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
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!