bellatrys (bellatrys) wrote,
bellatrys
bellatrys

"Planet of the Complete Bloody Psychopaths" part 1

aka "Tarnsman of Gor", by John Norman, c. 1966

After about the fifth or sixth reiteration of the (usually-male-made) claim that "the first ones weren't so bad, the misogyny and male dominance stuff didn't come in till later," I resolved, in my Chaotic way, to challenge this dogma and put it to the test. First I had to locate a copy; I really didn't want to go down to the used bookstore and dig for a copy, though that would have been cheaper - assuming they had it at all - simply because of the cash-register embarrassment factor. I've been on the other side, we do notice even if we don't say anything, the eyebrows go up inside. Explaining that I'm a feminist researcher gathering materials - I just didn't feel like it. I considered getting it secondhand online, but then I remembered that there was an ebook edition available, and when I did the math it worked out the same as the cheapest secondhand with the shipping added. And I'd have it instantly.

There is a big difference between gets even worse as they go along and "mostly harmless" as someone dismissed this series opener. I found plenty of sexism and demonstrations of Norman's faith that all women really deep-down want to be enslaved and "protected" by a strong manly he-man.

There is also plenty of bad writing - again, just because it gets worse doesn't let something off the hook - and implausibility, starting with the idea that alien pilots could easily find a good place to set down in the White Mountains (yes, it starts in NH, lord knows why) and take off again, undamaged - um, hello? Really Tall Pine Trees? Steep slippery slopes and scarps? Big jagged rocks that aren't level? It's not even a good place for rescue helicopters, with the strong crosswinds and sudden updrafts. But the worst plausibility offenders are sociological/psychological - and I'm not talking about the we-women-natural-slaves, either.

1. Dweebish Oxonian humanities teacher is carried off to another planet where he learns his long-lost father is a ranking nobleman and former temporary dictator of his city, and he is destined to be a member of the Warrior caste. He has some rudimentary 20th-century Western scruples and qualms about inequality and violence, but these evaporate remarkably fast. Remember, fellow 'Scapers, how John reacted when he first fell down the Wormhole - and for months and months thereafter? Well, young Tarl Cabot our British dilettante hero takes to an even more violent, uncooperative, hostile society without ever once going "OMGWTFBBQ! You people are all INSANE! What is WRONG WITH EVERYONE ON THIS PLANET?" No, he has some Issues - actually Concerns might be the better word - but he's overall just delighted to be kidnapped away to a strange world where his father sets him up to be killed any number of violent ways, that is to be "tested" to destruction, if need be, to find out if he is Worthy to be a Warrior of Gor.

2. Dweebish Oxonian is retconned to have been a fairly-avid fencer both back in Oxford and at the all-male New England college where he was pretending to be qualified as a history teacher, having been a self-admitted slacker at University and a poseur on his resume. This magically enables him to be up to not just learning swordplay and spearplay in a sink-or-swim (ie dodge-or-die) crash training course, but to take to it mentally like a duck to water, instead of OMGWTFBBQ my dad is trying to KILL me! No, he thinks his dad is the warmest, kindest, most wonderful father a boy twenty-something young man could have appear out of nowhere.

3. The warriors ride tarns (hence "Tarnsmen of Gor") What are tarns, you ask? Giant hawks. Ah, you think, they must telepathically (or at least empathically) bond with the huge raptors, otherwise what possible kind of leverage could they have over them? The answer is yes - a tarnsman has a sacred psychic bond with his tarn, the moment when the new warrior goes out and calls the freeflying unclaimed tarns who have been saddled and bridled and turned loose for this moment, and one of them comes to his call - and tries to gut him like a fish, and the would-be tarnsman kicks it in the head, zaps it with an electric ankus, and scrambles onto its back and spends the rest of his life trying not to get eaten by it, since it is only held in check by the combination of its conditioning and his Awesome Manliness (those clouds of testosterone billowing off the Hero, I guess.)

