This interview was originally conducted in 2009 and published in Volume 1, Issue 2 of Polygraff magazine, in January 2010. It is published by Canadian publishers Polymancer Studios Inc., and reproduced here, in full, with their kind permission.
The following Question Overview and the individual question headings were added specifically for this online reproduction of the interview. Due to the differences in medium, I also added some extra indentation.
Polygraff was yearly anthology of short stories in science fiction, fantasy, horror, pulp, cyberpunk, and other genres of speculative fiction. It has been available in print since 2009. In 2012, Polygraff completed its first volume of publication, consisting of 4 issues. Contents of issues of Polygraff include short stories, an editorial, publication reviews and interviews. Polygraff was published by Polymancer Studios, Inc., but is seems the company no longer exists, as their website is no longer available.
Few writers in science fiction and fantasy are more controversial than John Norman, the creator of the Gor series of novels (www.worldofgor.com). Normans' works not only feature sexual themes, but they present worlds in which there is an exclusive male dominance. And it is most likely because of this that his works were so controversial when they came out in the realm of speculative fiction, and in spite of the great popularity of his work. The greater science fiction community's seeming unwillingness to recognize John Norman's popularity and influence says a lot about the cognoscenti of the genre, and perhaps more than a little about the state of contemporary Western culture in general.
The staff of Polygraff magazine enjoyed a unique opportunity to interview John Norman. We discussed his work, his philosophy (of which he is an honest to goodness professor), and many other fascinating subjects that were every bit as stimulating as a Gor novel itself. We present that interview here for you in its entirety. We do hope you enjoy it.
(Note: All text that follows this paragraph that is preceded by Polygraff: is a question asked by one of our staff. All text preceded by John Norman: is one of the many great answers given. All responses are unaltered and are presented as given to us. They are the words of John Norman himself.)
John Norman: Before proceeding, I think a general remark, or two would be appropriate, in order to assist the reader, unwary or bemused, unsuspecting or innocent, to interpret what is likely to appear a most disconcerting, unsatisfying set of remarks.
1. Words are not things. They are counters, valuable, but clumsy and crude. Once we get beyond counting potatoes and giving street directions, their limitations become apparent. At worst, they cannot help but lie; at best, they serve as evidence of what can never be seen.
2. We are all strangers to ourselves. And how can one who is a stranger to himself, as we all are, know another, who does not even know himself? You will never know me, and I will never know you. I can love you, for yourself, or for the common doom we face, but I cannot know you. But I know that you are there, and that is precious. I commonly decline interviews, not so much because they may be altered to distort my views and misrepresent my convictions, doctored to produce a political falsification, an attack, or because of a zeal for privacy, uncharacteristic in a writer, as because it is hard to tell the truth, as so much of it is subtle and inexpressible, and so much is unknown. Can I count on you to construct a reality, from a fragment or a scrap, when I am not sure I could do that myself? Half a truth, of necessity, is half a lie. From a bone, which might not be the bone of the actual beast, one builds a fantasy. One is reluctant to tell less than the whole truth, and understands that the whole truth cannot be told, if only because it is unknown. The safest thing is to turn away, and regard the night, and stars.
3. Reality, with its connections, relations, and ramifications is inexhaustible. It has no substitutes. Accordingly, paraphrase is treachery, explanation betrayal.
4. As it is said in Chaos theory, the butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, and the weather is different in California. Small things, unaccountable, like the fusion of chemicals, producing a tiny, fragile, transitory, self-replicating carbon compound, eventually produce a planet's phylogenetic abundance, an awesome, invasive, global systematicity of living forms, from the bacterium to the pterodactyl, from massive trees to fields of grass, produces pharaohs and Caesars, Michelangelos and Shakespeares. Surely the narrowness, rigidity, and dogmatism of Martin Luther did not have in mind the birth of a thousand religions, the liberation of capitalism, the unleashing of technological and economic progress, the rise of fierce, competitive nationalisms, the advent of a hundred putatively representative democracies.
In short, one has done something, as has everyone else, but what one has done may be unknown. It is left to the future and its history.
One does the best one can, honestly, authentically, hopefully informedly, and, then, one hopes for the best.
With these annoying remarks in mind, let us address ourselves, however inadequately, to some possible questions.
It will be noted that I have not, in all cases, responded with exactness, or at all, to all questions. Rather, I have used the questions as a stimulus, to say things which to me are important, and, I hope, to some of you, interesting.
Polygraff: In addition to being an author of speculative and historical fiction, you are also a philosopher and a professor of philosophy. Which is more important to your personal identity, author or philosopher? Are they things that you keep separate or does one aspect of your life influence the other?
