the odds? And how much can a man possibly have to say about mouth gags and collars? Seriously, every book I’ve picked up, every page I’ve turned to — I begin to suspect that this is, indeed, the main preoccupation.

Now, I’m sure other things happen in the books — and I’ve read the Wikipedia entry to confirm this — there are plots that involve warring city-states and alien races. Somehow, though, I cannot open a Gor book without somehow landing right in the middle of this, ahem, icky stuff. Statistical analysis would therefore suggest that a substantial portion of these later volumes must indeed be given over to the Gorean philosophy of the sexes (and the books get thicker! Book 24 is 495 pages).

Every now and then, just for a laugh, I’ll test that hypothesis again: pick up a Gor, open to random page, begin reading random paragraph. Yep, it’s about collars.

And lest you think I’m exaggerating, I have today conducted the experiment and recorded the results. I picked up four Gor books, turned to four random pages, and copied out a few lines of what I read:

Book 16: Guardsman of Gor (1981) p. 175

I had amused myself thoroughly with the small beauty. Indeed, in that night, I gathered, she had been, for the first time, taught the full meaning of her collar. When she had entered the room she had been a woman who had been enslaved; when I had left the room she knew herself to be a woman who was a slave.

Book 22: Dancer of Gor (1985) p. 123

I recalled how Clarissa had, one evening at the house where we had been trained, early in our training, been, or pretended to have been, refractory, and how the other girls had disciplined her. She had then, the meaninglessness and absurdity of her little rebellion, or pretended rebellion, demonstrated to her, accepted, and then rejoiced in, her bondage. She had now learned that she was a slave, totally, and only, that.

Book 23: Renegades of Gor (1986) p. 68

Did she really think they feared her escape, she, within the palisade, shackled and naked?

“They might, too,” I said, “consider that your display here, if you will pardon the expression, might enhance your chances of obtaining a redemption.”

“Yes,” she said, “that, too.”

In the morning, of course, the girls outside, at the wall, might have a better chance. They would, by that time, I speculated, be bedraggled, and piteous, indeed. Still I did not think any of them, the Lady Temione here, or the others, outside, in these times, were likely, really, to get some fellow to redeem them.

Book 24: Vagabonds of Gor (1987) p. 321

Gags are sometimes used in conjunction with, but need not be, blindfolds, half-hoods and hoods. The modalities of these devices, of course, are different, as is known to slaves who are subjected to them. What these various devices do have in common is a tendency to induce a sense of great helplessness, which increases the slave’s consciousness of male dominance, and, accordingly, her responsiveness to this dominance. To be sure, once the slave has learned her condition, or learned her collar, as the Goreans say, she has no doubt whatsoever of this dominance, and her subjection to it. The mere sight of a slave whip is then enough to make her juice. Gags, blindfolds, and such devices, then, may or may not be used, as the master wishes.

So, it is clear from those four samples what Norman is most obsessed with. Look closely. Do you see? It’s commas. This is where all the commas missing from Cormac McCarthy wound up! Take this beauty of a sentence: “They would, by that time, I speculated, be bedraggled, and piteous, indeed.” Sure, that sentence only has 5 commas, but it only has 12 words! That is almost a 1:2 comma-to-word ratio! Reading some of those sentences is like driving through the parking lot over at a local strip mart where they went crazy with the road bumps; every ten feet you have to slow down to, like, 1 mile per hour.

Not only does Norman, through his POV characters, seem to espouse a philosophy that subordinates women to men; this practice extends into his script, where clauses, adjectives, interjections — all are subordinated by the comma-collar to sentences that are too proud to allow their subjects’ independence to freely flow! Your eyes want to make progress across the page, but he yanks back, it would seem, then, with these, and other, punctuations to, as it were, make you heel, and go slow.

Masochistic indeed.

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Thomas Parker

Oh my Lord. Haven’t read any of these in many a moon. The first three are fairly straightforward planetary romance in the Burroughs fashion, and very enjoyable for those who love that sort of thing, as Norman is quite a good flora/fauna/exotic culture worldbuilder and a solid action storyteller. But then…the fourth book, Nomads of Gor, begins to strongly manifest that overriding and extremely icky obsession. That’s where I parted company with Tarl Cabot. I’ve not spent any time since then wondering what he was up to…because I already know.

