The re­mark­able story of a phe­nom­e­nally pop­u­lar sci-fi char­ac­ter you’ve never heard of.

Over half a cen­tury of ad­ven­tures, nearly 3,000 books... David Bar­nett shares the story of sci­ence fic­tion’s un­sung hero

SFX - - Contents -

A new book has been re­leased ev­ery week since au­tumn 1961

hat are the long­est run­ning sci­ence fic­tion fran­chises? Doc­tor Who, cer­tainly, even given its 16-year hia­tus from TV screens. Star Trek, of course, with its many spin-offs since the orig­i­nal se­ries be­gan in 1966. Star Wars, ob­vi­ously.

But none of them can hold a phaser to Perry Rhodan. If you’re al­ready howl­ing “Whoooo?” into the void, you might be sur­prised to find you’re in a mi­nor­ity, glob­ally speak­ing. The Perry Rhodan se­ries has sold an eye-wa­ter­ing one bil­lion copies in the 55 years since it be­gan.

A new book has been re­leased since the very first one in the au­tumn of 1961 ev­ery week. Yes, you read that right. Ev­ery. Sin­gle. Week. That means a Perry Rhodan li­brary in your home would have to ac­com­mo­date some­where in the re­gion of 2,800 vol­umes. And you thought you had trou­ble finding shelf-space for Robert Jor­dan’s Wheel Of Time.

To put that into even sharper con­text, if you started read­ing the se­ries right now and man­aged a book a day (which wouldn’t be dif­fi­cult, as they av­er­age 25-30,000 words – they’re novel­las, re­ally) it would take seven years and eight months to read the oeu­vre. By which time, of course, they’d have re­leased an­other 400 or so books.

All the way back in the first book, Perry Rhodan was an astro­naut, on board the space­ship Star­dust bound for the Moon – this was the early ’60s, re­mem­ber, when the space race was the way for the US and the Soviet Union to flex their mus­cles at each other with­out ac­tu­ally hav­ing to chuck bombs around. The Moon was the ul­ti­mate prize and in the first novella, En­ter­prise Star­dust, it was the Yanks what won it, eight years be­fore they even­tu­ally did for real – though the ac­tion takes place in the then-fu­tur­is­tic world of 1971. When Perry and his pals land on Luna, they don’t just play golf, plant a flag and mum­ble some words for pos­ter­ity. They hap­pen to find a bloody big alien space­ship, ma­rooned on the Moon. It be­longs to the Arkonides, who con­sider hu­man­ity noth­ing more than war­mon­ger­ing sav­ages. To cut an, um, fairly short story even shorter, Perry wins over the Arkonides, uses their pres­ence and tech­nol­ogy to unite an Earth on the brink of war, and opens up the doors for hu­man­ity’s en­try into a galac­tic won­der­land of good old­fash­ioned rocket ship ad­ven­ture. And thus be­gins the saga that has now be­come the in­ter­sec­tion where space opera and soap opera meet, the long­est-run­ning con­tin­u­ous sci­ence fic­tion book se­ries in his­tory. t’s al­most as im­pos­si­ble to sum­marise the events of nearly 3,000 books as it would be to boil down the var­i­ous plots of Corona­tion Street’s his­tory into one piece, but suf­fice to say it’s an epic like never be­fore with a core cast of Rhodan, his friend (and some­times ri­val) Bully, alien mas­cot Pucky, bof­fin Homer G Adams, and dis­placed aliens Thora and Krest. De­spite US Space Force Ma­jor Perry Rhodan be­ing the ar­che­typal square-jawed, corn-fed all-Amer­i­can hero, the se­ries was con­ceived, is pub­lished and has its big­gest fan-base in Ger­many… which is why you might not have heard of it. KH Scheer and Wal­ter Ern­st­ing (who wrote as Clark Dal­ton) were two of Ger­many’s most pop­u­lar sci­ence fic­tion au­thors. In late 1960, they ar­ranged a meet­ing

to dis­cuss a po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tion. Sput­nik had been in or­bit for four years; all eyes were on space and who was go­ing to con­trol it.

Scheer and Dal­ton had a more ide­al­is­tic vi­sion. The idea they came up with was rooted in Cold War para­noia, of course, but that would be the jump­ing off point for a gal­axy-span­ning fu­ture utopia. War on Earth would end, mankind would unite as a sin­gle world-en­tity, Terra, and our des­tiny would be in the stars.

A year later the first Perry Rhodan ad­ven­ture hit the news­stands in Ger­many in the pop­u­lar Heftro­man (pulp book­let) for­mat. And a new one came out ev­ery week af­ter that, with a huge ros­ter of writ­ers con­tribut­ing to the ex­pand­ing uni­verse.

Ac­cord­ing to Ka­trin Weil of Perry Rhodan pub­lish­ers Pa­bel Moewig Ver­lag, the con­tin­ued suc­cess of the se­ries is down to what she calls the “corner­stones of se­ri­al­i­sa­tion and fa­mil­iar­ity”.

She says, “Just like a tele­vi­sion soap opera, it stirs up the cu­rios­ity of the reader who wants to know what hap­pens next.”