John Norman: I have written all my life, even as a child. Accordingly, it must be important to me. I seem to have little control over the matter. To be sure, it seems sometimes that the writing uses me, as the pen by which it makes its marks, as the voice through which it chooses to speak. The writing, as to many authors, is very close to me. There is one song, and one singer; one cannot sing without the song, and the song does not exist without the singer.
All men are philosophers.
What is it to be a philosopher?
In the broadest sense, I would suppose it is to realize that in ourselves the universe has awakened, and learned to its surprise that it exists. "How came I thus, how here?" as Milton's Adam would have it. As it is said, why is there anything at all? Would not nothing be more likely, and by nothing we mean not even empty space. How amazing that the smallest grain of sand, a leaf, a seed, a branch, a movement of air, a drop of rain, should exist. How, in so ultimately mysterious a world, can man exist, might man exist, should man exist? The philosopher in man asks a thousand questions, and considers a hundred thousand answers. What is most important cannot be weighed, measured, stained, photographed, or clocked. Philosophical questions are inevitable, pervasive, tenacious, and recurrent, the most profound and important questions that can be asked, but, alas, they do not admit of quantification. To them the yard stick and scale, the Geiger counter and cyclotron, are inapplicable. They doubtless have answers, but answers which cannot be caught in the nets of the accountant or physicist. Their answers, if answers there are, leave no footprints in the sand, no streaks in the cloud chamber. Perhaps it would be wisest, in the way of the fox, to forget them, except that they do not permit themselves to be forgotten. They gnaw at the edges of thought, haunt one in the night.
My personal identity is not important to me. My work is. The philosopher and the writer are one person. Perhaps I would be a better philosopher if I were not a writer, and perhaps I would be a better writer if I were not a philosopher. But then, as a colleague once pointed out to me, I would not be me.
I am content to be me.
Who else should I be?
I hope that you are content to be you.
Polygraff: Your doctoral dissertation is about "ethical naturalism." What is that? What relation does it have to your novels, especially the relations between the characters in them?
John Norman: It has been a long time since my doctoral dissertation. I think the title was something like "In Defense of Ethical Naturalism." On the other hand, as I recall, it consisted of an examination of only one argument, "The Open-Question Argument," against Ethical Naturalism. Thus, instead of making out a case for Ethical Naturalism, I found myself trying to show that a single argument opposed to it was not coercive. This limited and reductive sort of exercise is not that uncommon in dissertations. One would like to save the world, and one ends up trying to show that all is not lost at a certain address in Philadelphia. The "Open-Question Argument," which has many variations, is, in effect, to very much simplify things, the claim that any characterization of, say, "good," in natural terms must be mistaken. For example, if one were inclined to define "good" as that of which Herman approves, one could meaningfully say something like, "Herman approves of x," say, torturing small animals, but it would remain an open question as to whether or not x is good. If the question is "open," then the definition would be inadequate. Analogously, it would not make sense to ask if a closed, plane figure with four equal sides was a square. That would not be an open question. It would be a "closed question," with an affirmative answer. To take a different example, let us say that x is a state of the world in which every human being is well-fed, well-sheltered, healthy, happy, loving, creative, energetic, compassionate, civil, satisfied, productive, and such, and then say, "Yes, but is such a state of the world good?" It seems to me that, if that is an open question, it would be one open only to fellows from a different planet. Surely there is some connection between good and bad, right and wrong, and the world. One of the problems with not accepting some form of ethical naturalism is that the alternatives seem undesirable, and not realistic, for example, dogmatic and metaphysical, or mystical and unverifiable, or that morality is a mistake, something meaningless, that it is nonsense, nonexistent, or such. To me, 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, to me, seems less than reassuring. Ethical naturalism, then, is the position that one can ground morality in the real world, that morality, ethics, and such, emerge rationally, and naturally, from reality. Where else would one be likely to find such things?
To be sure, these are complex issues, and not well addressed in this context.
Polygraff: Is modern society essentially built around dominance of some over others?
John Norman: Yes, modern society is essentially built around the dominance of some over others. That is pretty obvious. On the other hand, one could not have any society without an explicit or implicit dominance hierarchy. Society requires order, and order requires the capacity to enforce order, if only by frowns, and not by fines, imprisonment, executions, and such. As Olaf Stapledon pointed out, long ago, some gang is always going to run things. The question then is what gang, and how to get rid of gangs you don't like. As Aristotle noted, man is a political animal, and he who is not must be either a beast or god. And, alas for Aristotle, dominance hierarchies are found even amongst beasts and, if we follow mythology, amongst gods, as well.
Polygraff: What is it that makes science fiction different from other kinds of fiction? What is the role that science fiction plays in the great literary scheme of things, as opposed to other forms of literature? What role do you think it should play? Does the general public have an incomplete view of what sci fi is?