James McGlothlin

I, found, this, to, be, an, interesting, post.

Heel Mr. Ozment!

In all seriousness, interesting post. Do you think the masochism and sexism of these books explains their once great appeal? I’m very interested in this subject because it seems to me that there are conflicting voices about the issue today. Though I think the outrage against Norman is pretty universal today! To what extent can these sorts of things be examined in fiction before crossing the line into problematic?


Strangely enough, much like Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels, I have heard that a lot of women bought these books as well. It’s a shame we don’t have any real statistics on this because it could provide some really good information on how much our culture has changed in what it sees as acceptable thought.

What is it with all these S&S writers and their S&M fetishes anyway? I’ve got books published by Playboy in the 70’s that aren’t this raunchy. Characters like this are even depicted as the villains.

“What is it with all these S&S writers and their S&M fetishes anyway?”

…Not sure I know what other authors you’re referring to here… REH figured out a whipping scene would get him the Weird Tales cover owing to what editor Farnsworth Wright liked, but that’s a different thing and nothing like what Nick’s found here in Gor.

Joe H.

Somehow, I never quite got into Gor, which is probably just as well. Or Xanth, for that matter. But given the number of Horseclans books still on my shelf, I probably shouldn’t be too self-righteous about it.

John ONeill

In the late 70s I attended my first science fiction conventions in Ottawa, Canada. Robert Asprin was a regular guest, and I remember a tale he told about John Norman’s obsessions with commas.

He claimed he’d had a conversation with John Norman’s editor at DAW. In one of his early books they had attempted to strip out 15-20% of all the commas. When they got the final galley back from John Norman, he has painstakingly put every single one of the commas back in.

“Not only that, but she said there were even MORE COMMAS in the final draft!” Asprin told the audience.

I had no idea who John Norman was at the time. About six months later I found my first Gor book in a bookstore in Ottawa, with lurid cover featuring a woman in chains, and I remember thinking, “That’s the guy who’s crazy about commas!”


I tired the Gor series in mid-70s and found the first book very Burroughs like with the sex rendered a bot more detailed then Burroughs fate worse then death that definitely confused me as a pre-teen-for awhile. The second book was okay but I began noticing a theme regarding the ladies the I quit the third after our hero spends about three PAGES convincing a lady she needs to be locked up. Never want back.

The Horseclans was a late discovery in the 80s and I gave THOSE up mostly due to an incest relationship in one of them. The rapes weren’t helping either. Older I get I prefer the good old stuff from the 30s-50s. Probably never grew up I suppose


I have also got a few of the later ones, published by White Star as I recall, on my shelf. Wanted to try and read the series to see what all the hype is about. By the sounds of it I should not bother and rather sell them to a Fifty Shades enthusiast.

Which brings me to a point. A cursory look on eBay etc reveals the books have been republished with “classy” top shelf looking covers. Methinks a publisher has recognised a new gap in the market.

Jackson Kuhl

Would the Gor books be as problematic if they had been written by a woman?

I think Tiberius is close to the mark in explaining why it’s the longest running fantasy series out there: Gor was Fifty Shades before there was Fifty Shades. I remember staring in mild shock at an end shelf in my local grocery store at the height of the Fifty Shades craze, where all three volumes of BDSM kink waited to brighten some suburban mom’s day. But then again, Anne Rice developed a loyal readership with her A.N. Roquelaure books back in the 80s, so everything new is old. I wouldn’t overthink the “problematic” aspect of the books; I read an observation once that sexual fantasy is often just that: something the fantasizer thinks about but doesn’t actually want to happen IRL.

Great funny post, Nick. As a bonus I’ll leave this interview with Norman here.

Thomas Parker

The original Ballentine edition covers gave no hint of the peculiar antics within. Once the series went to DAW (after seven or eight books, I think)things changed. Truth in advertising, at least…

James Enge

This all explains a lot, especially in the light of John’s comma-ment. It gave me, pause.

I was also thinking of this song, which also seems to have an obsession with fixing women and with commas.


@Howard Andrew Jones

Off the top of my head, I can name Andrew Offut and Terry Goodkind to go along with John Norman. On the more “contemporary” horror side of things you’ve got Clive Barker.