There have been spo­radic English-lan­guage publi­ca­tions of Rhodan, no­tably the run of pa­per­backs by Fu­tura in the 1970s, but the se­ries has very much been un­der the radar of most SF fans in the UK. How­ever that isn’t the case in Ger­many and be­yond. Gerold Schelm is from the Perry Rhodan On­line Fan Club, in Ger­many, which at­tracts schol­arly es­says from fans – thou­sands of them.

“More than 35,000 ar­ti­cles have been pro­duced by the fans so far, cov­er­ing a huge part of what we call the Per­ryver­sum,” says Gerold. The fan­site also hosts a wiki – Per­rype­dia, ob­vi­ously – that has be­come the go-to re­source for a fic­tional uni­verse that has be­come mas­sive. Schelm says, “It has be­come so pop­u­lar since it was es­tab­lished in 2004, that nowa­days even the au­thors of the se­ries use it as ref­er­ence to get in­for­ma­tion about cer­tain top­ics that they need to know to write new sto­ries.”

John O’Neill is one of the founders of the SF Site, one of the ear­li­est genre we­bzines, now editor at Black Gate mag­a­zine. He re­mem­bers Perry Rhodan fondly, be­ing in­tro­duced to the books in 1975 by a school friend. He says: “There’s def­i­nitely a strong el­e­ment of nos­tal­gia to Perry Rhodan, at least for me. Perry Rhodan is an un­abashed space opera, hugely am­bi­tious, with all of time and space (and mul­ti­ple dimensions) as its can­vas, and with 100-is­sue story arcs. This grew di­rectly out of the pulp roots of sci­ence fic­tion, which date back to the 1930s, the ‘Buck Rogers’ era of SF se­ri­als, and Perry Rhodan made a very con­scious ef­fort to ap­peal to that au­di­ence. And widely suc­ceeded, I think.”

The Rhodan books might be rooted in the shiny ’60s, but they con­tin­ued to be a roar­ing suc­cess through the ’70s and ’80s – which was when Ver­ena Them­sen, one of the cur­rent writ­ers, who lives near Hei­del­berg, first en­coun­tered them.

She says, “While the main set­ting of Perry Rhodan stays the same – there’s al­ways Perry Rhodan and his close friends – the sto­ries within this set­ting vary strongly over time, al­ways match­ing the tastes and in­ter­ests of the read­er­ship, be­cause they are also the tastes and in­ter­ests of the au­thors.

“In the ’70s clas­sic Western-like ad­ven­tures and spy sto­ries got fewer, and in­stead a cos­mic back­ground was de­vel­oped, with mighty en­ti­ties fight­ing or play­ing against each other to gain power.

“In the ’80s, this was taken even fur­ther, to fan­tas­tic land­scapes and com­plex philoso­phies about the mean­ing of

life. In the ’90s, things took up a bit more pace again, ac­tion got more im­por­tant, just like in the movies with all their stun­ning new com­puter ef­fects. Read Perry Rhodan, and you know what moved the peo­ple at that time.”

Perry Rhodan is what you might call un­com­pli­cated SF. It was born in the years be­fore the New Wave pi­o­neered by Michael Moor­cock’s New Worlds mag­a­zine, which ush­ered in a more lit­er­ary, thought­ful school of writ­ing, and Perry Rhodan res­o­lutely ig­nored it.

If you’re the sort of reader – and let’s face it, there’s noth­ing wrong with this – who thinks a pic­ture of a rocket on the cover of a book means there should be a rocket in­side, then the Perry Rhodan se­ries is for you. It’s also for any­one who feels nos­tal­gic about the shiny fu­tures of­fered to us by Golden Age sci­ence fic­tion, who loves good, hon­est SF ad­ven­ture. But can they still ap­peal to a so­phis­ti­cated SF au­di­ence to­day?

John O’Neill says: “Perry Rhodan dares to imag­ine what mod­ern SF would be like if it hadn’t de­cided to set aside its favourite toys and try and look more grown-up in the ’50s.” “Sure they can still ap­peal!” Ver­ena Them­sen adds. “For one, the kind of sci­ence fic­tion we write – space opera – is mainly about cre­at­ing ‘Sense of Won­der’. This is a feel­ing that doesn’t have any­thing to do with which gen­er­a­tion you be­long to. If you en­counter some­thing that is at the same time un­ex­pected and beau­ti­ful, both young and old will stand and stare.”

Although his early ad­ven­tures are a part of SF his­tory, the Perry Rhodan jug­ger­naut shows no signs of slow­ing. The short nov­els are still shift­ing 3.2 mil­lion a year. The Perry Rhodan “reimag­ined” Neo se­ries, 400,000 copies. The col­lected edi­tions, 210,000. And that’s not count­ing the one mil­lion ebooks sold ev­ery year. You can track down some of the old English lan­guage edi­tions sec­ond hand, but with half a cen­tury of back-story to in­ves­ti­gate, if you get hooked, don’t say you weren’t warned…

The jug­ger­naut shows no sign of slow­ing: the short nov­els are still shift­ing 3.2 mil­lion a year

Hang on, th­ese space­ships… they look ex­actly like books!

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