Tarns often, we are told, break free and fly away to the wild, which makes perfect sense given that even tamed falcons are wont to go feral; they like to hunt and must eat as much and as constantly as the giant eagles in fairy tales which carry the heroines to the End of the World. Pedestrians are considered food for them, too. Why are they tolerated as "domestic" animals, nay, celebrated and encouraged? (I mean, can you imagine any city on earth putting up with a bunch of tyrannosaur-riders as part of the defense force, when everyone knows that the "tame" tyrannosaurs break their training and eat their riders and rampage with predictable regularity?) I told you: because this is the Planet of the Complete Bloody Psychopaths.

And I don't even want to try to wrap my head around the Implausibility Threshold of the mentioned "flocks of tarns" that are herded in the mountain city-states...

4. The cities of Gor are involved in war of all against all, over mystical rocks. Not powerful rocks, mind you, not magic protective rocks, just the lithic version of the flags in Capture The Flag. Everybody apparently tries to steal these rocks from each other, unless they're too weak or too cowardly - or in rare cases, too prudent - to do so. Houses, towns, cities - they all have these mystical rocks that the tarnsmen try to take from each other to their own places, which then by the Capture The Flag rules of Gor means that they rule the other town.

Somehow this goes on all the time, with all this energy being devoted to supporting the enormous ever-hungry tarns and their riders, in this primitive artifically-low-tech world, held back in a bronze age millieu by the godlike distant Priest Kings, belived by the elite to be capable of tugging their planet through space, not just sending out spaceships to kidnap earthlings, and yet there is enough in the way of human and other resources to allow for large stone cities to be built, supplied with grain and wine and every luxury, and maintained - with half the population out of the workforce, since the low-ranking slave women seem to do nothing but dance and fuck, and the high-ranking "free" women must remain imprisoned in their homes or in walled gardens, veiled and shrouded in hijabs (he explicitly compares them to Muslim women's wear) so that no roving tarn-rider will see them and carry them off to a life of slavery.

There is no way the economics and politics of Gor is even remotely possible. It's exactly and everything that was being mocked in Jones' The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, only played straight.

5. Did I mention that there are land-bound warriors and that they ride velociraptors, too? (At least he did think to put shock-absorbing saddles on them...)*

6. The Priest-Kings don't allow any men of Gor to have guns, on pain of death for the inventors - but their Builder-Caste has managed to make self-contained hundred-year-burning light bulbs.

7. Pretty much any screw-up - or your leaders' screw-ups - can get you impaled by the city government, either civil or religious, on Gor, whether free warrior, peasant, or slave.

8. And none of this exites more than a mild disapproval and faint repugnance in our Terran-born-and-UK-raised hero. (We never find out how his father got from the 17th century on Terra to Gor, and back again to 20th century Terra long enough to father a son, btw.)

--And after only a few months of training, he's able to engage in unsecured combat on top of a flying enemy tarn, having broken free of the execution harness with which he was being rent asunder as with wild horses, to climb up, after having been flogged and in chains for days beforehand - and not only not fall off, but win.

I'm honestly not sure which is more improbable - the idea that he would be physically capable of all this (that ANYONE would be!) or that the idea that this is the life his father planned for him doesn't freak him out in the slightest. (We do find out much later that, in addition to having red hair (!) for which he was persecuted in school (!!) though his fierce huge pureblood stallion tarn is rare sable black (!!!) he is apparently the Chosen One of Gor legends and prophesies, the warrior who comes once in a thousand years to inspire the world,


2. Of Human Bondage

No, there's no explicit sex in Tarnsman of Gor - but that doesn't win any points with me, because I'm not a Puritan. My objections are to the ethos, not the explicitness: if there existed a mass-market genre typically full of absurdly-written euphemism/cliche-ridden Tab-A-Slot-B explicit affectionate egalitarian sex scenes, I would probably not be much inclined to read it, it would probably not do much for me erotically, the bad writing style would make me wince - but I wouldn't consider it to be something that attempted to subvert the recognition of the full personhood of women, or upheld the paradigm of sex-as-conquest. It would be at most a guilty pleasure, and not hostile propaganda to be studied.