None of these guys, though, can compare to Virginia Wade. lol

I’ve also read a lot of really raunchy Sci fi, and I did it without even picking up a Phillip Jose Farmer book. What happens in space, stays in space. Then again maybe it’s just the books I’ve been picking up over the years. 😕

Fletcher Vredenburgh

My dad had the first couple. He got rid of them at some point, maybe when he thought I might read them. The Ballantine cover for Raiders of Gor, with a woman chained to the pirate ship’s figurehead is both awesome and disturbing.


I’ve always wondered what was up with Norman. Is he some kinda weirdo or just using a niche in the market to sell books?
I too went to these books after ERB in my early teens, except I went to Gor from Tarzan. The Boris covers played into a big part of that -my Tarzan collection sported amazing Neal Adams and Boris covers.
It took a while for the sexuality of the books to really sink in. I do remember a buddy smirking as he told how in the books, the women are slaves..-insert Beavis and Butt-head laugh. I think I got to book 8 or 9, but can’t remember much more than what you do.
I also thought of the Horse Clans series. I had long had nostalgic urge to read those books. The title and cover always stuck in my head as being pretty cool. But a few years ago I got my hands on the first book, The Comming of the Horse Clans,, and it was horrible… it had two Prologs, I kid you not, Prolog I and II. It read so boring. I swear, I head Ben Stein’s voice when I read it. So there must be something to the social culture of the time. This was mostly the 70’s, it was still thought to be more taboo, that criminal for an adult to have sexual relations with a High School kid back then after all.

But back to Norman. I also read the first book of his Telnarian Histories, The Chieftain which I never finished but the premis was kinda a Spartacus in Space and again heavy on the slavery.
Check this from Norman’s Wikipedia page:
earned his PhD in 1963 from Princeton University. His dissertation was named: “In defence of ethical naturalism: an examination of certain aspects of naturalistic fallacy, with particular attention to the logic of an open question argument”. Lange summed it up in an interview[1] by saying “if one cannot make sense of morality within some sort of satisfying, natural context, then one is likely to end up with no morality, which is less than societally reassuring, or is likely to end up with a competitive plethora of moralities in which ninety-nine percent of the world’s population is convinced that the other ninety-nine percent is unclean, stupid, uninformed, vicious, depraved, in need of coercive correction, and such. That too, seems less than reassuring.”


Sorry, I’m back..I got curious and started Googling. Check this,, scroll down to the bottom, Misconceptions of Gor. The claim is that it’s statement about the feminist movement of that time.

And one crazy stuff: Apparently there is or was a subculture, Goreans. The “real” Goreans, verses the role-playing ones, live their life in accordance to the philosphies of Gor…


Norman is proof of bias and blacklisting in ‘the industry’. Granted he’s no Robert E Howard or Clark Ashton Smith, but a solid, good writer.

He was a publisher’s dream back before the industry sabotaged itself with the onset of “Political Correctness” in the late 70s/early 80s. He’d walk in a month ahead of the deadline and give the secretary a manuscript almost 100% ready to print. I, who need modern spellcheck salute him!!! He then just went back to his job and was available for contact if needed.

Mind you at the time they had more brilliant writers coming in a month after deadline high as a kite, already spent their last novel’s advances, and having a rough idea outlined on napkins… Really, the last gunfighter chasing the dark wizard across a desert that represents both the wild west and the end and beginning of all worlds – isn’t that pure cocaine? For the record, Ilike the guy I’m obviously referring to, but really…

What happened is the head of DAW had a heart attack and his Feminist daughter took over and cancelled a bunch of books overnight. Who cares that they made money, time to put out new stuff per an agenda, like the “Sword and Sorceress” stuff. With other publishers out of the picture, Carter, Warren – the market imploded and he was blacklisted.

Now, blacklists are hard to prove – but I think what happened after speaks for itself.

Well, just look at how the fan base remained there. Usually more is published for less hype. And when the internet opened the market again new Gor books started selling along with reprints of his existing work. He exploded into e-texts, many fans buying books again, feeling guilty we’d only bought his books (by the bucketload!) used and he didn’t get $ directly. He knew if he spent thousands of his own $ on printing he’d get the worst deals and then distributors would refuse to stock them but waiting to the internet opening of the market, instantly back in it, even after decades being out.