John Norman: There are many problems with "science fiction," in particular whether or not it ever existed, and, if so, is it likely to continue to exist. What traditionally was termed "science fiction," probably because of the once-favorable connotations of the word 'science', less favorable now, in view of such things as chemical warfare, bacteriological warfare, nuclear and hydrogen weapons, industrial blight, environmental degradation, global warming, the population explosion, the exhaustion of resources, astronomical distances, the possible inability to exceed the speed of light, the likely sterility of other planets in the solar system, and such, might, in my view, have been better termed "technology fiction" or "engineering fiction." One found little science in science fiction, but many machines. For example, one of the staples of "science fiction" would be the FTL drive, the faster-than-light drive, which, as far as we know, is not only unscientific, but impossible. In any event, what was called "science fiction," for better or for worse, was certainly once familiar, and once much around. My fear, at present, is that the classical "science fiction" may be disappearing. For example, genres can vanish. As has been pointed out, chivalrous romances are not much around now. Bards no longer sing the battles of the gods around the long fires, and so on. I find it hard to believe that "Speculative Fiction," in spite of its initials, and the enthusiasm of individuals who find it difficult to publish elsewhere, is going to save the day. On the other hand, I sometimes worry that literature itself, given electronic games, movies, television, the internet, cultural shifts, and such, may be on its way out, and, if that is the case, it would not be surprising if science fiction and its trendy offspring, speculative fiction, for all its pretension, snootiness, snob appeal, and such, would join the march to extinction. To be sure, I would personally find this a great tragedy. So, too, would anyone who likes to read.
Science fiction is a variety of what I like to call AR literature, or alternative-reality literature. All fiction, of course, is, in one sense, a portrayal of an alternative reality. If it is fiction, by definition, it didn't happen. On the other hand, "familiar-reality literature," for example, historical fiction, detective stories, westerns, sea stories, contemporary novels, modern romances, and such, usually presupposes a familiar world, either of the past or present. What usually makes science fiction different from other forms of alternative-reality literature, such as stories of the gods, talking-animal stories, horror stories, ghost stories, and such, is the projection of a plausible, but different, reality, one which is clearly connected with our world but is different, perhaps an extrapolation from our world, a notion of what our world might become. And for this, space ships, ray guns, encountering extraterrestrials, cloning, genetic engineering, robotics, artificial life, and such, is not necessary. For example, Ayn Rand's Anthem would count as science fiction on this approach. To be sure, there are few, if any, happy characterizations of necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to a genre. Wittgenstein's "Family Resemblance" approach is more sensible. One should be less concerned with defining, than with "looking and seeing," with surveying the field, with noting relations, with paying attention to what is there, and so on.
I am personally very fond of science fiction.
It, like philosophy, can shake up presuppositions, enlarge the consciousness, exercise the muscles of the mind, make one aware of change and difference, of alternative possibilities.
I suspect that it, like philosophy, in one form or another, will always be with us, or with some of us.
The aware, living mind, I trust, will keep it alive.
I think the general public does indeed have an incomplete view of what "sci fi" is. My own view is incomplete, and I have been around it for over seventy years. I would hate to think the public's view is more complete, or much more complete, than mine.
The term, 'sci fi' which occurs in your question, as you probably know, was coined by the great, wonderful, much-missed, Forrest J Ackerman, apparently based off the words 'hi fi', short, I gather, for "high fidelity." Several words bob up in the waters, 'science fiction', 'SF', 'Sci Fi', 'Speculative Fiction', and such. My favorite is 'science fiction'. It seems to me the term which has the history, the love, the fellowship, behind it.
Polygraff: Do you think the sci fi market has got too "safe" lately?
John Norman: The market is certainly not too "safe" for me, lately. I have been blacklisted, shut out, ostracized, denounced, exiled, banished, denied admission to conventions, and such. I gather that I am "politically incorrect," to quote the Marxist term. On the other hand, if 'safe' connotes uniformity, stagnation, mediocrity, an unwillingness to acknowledge and recognize difference, if not celebrate it, as I would, the institution of censorship, the imposition of a particular political viewpoint, commitment to an uncriticized orthodoxy, time-serving, literary prostitution, and such, then the market is certainly pretty safe, at least for some, for example, the toadies, bootlickers, conformers, flatterers, hypocrites, sycophants, amen-sayers, yes-men, and such. It is not the first time free thought and difference has been abhorred, or feared. That is fairly common in small, insecure, narrow, politically incestuous, self-reproducing establishments, publishing and otherwise. You are free, of course, to be just like them. But not all freedoms need be exploited. I am willing to pass that one up. The ideal today would be the fellow who seriously, and wholeheartedly, honestly, authentically, innocently and enthusiastically, subscribes to authoritarianism, collectivism, statism, egalitarianism, and redistributionism. This is his hour, his day. To be sure, this narrows the market, and considerably reduces sales, but such considerations are vulgar, materialistic, and merely economic. The point, after all, is not to make money, or encourage a diverse, free, controversial, pluralistic literature, but to preach to the converted, promote an agenda, and maintain the temperature-and-humidity-controlled environment essential to the welfare of delicate plants, which might die in the wild.
