Tarnsman of Gor by John Norman (Published 1966)
I dislike forming opinions about things based solely on second- and third-hand information. Far better, to my mind, to actually sit down and engage with a thing directly; that's a large part of the difference between an opinion and an informed opinion.
It was with that thought in mind that I ordered an old copy of Tarnsman of Gor off of Amazon. I'd heard about Gor (and things "Gorean") for years, but this was the first time I'd gone straight to the source. (As a quick aside, it seems silly to warn about spoilers for a book that's almost fifty years old, but I'll do so anyway for those who care: spoilers ahead.)
For those who don't know, a quick primer: the Gor books tell the tale of a sister planet to Earth, in the same orbital plane as us but on the opposite side of the Sun, where the mysterious "Priest-Kings" have been clandestinely bringing humans to live for millenia. The most popular (or perhaps infamous) aspect of Gor, however, is its slave culture, particularly where female pleasure slaves are concerned.
My expectations for the book were mixed. I knew that the series as a whole was famous for its focus on female sex slaves; but I'd also heard that the first half-dozen or so books were much more muted in that regard, serving instead as thin veneers for the author's own thoughts on society.
What I found was that neither of those descriptions were entirely true. Rather, Tarnsman of Gor is a rather standard sword-and-planet adventure. It proceeds to tell the (slightly convoluted, but fairly standard) tale of an Earthman named Tarl Cabot, brought from Earth to Gor, where he has an adventure that sees him helping to destabilize the existing power structure among Gor's city-states, while at the same time meeting and falling in love with a beautiful woman.
What struck me most about the writing (which is entirely in the first person) was the sense of distance that the author's tone conveys. Tarl tends to describe things in a very straightforward, almost clinical manner. Even when overcome with emotion, he rarely focuses on how he's feeling, instead talking about what it drives him to do.
I'm uncertain if this tonal presentation is purposeful on the author's part. While it's easy to simply chalk this up to John Norman not being a very good writer, I hesitate to do so for two reasons: the first being that narrator, Tarl Cabot, is British born and raised. While he expresses some disdain for his homeland in the beginning of the book, it's amusing to think that his detached tone is due to his having internalized the whole "stiff upper lip" mantra.
More germane, however, is the explanation given in the epilogue. While several first-person perspective novels never bother to explain why they're being presented that way, Tarnsman of Gor explicitly states that Tarl's writing all this down six years after the fact - presumably the distance he feels from those events is affecting how he writes about them.
What's not notable - at least not as much as I think new readers (who've heard of the series) might expect - is the focus on female slaves.
Simply put, slave-girls aren't important to the overall plot of the book. Indeed, Tarl notes his disgust at how slavery is an integral part of the cultures of Gor, to the point of silently swearing to himself that he'll bring the entire institution of slavery down. While he doesn't have a chance to act on this during events of the story, he does free the first slave-girl he's given (who has been instructed to perform a suicide mission in order to help him achieve his own task, which horrifies Tarl).
The area of the book where slavery and sexual politics are highlighted the most are with regard to its main female character, Talena. The daughter of the ruler of the city-state of Ar, Talena is abducted by Tarl when she interferes with his mission to steal the "home stone" (essentially the flag) of Ar.
From the first, she seems to be a completely formulaic character. She starts off as a b~+&@y, pampered princess, who grows closer to Tarl as they travel together, until she inevitably falls for him and, upon doing so, begs for him to formally enslave her. Rather ironically, she's kidnapped before he can, and by the time he rescues her at the end of the book, he ends up taking her to be his "free companion" - that is, his spouse - instead.
I said "seems to be" in the above paragraph because there's a more subtle aspect to Talena's character - and here, I do think that this was done purposefully on John Norman's part: her antagonism towards Tarl is in direct proportion to the degree that he breaks from the cultural expectations she has for him. Literally, the more he acts the way she expects a "tarnsman" (a warrior-raider that rides a giant, ill-tempered tarn bird) to act, the more warmly she treats him.
Specifically, she explains her original antagonism as being not due to his having stolen Ar's home stone (which destabilizes the city and drives her father from power), but because he didn't do what tarnsmen traditionally do when they kidnap a noblewoman from another city-state: strip her naked right there on the back of their bird and toss her clothes to the city streets below (in a gesture of "this is what I do to one of the revered daughters of your city!"). Tarl had no idea that was the custom, but by failing to perform it, Talena interpreted it as the act of a coward - someone with a "get in, do the job, and get out" mentality, rather than showcasing the boldness that tarn-riders are supposed to exhibit.
Likewise, as they journey together, they both take on disguises to protect themselves from other raiders. Since this necessitates that Talena appear to be a slave-girl, Tarl is forced to treat her like one. It's no coincidence that this is the period when she starts to become amorous towards him, since now they're acting a role that's in accordance with her understanding of how things should be progressing. He's finally, in other words, acting like a man she can respect, despite (or perhaps because of) his being her enemy.
While my suspicion is that later books eschew this level of subtlety in favor of the more blase "she's happier because she's a slave now; that's how all women are" idea, taken unto itself Tarnsman of Gor's main idea seems to be less about the peculiarities of a slave-owning culture, than it is about the idea of a stranger trying to navigate a foreign culture's values. Much of the book is about Tarl either stumbling through Gorean customs that he is (mostly) unaware of, or attempting to turn those customs to his advantage.
Ultimately, Tarnsman of Gor is a fairly straightforward sword-and-planet adventure, with little to distinguish it from its better-known fellows in the genre (at least unto itself). It's largely unconcerned with slavery, except as a vehicle for pushing the idea of "when in Rome" as well as the romance between Tarl and Talena. Had the series not eventually decided to make that background element into the primary focus of the series, I'm not sure how much Gor would even be remembered today (for better or worse). As it is, I can recommend Tarnsman of Gor only to those who would be interested in a fairly average sword-and-planet tale, or are otherwise curious about the beginnings of this infamous series.