Norman’s “Gor” certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of Joe… In a way it’d be seen by some today as a parody of the Heroic Fantasy genre if it wasn’t legit. But both “Free Speech” and “Free Market” needs to be expected. Prof Norman isn’t holding a Gladius to your neck to buy his works – no one should be forced to buy them, but no one should be kept from having them as an option.

Oh, btw, check out Google Books – lots of them on sale as of this post;-)

Aonghus Fallon


Oh, got you. I guess I think of those writers as outliers — I’d never think of them as big s&s trend setters or innovators. You’re right in that they do love that stuff.

Hope I didn’t come across as too challenging. I have had to defend sword-and-sorcery for years as a legit sub-genre and I’m probably still a little touchy…

James Enge

I wouldn’t say John Norman’s career is an example of blacklisting, rather that it’s an example of success in niche publishing. The work appeals to a fairly narrow slice of the reading public, but it appeals to them very strongly.



Norman is a success in ‘niche’ publishing – and open market online publishing – today. This is due to the internet opening the market. But he was blacklisted for decades despite being a writer who surely pulled his weight and more – a huge wagonload of slave girls…hehe

Back in the day he was a good solid writer with a ton of momentum and an already loyal fan base. A publisher’s dream type in that despite not being the next great voice he regularly produce good (depending on your tastes) solid stories like clockwork and since he kept his day job despite success he never asked for advances on royalties or argued for more than fair royaties. And, comma issue aside,,,,,,, hehe he put out stuff – this is on a typewriter, no word processor and no spell check, ready to print. Last but not least his stories sold and made a profit.

He was cancelled and then blacklisted by a deliberate shift in a handful of publishing companies on what they decided to output for the public versus what would sell. Being that big and having both government subsidies and hands in other options they could do something that anti-capitalist, anti-free market. They just decided to cut out the ‘sexist’ stuff and force politically correct and more mass appealing stuff.

Even if you hate Norman this should be a big BIG argument for Net Neutrality. The big media companies do not fear “Piracy” so much, some even use pirated content to inflate what they ask for from adverstisers, such as ‘product placement’ – a can of coke in a movie – if pirated it’s seen by people who didn’t pay for it for example. What they fear is that someone who hasn’t signed a contract to give up creative control and most of the royalties can make something that could perhaps get successful without their approval.

Right now this ugly fake “P.C.” sentiment is dominant – but it could change overnight – as was in the late 70s, early 80s. Overnight the good solid heirs of the Gernsback and Atomic era were chugging along and then the publishers decided to take the “new wave” into forced P.C. extremes. But we could have Trump and Koch bros types buy them up and turn them into Ayn Rand self-flattery stuff overnight, or religious groups into Jack Chick level morality plays. If the big publishing groups lock out competition this can and will happen.

What do you want available in the bookstores and online markets – stuff big publishers decide to let you read or a vast option of different stories of almost any genre, taste and style? Want to have writers write what is in their souls, or only try to write stuff for ‘accepted genre’ and cut and dumb it down for the idiocracy? Want to support a writer directly with an online market only taking a small cut or know that buying a book at $16.99 despite being printed in China to cheat American workers a living the author gets – well I used to say a quarter but due to an earlier discussion here it’s like $3 or $4…?

Michael Cule

Personally I think that the peculiarity of Norman’s punctuation is just a secondary symptom of the peculiarities in his grammar which, like the peculiarities in his word choice (‘muchly’, ‘modality’) are due to his trying to write consciously archaic and ‘heroic’ prose. He is trying to create the feeling of the good pulp fiction he grew up on (which was imitating 19th century novels of adventure) and falling short due to… Well, sadly lack of talent.

C - Foxessa

Norman’s books weren’t selling as they had in the past, no longer meeting the sell through criteria that DAW has for all its authors and titles, which is why the series was dropped. A big reason the books weren’t selling as they had earlier in the series is that so much more of this sort of thing had become available, and without all that blowharding about it in which all that the Norman protag stand-ins indulge.

Back in Literature grad student days when I was teaching Freshman English I had an older male student who BELIEVED every word of the Gor books was gospel and insisted he lived it to the letter himself. Every paper he wrote was about this stuff, until we got to the logic section of the semester. I picked one of the very many very long paragraphs from a Gor novel as the demonstration text for logic failure in writing. The rest of the class laughed so hard at that text he stopped writing about how tried and true was the Gorean philosophy. In place of that he wrote papers now arguing that only the well-armed male should have the right to vote.