Polygraff: John Norman is your pen name. What made you choose it? Does it have a special significance to it?
John Norman: The use of a pen name seemed advisable, for two reasons. The first reason is that no one seems to be able to pronounce my name, in spite of the fact that it is only five letters long and contains two vowels. If my name were 'John Szwryptgflkz' you would not have asked the question. I suspect if my name were 'John Szwryptgflkz' more people could have pronounced it correctly, in spite of the fact that, as far as I know, it has no correct pronunciation. The second reason for using a pseudonym is to survive. When I began to write, I did not have tenure at my institution. Writing science fiction, if one is in an academic environment, comes in second only to working as a duck in a shooting gallery. 'John Norman' seems to me a nice pseudonym. In any event, most people can pronounce it.
Polygraff: There was a period in the 1980s when your books were taken out of book stores and libraries. How did this all start?
John Norman: You are referring to the phenomenon of the blacklisting. It began or, at least, became clear, when a particular editor and publisher, a complex, marvelous man, and one of the founders of modern science fiction, and a champion of richness and diversity in literature, lost control of his company. I think this may have been following a stroke. It was a long time ago. What was surprising to me, afterward, was that no other editor, despite millions of sales, picked up the series. I had not realized, until then, how small was the number of editors, some seven or eight, or such, who control what you may and may not read, and how doctrinally uniform they were.
Polygraff: Two films were made based on your books. As a writer, seeing one's work adapted to the silver-screen can be either a curse or a blessing. How did you feel about these? What was your reaction to the filmmakers' vision of your books?
John Norman: Two films were made, putatively based on my work. I am pleased, of course, that the films were made. That is very nice. On the other hand, after serious study, I have been unable to detect any relationship between my work and the films. A number of others have encountered similar difficulties. I did have a consultancy in connection with the films, and I wrote some sixty pages of single-spaced criticism of the scenarios, including numerous corrections, suggested changes, cries of alarm, and such, but the only change made was to change the spelling of 'Zeno' to 'Xeno'. That is something, of course. "Hollywood" is an interesting place. It, too, has its establishment, and its church, so to speak. A German friend wrote to me that when German authors have similar experiences they commit suicide. I do not know if this was a recommendation on his part or not. At any rate, as of yet, I have not taken him up on it. Too, was not Rebecca Ferrati worth the price of admission?
Polygraff: From 1967 to 1988 you steadily published several of the novels in the series but it was only in the years 2000s that the last books in the series appeared, notably concluding with "Prize of Gor" in 2008. Why was there a long period with no books? Are you planning a comeback?
John Norman: The lacuna in publication was, of course, due to the blacklisting. To what else could it be attributed? As I recall, I did write a number of short stories in this period, because they insisted on being written. On the other hand, because of the blacklisting, I never attempted to publish any of them. There would have been no point in trying to do so. The field was closed against me. I gather that keeping John Norman off the bookshelves, despite thousands of fans, millions of sales, and such, was a sort of public proclamation, a way of informing writers, in no uncertain terms, of who was in charge of contemporary science fiction, and what they had better write if they wanted to be published. I think this is very sad, of course, but that, obviously, is a consequence of my politics, which favor diversity and freedom, rather than uniformity and indoctrination. One might note, too, in passing, that the demographics of the publishing world have changed over the years, with the reduction of publishing outlets, and the frequent remoteness of ownership from the editorial trenches. These two developments have had an unfortunate effect on the market, first, it reduces the number of editors, and thus the likelihood of diversity, and, second, it tends to render editors exempt from inspection and supervision and immune from common market considerations. For example, an editor may, understandably, in such a situation, be more concerned with the security of his or her place in a small network of congenial individuals, who reinforce and support one another, than with enterprise, innovation, individuality, difference, openness, diversity, rebellion, defiance, risk, and such.
Your remark about "planning a comeback" seems to assume that such a thing is up to me, and is possible. I think you do not realize the political situation in American science fiction, for example, the power of the antimenites, and their male lackeys, their bunnies, so to speak. It is very important to them to turn science fiction, once the most liberal and diverse of literary genres, into a propaganda arm of a particular ideology. Not only is there to be only one restaurant in town, but only one item is to be on the menu. Not only is a political brothel to be run, but it is to be the only brothel in town. When one is marooned on a desert island with no boat, there is not much point to planning a "comeback." It is not impossible that someone might furnish a boat, and say "Come back, we missed you," but that does not seem to me likely. A careful watch is kept on the docks. Who would risk such an act of treachery? Walls are high, doors are closed.