There's something rather smarmy in Tarl's presentation as a humane Earthman who is (marginally) squicked out by Gor's customs of slavery and violence, and his by-comparison-chivalrous attitudes towards women - mostly because at its best his attitude is no better than that of an Athenian playwright waxing sentimental about oh, how sad, how pitable the fate of the poor wretched Trojan women who used to be free and now are about to be sold off as slaves to the conquering Greeks, far from their homes, where they're going to have to do their masters' bidding, boy it would suck to be them, wouldn't it? So glad I'm a free man, and not a woman!**

In fact, I rather think it qualifies as glurge...

But on to the show. This is what happens when philosophy majors go over to the Dark Side of the Force. Here is the "not so bad" misogyny of the first Gor book:


I nodded, not wanting to speak, wanting him to tell me the thousand things I had to know, to dispel the mysteries that had torn me from my native world and brought me to this strange room, this planet, to him, my father.

"You must be hungry," he said.

"I want to know where I am and what I am doing here," I said."

"Of course," he said, "but you must eat." He smiled. "While you satisfy your hunger, I shall speak to you."

He clapped his hands twice, and the panel slid back again. I was startled. Through the opening came a young girl, somewhat younger than myself, with blond hair bound back. She wore a sleeveless garment of diagonal stripes, the brief skirt of which terminated some inches above her knees. She was barefoot, and as her eyes shyly met mine, I saw they were blue and deferential. My eyes suddenly noted her one piece of jewelry— a light, steel-like band she wore as a collar. As quickly as she had come, she departed.

"You may have her this evening if you wish," said my father, who had scarcely seemed to notice the girl.

I wasn't sure what he, meant, but I said no.


He's so gallant! And clueless! We never ever hear about any girlfriends either back at Oxford or in New Hampshire, either. And there are some extremely subtexty bits later on, when he meets his Enkidu on the road and defeats him and they become very, very, very close friends thereafter.

(FYI His father never really does explain the whole thing, just makes some cryptic remarks about his mother being the Only One He Ever Really Loved, tells him a very little about the set-up with the Inscrutable Priest-Kings and then throws him into headlong training to learn the language and how to be a manly warrior from a Viking-ish tutor named Older Tarl, thus explaining the mystery of his unique un-English name which got him picked on in grade school - tho' his father is Matthew Cabot, go figure. Then as soon as he proves that he can manage not to get et by the brand new steed his proud papa presents him, dad sends him off to raid their hereditary enemies' citadel and carry off their Home Stone MacGuffin, and Tarl doesn't see Dear Old Dad until briefly again at the end of the book, weeks of adventures later. Maybe it gets more cleared up in subsequent volumes, I don't know.)


I could remember something of the night before, but not much. The Older Tarl and I had made a round of taverns in the various cylinders, and I recall toddling precariously, singing obscene camp lyrics, along different narrow bridges, about a yard wide without rails, and the earth somewhere below— how far I had no idea at the time. If we were on the high bridges, it would have been more than a thousand feet away. The Older Tarl and I may have drunk too much of that fermented brew concocted with fiendish skill from the yellow grain, Sa-Tarna, and called Pagar-Sa-Tarna, Pleasure of the Life-Daughter, but almost always "Paga" for short. I doubted that I would ever touch the stuff again.

I remembered, too, the girls in the last tavern, if it was a tavern, lascivious in their dancing silks, pleasure slaves bred like animals for passion. If there were natural slaves and natural free men, as the Older Tarl had insisted, those girls were natural slaves. It was impossible to conceive of them as other than they had been, but somewhere they, too, must be awakening painfully, struggling to their feet, needing to clean themselves. One in particular I remembered, young, her body like a cheetah, her black hair wild on her brown shoulders, the bangles on her ankles, their sound in the curtained alcove. I found the thought crossing my mind that I would like to have owned that one for more than the hour I had paid for. I shook the thought from my aching head, made an unsuccessful effort to muster a decent sense of shame, failed, and was belting my tunic when the Older Tarl entered the room. [Chapter 4]


See, there is absolutely nothing in all the subsequent scenes of Tarl getting all choked up in tearful embraces with other half-naked leather-clad warrior dudes, even ones who were just recently trying to kill him in horrifying ways, because they're just so manly and magnificent and heroic, dammit.