C – Foxessa,

Neat story – about the Grad Student. I’m no “Gorean” but did like the stories of it I read, more for the tidbits of philosiphy – “How must a man live?” for ex.

From what I understand it wasn’t just Norman’s books. A lot of them were cancelled overnight again related to a change of guard. Burt Akers (Scorpio) was another casulty – less openly sexist and just old school tropes and sword and planet adventure. And like Norman the Scorpio stuff not published again till the internet opened the market, then instant re-prints, sales of e-texts online immediately despite being a 30 year old sujbect.

And lots of people like me who are buying them again online – kids or in tye died diaper covers when they were new and discovered them through used book stores and the library. Feels good to actually directly support a writer or his kin if he’s dead, there was a bit of “I LOVE this guy!” from way back but no way to give him money. I’ve got most of the Bucketload of Gor on my Amazon and Google book and gathering up Scorpio, writing some of the others about this…

I say that argues strongly a blacklist by a media more concerned with an agenda than what the public wants. They might not have printed 1 million of “Gor # 400” but surely 20 or 30 K could have sold direct to fans pre-ordering them and Prof Norman wasn’t calling screaming for advances on royalties, he just typed out and dropped off a good manuscript and went back to his day job he loved and waited for the check to add to his savings.

Sarah Avery

But both “Free Speech” and “Free Market” needs to be expected. Prof Norman isn’t holding a Gladius to your neck to buy his works – no one should be forced to buy them, but no one should be kept from having them as an option.

Publishing companies are not a public utility, nor are they a branch of government. If they were, a free speech objection could reasonably be made — if we take the bit about how Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech as applying not just to Congress making laws, but also to other governmental and quasi-governmental entities.

But in fact DAW was, at that time, a privately owned company, owned specifically by Wollheim’s daughters…who are also entitled to freedom of speech. What the press they own publishes is not just a reflection of the authors’ speech, but also the publishers’ speech. And they had a right to refrain from using the publishing company they owned to purvey material they disliked. Whether they disliked it on the grounds of the books’ sexual politics, the books’ abundance of commas, or the books’ peculiar back-formations of adverbs is completely irrelevant. Nothing, short of a contract freely entered into by a publisher, obligates that publisher to publish any particular text.

To say that the free market dictates that they should have continued publishing Norman because he still had a fan base that wanted to pay for his books pits the ideal of a free market against the ideal of free speech. In the passage I quote from Green Gestalt above, the value of the free market (assuming the Gor books were still selling well, which has been called into question), completely trumps the value of free speech by compelling the publisher to engage in speech which the publisher would prefer not to participate in.

So, which is it? Free speech or free markets? Free speech is so important it’s in the First Amendment. I don’t recall a guarantee of free markets in the Bill of Rights.

If we agree that it would be better not to have to choose between those two ideals of freedom, that we would like both free speech and free markets, then events as they have actually unfolded should be fine. The publishers who did not wish to participate in speech they disagreed with used their freedom.

John Norman had the freedom to self-publish all along. Nobody was stopping him from doing so. T.S. Eliot self-published on occasion, as did Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound. Is what was good enough for them not good enough for John Norman? He chose not to self-publish until doing so became a respectable alternative for professional writers of fiction. It does seem unusual for a proponent of the sadomasochistic enslavement of all women to care so much about respectability in matters of publication, but he was and is free to refrain from expressing his speech in ways he didn’t care for. Certainly refraining from self-publication was his prerogative.

If meeting market demand for a particular book is a moral imperative, why should that fall more on publishers who do not care for that book, rather than upon the author, who could self-publish if he chose to? Why would the author get free speech, and the publishers not?

If there’s a demand for N.K. Jemisin’s work, or Ann Leckie’s — and they do sell copies — would the same argument hold if the press in question were Castalia House? Should Vox Day be required to publish works he finds objectionable? If nobody has the right to force him to buy them as a reader, why would anyone have the right to force him to buy them as a publisher?

The thing that is both necessary and a pain in the neck about free speech is that it is a right that inheres in everybody, or it inheres in nobody.

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