Polygraff: One cannot help but notice that the movies, Gor and its sequel Outlaw of Gor, were released in 1988 and 1989, respectively. Were these films in any way related to this decade-long absence of Gor on our bookshelves?
John Norman: The long absence of my writing from public view is easily explained, in virtue of having been kept from public view. The movies, if anything, might have encouraged some individuals to look into my writings. Normally, having a movie or two out based on one's work should redound to an author's benefit, not detriment. One always welcomes new friends.
Polygraff: With many fictional works out now -- not just novels, but comics, movies, popular music, music videos, and video games too -- depicting graphic violence and sex, how do you feel about how those works seem to be socially acceptable -- or at least tolerated -- when your own work has been treated very critically?
John Norman: The Gorean books are adventure-fantasy novels, but they are also intellectual, philosophical, and psychological novels. Too, they have their aspect of sensuous romance. They are obviously written for adults, highly intelligent and highly sexed adults, of both sexes. The books do not seem controversial to me, as they are, while perhaps lavish, restrained, civilized, and scientifically informed. The criticism of my work, or much of it, seems to be political. Certainly there is much available which is ruder, more violent, more sexual, and such, than the Gorean works, some of which is acclaimed. Perhaps the problem is that there are ideas in the books, which are unfamiliar in the political precincts of contemporary orthodoxy. Too, I am an outsider, a stranger. I lack the pack odor. Too, I have refused to flatter, cultivate, and ingratiate myself with editors. I do not object to other writers playing this game, and I recognize its considerable value, but I am not psychologically arranged in such way as to find it possible. My social skills are primitive, and I intend to keep them that way. I suppose that this might be indifferently characterized as stupidity or integrity.
Some things are more important than publication.
Is that heresy?
Lastly, one might note that criticism is itself a genre of literature, which intends to be interesting, and that the critic has his own social standing and future to protect. So, criticism is not like the chemical analysis of a recipe. An objective analysis of a chocolate cake would be deadly. So the critic tries to tell us, as cleverly as possible, whether he likes chocolate cake or not. Frankly, I am not really much interested in whether he likes it or not. I am more interested in whether I like it or not. Secondly, the critic has his own position in a personality network, and he had better please that network, or he will be on the skids, halfway to Siberia. He will be successful only insofar as he tells his audience what they want to hear.
There are thousands of cultures and realities which men and women, throughout history, have taken seriously, and lived by.
One possible difficulty with the Gorean books is that they examine an alien culture from the inside, rather than preach at it from the outside.
Do you really want to be told what to think?
I will give you one last item to think about. Quite obviously the three paramount literary influences on the Gorean world are Homer, Freud, and Nietzsche.
I have never read a single critic who noticed this, or commented on it. Perhaps they have never heard of those fellows.
Some people make mountains. Other people urinate on them. Each person should do what he does best.
Polygraff: An entire subculture of "goreans" has grown out of fans of your works. How do you feel about them? Do your novels have a "message" that you would like to describe to those who are unfamiliar with the Gor series of books? Do you feel that there are those that profoundly misunderstand your work?
John Norman: I am something of an electronic troglodyte, and am still trying to master the intricacies of ballpoint pens. Accordingly, I know very little, if anything, about a Gorean subculture, or such. I do understand that there is considerable interest in the Gorean world, on the internet, and elsewhere. For example, I understand that when a particular Gorean site opened, it received several thousand "hits" in the first week or two. Something is clearly "out there," but I know very little about it. My primary concern, predictably, and I think appropriately, is with the Gorean world, the books, the writing, and such. Naturally, one is grateful for interest in one's work. And one hopes, of course, that this interest has led, or will lead, to reading the books.
I would like to save the world, of course, but I do not expect to be successful.
I do not see the Gorean books as having an explicit, or specific, message, which might be conveyed to someone, in so many words, more or less. Does nature have such a message, or biology, or history, or life? To be sure, one might learn much from nature, biology, history, and life.
Yes, it seems to me that some individuals may misunderstand my work. They seem mostly to be the political puritans, who, as the saying is, seem to be dreadfully afraid that someone, somewhere, somehow, may be happy. On the other hand, it seems pretty clear to me that many thousands of readers have a pretty good idea of what the Gorean books may be about, though, to be sure, they are not really about anything in particular, unless it be themselves. What is a flower about, a raccoon, a mountain? Let them love nature, love men, love women, love life.
Polygraff: The "Ethnography of Gor" is richly detailed - how did you go about designing this world and what would you say were your primary inspirations for it?