I mounted my tarn, that fierce, black magnificent bird. My shield and spear were secured by saddle straps; my sword was slung over my shoulder. On each side of the saddle hung a missile weapon, a crossbow with a quiver of a dozen quarrels, or bolts, on the left, a longbow with a quiver of thirty arrows on the right. The saddle pack contained the light gear carried by raiding tarnsmen— in particular, rations, a compass, maps, binding fiber, and extra bowstrings. Bound in the saddle in front of me, drugged, her head completely covered with a slave hood buckled under her chin, was a girl. It was Sana, the Tower Slave whom I had seen on my first day in Gor.

I waved a farewell to the Older Tarl and to my father, drew back on the one-strap, and was off, leaving the tower and their tiny figures behind me. I leveled the tarn and drew on the six-strap, setting my course for Ar. As I passed the cylinder in which Torm kept his scrolls, I was happy to catch a glimpse of the little scribe standing at his rough-hewn window. I now realize he might have been waiting there for hours. He lifted his blue-clad arm in a gesture of farewell— rather sadly, I thought. I waved back at him and then turned my eyes away from Ko-ro-ba and toward the hills beyond. I felt little of the exhilaration I had felt in my first soaring venture on the back of the tarn. I was troubled and angry, dismayed at the ugly details of the project before me. I thought of the innocent girl bound senseless before me.

How surprised I had been when she had appeared in the small room outside the Chamber of the Council, after my father! She had knelt at his feet in the position of the Tower Slave as he had explained to me the plan of the Council.

[...]The girl on the saddle before me stirred, the effect of the drug wearing off. She moaned softly and leaned back against me. As soon as we had taken flight, I had unfastened the restraining straps on her legs and wrists, leaving only the broad belt which lashed her securely to the back of the tarn. I would not permit the plan of the Council to be followed completely, not in her case, even though she had agreed to play her part in the plan, knowing it meant her life. I knew little more about her than her name, Sana, and the fact that she was a slave from the City of Thentis.

The Older Tarl had told me that Thentis is a city famed for its tarn flocks and remote in the mountains from which the city takes its name. Raiders from Ar had struck at the tarn flocks and the outlying cylinders of Thentis, and the girl had been captured. She had been sold in Ar on the Day of the Love Feast and had been purchased by an agent of my father. He, in accordance with the plan of the Council, had need of a girl who would be willing to give her life to be avenged on the men of Ar.

I could not help feeling sorry for her, even in the stern world of Gor. She had been through too much and was clearly not of the stock of the tavern girls; slavery would not have been a good life for her, as it might have been for them. I felt that, somehow, in spite of her collar, she was free. I had felt this even when my father had commanded her to rise and submit to me, accepting me as her new master. She had risen and walked across the room, her feet bare on the stone floor, and dropped to her knees before me, lowering her head and lifting and extending her hands to me, the wrists crossed. The ritual significance of the gesture of submission was not lost on me; her wrists were offered to me, as if for binding. Her part in the plan was simple, though ultimately fatal.

[...]Lastly, as the culmination of Ar's Planting Feast, and of the greatest importance to the plan of the Council of Ko-ro-ba, a member of the Ubar's family goes to the roof at night, under the three full moons with which the feast is correlated, and casts grain upon the stone and drops of a red, winelike drink made from the fruit of the Ka-la-na tree. The member of the Ubar's family then prays to the Priest-Kings for an abundant harvest and returns to the interior of the cylinder, at which point the Guards of the Home Stone resume their vigil.