John Norman: The Counter-Earth, or Antichthon, is from Greek cosmology. Speculation on such a world, you see, is ancient. One of the premises of the Gorean series is that a race of aliens, whom we might speak of as the Priest-Kings, have a technology at their disposal compared to which ours would be something like that in the Bronze Age. For example, this technology, largely in virtue of the mastery of gravity, allows them to move their world from star to star, as the star's nuclear fuel might be exhausted, and also allows them to conceal its presence in a given solar system, if they wish. A concomitant property would be its capacity, aside from gravitational concealment, to alter its orbit in such a way as to remain optically undetectable, as well, concealing itself behind the blaze of the common star, Sol, and Tor-tu-Gor, Light Upon-The-Home Stone. These two capacities permit the Priest-Kings to conceal their habitat not only from primitives, such as the races of Earth, but, more importantly, from possible beings as powerful, or more powerful, than themselves. At one time, at least, Priest-Kings were scientifically curious, if not aesthetically motivated, and, in Voyages of Acquisition, over centuries, stocked their world with a number of life forms, from various worlds, for example, sleen, verr, tarns, kaiila, human beings, and such. The Priest-Kings, whose habitat is subterranean, allow these life forms the surface of their world, rather as on a roof, and interfere very little with them, except for the imposition of technology and weapon laws, designed, we may suppose, to protect the environment, minimize the danger to themselves, and such. For example, we would not arm chimpanzees with machine guns. As the Voyages of Acquisition have taken place over centuries, it is natural that a variety of different cultures, and such, would be found on Gor. Along these lines, many Earth words, for example, occur in Gorean. The Gorean language itself is spoken generally on the planet, and this commonality is encouraged by the Priest-Kings, presumably that they may be able to communicate more conveniently, should the need arise, with Gorean humans. On Continental Gor and the nearer islands, Gorean is standardized, substantially, by scribal conferences at the four great Fairs of the Sardar, that range of Mountains beneath which the Priest-Kings maintain their personal habitat.
There is a great deal more which might be said here, but there is not so much space left, and so we judiciously refer the interested reader to the books themselves.
Polygraff: What would you consider are the major themes or the ones that you thought were the most interesting?
John Norman: I do not think it would be wise to attempt to answer this question. Sorry. One supposes, of course, that different people will see different things, find one thing or another thing of interest, and such.
Polygraff: The main character, Tarl Cabot, is a professor thrown into the world of Gor. What was your inspiration for this character? Why did you feel it was important to have him be a British professor as opposed to the usual barbarian figure?
John Norman: Tarl Cabot was not really a professor. He was hired, presumably as an instructor, to teach British history at a small American college in the northeast. He himself notes he was ill-prepared to do this, and, presumably, took on the job primarily as an adventure, or an opportunity to see the "Colonies." As I am a teacher, and my first full-time teaching position was at such a college, it was natural for me to start Cabot off in a milieu I found familiar. Also, of course, it allowed me to make an observation or two on the academic world. For example, the college was probably more interested in having a British accent on campus, a bit of faculty exotica, than in finding a more-accomplished scholar for the position. Snob appeal is not unknown in American academia, and, I suppose, it is not unique to American academia. One would be surprised, if it were.
As you probably know, except perhaps for the date, John Cabot, an Italian captain, the name shortened from 'Caboto', sailed for the English to the new world, discovering the northeastern coast of North America in 1497. In a sense, then, there is a romantic resonance for the name, and our Cabot manages to reach the Counter-Earth, Gor. Beyond that, as I am an academic, though not a historian, I thought it nice to have Cabot be a teacher. Why not? I am a teacher, so why should he not be a teacher? Very nice. Also, of course, as Cabot is a teacher, educated, to a certain degree, and such, it seems he would make a good observer of Gorean ways, might be interested in recording his travels, and such. If Marco Polo had been a "barbarian," we might not have had an account of his doings in far-off Cathay. Beyond this, Englishmen seem to make good heroes, acceptable heroes, familiar heroes, redoubtable heroes, so it seemed nice to make Cabot English. It seemed right. Probably this is a cultural thing. I do not think it would have been the same if he were from Moldavia or Guatemala./h3n q16 "What about Gor's alien races?"
Polygraff: There are several alien races in the books. How easy (or hard) was it to convey different intelligences and viewpoints, along with customs and the relationships between these? Did you, as a writer, find the process easy or difficult?
John Norman: One of the pleasures of writing science fiction is the development of, and characterization of, alien life forms. To me, and I suppose to other science-fiction writers, this is very easy. What do they look like, what do they do, how do they live, what do they eat, how do they communicate, how do they reproduce themselves, what is their world view, what is their history, what is their science, how do they enjoy themselves, if they do, and so on. One wishes them to be familiar enough to be comprehensible to the reader, and different enough to be clearly alien, and other than human. One would not wish, for example, the alien to turn out to be another human being, except in costume.
Polygraff: You are currently writing a 28th book, reportedly entitled "Kur of Gor". What can you tell us about this and is it taking place in one of the "Steel Worlds" as commonly believed?
John Norman: The novel, Kur of Gor, begins on the "Prison Moon," an artificial satellite of Gor, and one of its three Moons, but its action takes place primarily on one of the several "Steel Worlds" of the Kurii, an aggressive alien life form which, long ago, destroyed its own home world, and is now zealous to obtain another. The "Steel Worlds," of which there are several, are concealed within the asteroid belt. The Kurii would like to invade and conquer Gor, a natural, viable, beautiful, unspoiled world, but they have, as yet, been unable to do so, because of the power of the Priest-Kings, concerned, naturally, to protect their own interests, and their own habitat. Whereas Earth, with its pollutions, environmental ravages, ecological degradations, and such, is less desirable to the Kurii as a world, it would be preferable to the artificial habitats they now occupy. On the other hand, the Priest-Kings extend their defensive aegis to cover the Earth, as well. They protect us from the Kurii, against whose advanced technology we would be relatively helpless. The motivation for this policy on the part of the Priest-Kings is presumably one of self-interest, perhaps a desire to deny the Kurii a planet's resources, by means of which Gor itself might be eventually imperiled. From the human point of view, one might wonder why the Priest-Kings do not mount an offensive war, pursue the Kurii to their lairs and destroy them there. They do not, however, do so. Aside from the considerable risks which would be involved, that is not the way of Priest-Kings, which seems to be a tolerant, remote, relatively complacent, content-in-its-own-security-and-power, live-and-let-live species. The extermination of life forms does not appeal to them. They leave that to those of Earth. Also, it seems that they regard the Kurii, as they do humans, as a complex, peculiar, interesting life form. An analogy might be wolves and cities. One does not wish to let wolves prowl amongst one's children, but, on the other hand, one has no objection to letting them rove about in the wilderness, thriving in their own habitat. Indeed, one might even approve of that. This attitude on the part of the Priest-Kings, of course, may be somewhat naive. It seems clear that they seriously underestimate the tenacity, cunning, resolution, power, and terribleness of a life form very different from themselves, one they do not really understand, and one very dangerous, both to itself, to them, and to others. Interestingly, Priest-Kings seem to view Kurii and humans as rather similar in many respects.
Polygraff: When you published "Tarnsman of Gor" in 1967, did you think that you would, nearly 42 years later, publish a 28th book in the series?
John Norman: The Gorean series, to the best of my knowledge, is the longest, most complex, most carefully worked out single-world series in the history of science fiction.
Naturally, back in 1966, or so, I did not realize that this might happen. I am very grateful to my many readers who have, as I, cared for, and loved, the Gorean world, and, as I, have shared its excitement and beauty.
Polygraff: Your books are sometimes compared to other works like Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter Warlord of Mars novels. What is your take on all of this?
John Norman: I think Edgar Rice Burroughs is a wonderful writer, and certainly the possessor of one of the great imaginations of all time. His position in the history of science fiction is unique, secure, and well-deserved. That being the case, it is obviously flattering, if dubious, to have my work compared to his, or his to mine. Certainly we both have in common a love for adventure fantasy, a love for human beings, and a willingness to feel deeply, and celebrate simple, important things, such as courage, wonder, and determination. The world is often disappointing, hostile, dark, mean, shallow, pointless, and boring, and into such a world fantasy sometimes bears its redemptive, joyful torch, lighting a way to better things and deeper understandings. It can remind us of what we are, and can become, and that there exist such things as meaning and nobility. It is not apart from the real world, removed from it, but, like the imagination itself, a part of the real world. It makes the world better. Edgar Rice Burroughs bore that torch well. I, and millions of others, thank him, and celebrate him.
This much said, I think that my work and that of the great Mr. Burroughs, whom I greatly esteem, are quite different. The easiest way to see the difference is to read both.
Polygraff: Edgar Rice Burroughs might have written several novels but none of his series reached as many books as the Gor series. How do you feel about breaking that record?
John Norman: I do not think of this sort of thing in terms of records. If I have written a series with more books in it than any particular series written by Mr. Burroughs, we should remember that he has written far more series than I have.
Polygraff: In 2007, Gor celebrated its 40th anniversary. How did this make you feel?
John Norman: I didn't notice. But it is nice, now that you have pointed it out.
Polygraff: How did you go about publishing the first book? Any interesting anecdotes about your relationship with the publisher and the publishing process. Our readers would like to know how "Gor was born", the early days when you started on your journey to create this world and these adventures.