This year the honor of the grain sacrifice was to be accorded to the daughter of the Ubar. I knew nothing about her, except that her name was Talena, that she was rumored to be one of the beauties of Ar, and that I was supposed to kill her.

According to the plan of the Council of Ko-ro-ba, exactly at the time of the sacrifice, at the twentieth Gorean hour, or midnight, I was to drop to the roof of the highest cylinder in Ar, slay the daughter of the Ubar, and carry away her body and the Home Stone, discarding the former in the swamp country north of Ar and carrying the latter home to Ko-ro-ba. The girl, Sana, whom I carried on the saddle before me, would dress in the heavy robes and veils of the Ubar's daughter and return in her place to the interior of the cylinder. Presumably, it would be at least a matter of minutes before her identity was discovered, and, before that, she would take the poison provided by the Council.

Two girls were supposed to die that I might have time to escape with the Home Stone before the alarm could be given. In my heart I knew I would not carry out this plan.


Tarl is so chivalrous that he frees Sana and drops her off at her hometown, even turning down her offer of herself as his bride, free without any dowry - or even a quickie - before going off to handle the mystic rock raid on his manly lonesome. Don't credit this all to his residual Free Modern Englishman's upbringing, though.


What could I tell her? That I had come from another world, that I was determined that all the ways of Gor should not be mine, or that I had cared for her, somehow, so helpless in her condition— that she had moved me to regard her not as an instrumentality of mine or of the Council, but as a girl, young, rich with life, not to be sacrificed in the games of statecraft?"

"I have my reasons for freeing you," I said, "but I am not sure that you would understand them," and I added, under my breath, to myself, that I was not altogether sure I understood them myself.

...Sana, collar or no, had the infuriating, endearing vanity of the young and beautiful of her sex. [He doesn't believe her claim about her hundred-tarn bride-price and dismisses it as boasting]
On a tower of Thentis I left her, kissing her, removing from my neck her clinging hands. She was crying, with all the incomprehensible absurdity of the female kind.


We also never find any logical reason why Sana would be patriotic enough to be willing to die for the sake of her city - as a "free" woman of Gor, she would have been isolated from everyone, kept a virtual prisoner in her own house, and sold off in marriage by a distant father, for profit, down the road.


3. So where do Tarnsmen keep their change?

No, seriously. From Chapter 15:

I stopped a hurrying slave girl and inquired the way to the compound of Mintar, of the Merchant Caste, confident that he would have accompanied the horde back to the heartland of Ar. The girl was not pleased to be delayed on her errand, but a slave on Gor does not wisely ignore the address of a free man. She spit the coins she carried in her mouth into her hand, and told me what I wanted to know. Few Gorean garments are deformed by pockets. An exception is the working aprons of artisans.


And in the very next paragraph...

Soon, my heart beating quickly, my features concealed by the helmet I had taken from the warrior in the Voltai, I approached the compound of Mintar. At the entrance to the compound was a gigantic, temporary wire cage, a tarn cot. I tossed a silver tarn disk to the tarn keeper and ordered him to care for the bird, to groom and feed it and see that it was ready on an instant's notice. His grumbling was silenced by an additional tarn disk.


So where was he keeping his disks? Warriors don't have pockets, no mention of Gor having wallets or pouches, it doesn't say he took them out of his mouth...so...???

Next: It gets worse - the Ubar's Daughter, or, how many horrible movie cliches of the Useless Treacherous Female can you pack into one short novel?


* Moreover, everything is subverted by the fact that Tarl is ever presented as the naive, ignorant, callow young man who needs to grow up and learn the ways of the world.

**The kindly Giant-Spider-Person in the swamp, though a deus ex, was the only bit of Tarnsman of Gor that I found admirable - and that totally undercut by the juxtaposed Princess Ta-Stupid-Ta-Live-a plot. But it was a nice subversion of genre cliche.
Tags: badfic, chauvinism, fandom, gor, machismo, misogyny, sexism, stupidity, worldbuilding
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