John Norman: I simply wrote a book, sent it into a publisher, without an agent, and had it accepted for publication. At the time, I did not realize how unusual this was, and how lucky I was. As I recall, the editor was from England, was new at her job, and had not yet been indoctrinated by the science-fiction establishment as to whom she was supposed to publish, namely, one of the gang. The gang was caught off guard. It had not had time to make it clear to the editor what, and who, should be published. So, as luck would have it, the editor, for lack of knowing any better, happily relied on her own judgment and went for what seemed to her good, really good, rather than typical, routine, safe, approved, recommended, prescribed, and such. That was my lucky break. Today, as I understand it, that company will not even consider a book unless the author has already published at least one book, which makes it difficult for authors who have not yet published one book. There are also presses today which will not accept submissions except from professional agents, which makes it difficult for authors who do not have a professional agent. I began to publish in a very different world from that which now exists, a larger, freer, more diverse, more adventurous world than now exists. At one time, science fiction flew a thousand flags. Today there is one, and it is commonly concealed. It is very real, but it is commonly hidden. Pluralism was paramount. Difference was celebrated. Controversy was rampant, rather than suppressed. I was fortunate to have shown up when I did. At that time, the gate was open. Indeed, at that time there was not even a fence.
Polygraff: Back when "Tamsman of Gor" was first published in 1966, what was the publishing world like for speculative authors? What did someone need to do in order to get published? How is it different today? Have things changed for the better? What hasn't changed? What advice would you give to an aspiring author today, based on your own experience?
John Norman: I think the answer to this question, or part of the answer, is implicit in my response to your last question, preceding. Accordingly, instead of trying to respond seriatim, to this question I will content myself with a remark or two.
A. I have been told, as I recall, that at one time, there were something like seventy to seventy-five presses in New York City alone which were possible outlets for science fiction in America. Today, as I understand it, there are very few.
B. Given shifts in publication, mergers, and such, it seems that today the ownership of a press is likely to be far removed from the press itself, perhaps even stationed abroad, and the press is likely to be only one of several properties owned by such an entity, and would presumably be, given typically modest sales and such, a relatively unimportant property of such an entity. A consequence of this arrangement is that an editorial staff, uninspected and unsupervised, remote from accountability, is likely to be insulated from market forces, provided, of course, it continues to manage its expected, typically modest sales. This tends to turn a theoretically professional press into something more akin to a vanity press, a hobby press, a patronage press, or such, a press more concerned with the support of a congenial in-group and the propagation of a particular ideology than a market-driven, market-responsive business. One does not expect editors to be businessmen, but without businessmen in the mix, there is no reason why readers should be taken seriously. Why give them what they want, when you can give them what they should want. Politically, this view is not without precedent.
C. From my point of view, things have not changed for the better, but this is a personal view. If one likes monothink, narrowness, repetition, stagnation, conformity, puerility, and such, then things are doubtless much better than they once were. Now, for example, it is much clearer what should be written, and how it should be written. For individuals who wish to know what to write, and how to write it, this is comforting and valuable.
D. It seems to me that almost everything has changed. It seems that only broad or generic things have not changed, for example, that there are forms of publication, that some folks are in charge of them, and so on, and that, on the human side, typical human constants persist, for example, arrogance, snobbery, narrow-mindedness, censorship, flattery, vanity, and the petty abuse of power. One cannot even say that science fiction has not changed, considering the invasion of English majors, magic rings, magic wands, wizards, witches, unicorns, and dragons. Perhaps it has not changed, so much as that it has disappeared, or been replaced. One misses it.
E. There are two sorts of advice, each pertinent to a different sort of success, which I might call to the attention of the aspiring writer:
Success One: Commercial success in the contemporary science-fiction market.
1. Read product, so you will know what is being bought.
2. Desperately try to write what is being bought.
3. Try harder to write what is being bought.
4. Go to conventions, participate in conventions, ask questions, wriggle yourself into conversations, get yourself known, try to meet editors, writers, flatter editors, writers, pretend to stand in awe of them. They are manipulable, and despicably human, as we all are. If you lay it on thick enough, they will probably believe you.
5. If the editor is male, and you are female, particularly young female, go to work on him.
6. If the editor is female, and you are male, young male is best, go to work on her.
7. Brown-nose, brown-nose, brown-nose.
Success Two: Being a good writer.
1. Listen to yourself, and take yourself seriously. You do not have to like yourself; just pay attention to yourself.
2. Write to please yourself, not someone else.
3. Try honestly, sincerely, to be a great writer.
4. Expect to fail, but don't count on it.
Polygraff: And finally, would you like to say anything else to our readers?
John Norman: I think that most of what I might like to say to my readers, my friends, is said in the books.