You know The Shadow. You may know The Spider. You definitely know Conan. And after this year’s cinematic offering you also know Valerian, even if you’re not familiar with the original comics.
But are these really the most beloved SFF heroes in print? Really?
Yes, they are definitely at the top – and a convincing case can be made for Conan in particular as a global phenomenon with incredible staying power. But let me introduce you to another hero who is sadly little known in the English-speaking world: Perry Rhodan.
I stumbled on Perry Rhodan the summer we moved to a tiny town of under 500 people when I was in high school.
The nearest book store with anything like a SFF section was 100km away and the local shops’ spinners were loaded down with romance novels and basically nothing else. The library’s collection of SFF fare spanned a set of five spinners off in the back. I was frustrated at the time, but in retrospect in that age long before Amazon and before I had the financial wherewithal to participate in things like the Science Fiction Book Club the fact that such a small town had a library at all was good fortune at its finest.
Needless to say I consumed that pitiful collection of SFF paperbacks in record time, and as a result was introduced to a variety of classic authors I might never have noticed otherwise. I’m sure that experience deeply influences my reading and writing habits today.
To be honest, though, I have only the vaguest memories of what exactly was on those spinners. Oh, I know I first encountered James Blish and Andre Norton and Lin Carter and van Voght here but other than Blish’s print adaptations of Star Trek episodes I couldn’t tell you what titles were actually there. Except one:
Perry Rhodan was first published in German in 1961 in a Romanhefte format – this is a slim, pocket sized format analogous to the digest pulps popular in the US at the time, popular for “disposable fiction” of all kinds. And disposable is what the Rhodan series was initially intended to be:
At the start, it was to be a limited run of a few dozen weekly issues of novella length, but it was quickly obvious that the initial authors K. H. Scheer and Walter Ernsting were on to something big, and the series was continued. The publishers are no doubt very happy they decided to see just where Perry Rhodan would go because as of today there are more than 2,900 issues in the continuous main series, more than 850 issues of the Atlan spin-off series featuring many of the same characters, and a multitude of subsidiary products including comic strips, and merchandise. The series has been so popular that it has reportedly sold more than a billion copies just in its native German, with another billion in various foreign language translations.
It was of course the English translation I found – organized by Forrest Ackerman of fandom fame in the mid-60s, and resulting in Ace publication starting in 1968. This English translation and adaptation unfortunately was ill-fated:
Despite being well-received by readers and eventually being popular enough to justify producing three issues per month, Ace decided to end the run in 1977 – with just a few missing pieces sputtering out until the end of 1978. Demand was high enough, though, for Wendayne Ackerman to publish another 19 issues under her own imprint, Master Publications. These were distributed only to subscribers, however, so the majority of the Rhodan reading public in the English speaking world were left with nothing but the 124 issues Ace had given them.
This, frankly, is a crying shame. Quite apart from the amazing popularity Rhodan continues to enjoy in Germany and around the world in several languages the story itself is fascinating.
I can hardly call myself an expert – I came on these books years after the English translations had ceased publication and have had to make do with the occasional issues I’ve stumbled on since those first three in that tiny small-town library so many years ago. But I have managed to track down more than half of the original translations over the years, and can piece together what is obviously a remarkable set of storylines.
The premise itself is nothing remarkable to us in the modern SFF scene – just the standards:
You know: the usual.
But what makes this series so remarkable – at least in the portion I have read – is the seamless way the arcs link together. This is no mean feat for this style of serial, keeping things coherent and flowing despite the hands of multiple writers pushing the cart. The continuing success of the series is a testament to the skill with which the publishers have managed their stable of contributors and curated their “bible” for the series.
Also interesting is the way the story, despite being explicitly high tech space opera, effortlessly weaves in metaphysics and curious references to occult esoterica. I suppose to some extent this sort of thing is to be expected in a space opera setting that invokes the psionics trope, but the number of alchemical and other hermetic symbols that get deployed is truly fascinating – and links perfectly with the setting’s conceit that there really are “layers of being” that species transition through on their way to perfect unity with the universe.
So why is a series that is so influential and has such a devoted following completely invisible in English?
Part of the problem is that the US market was only ever exposed to the opening chapters of the story, which are generally considered fairly simple, straightforward space opera. Many critics of the time panned it as being too simplistic, with empty characters and relying heavily on tropes of human expansion that many felt were best left back in the 50s.
The basic criticisms are probably fair – the opening chapters are full speed ahead space opera, with thrilling space battles and fairly stereotypical characters who are motivated in direct ways – and while some of the issues in the early books are surely caused by rapid translation you can definitely tell these were throw-away space adventures aimed at a younger audience.
But it’s hard to see why Ace would choose to discontinue a series that was, by all reports, profitable just because it wasn’t as sophisticated as the books the reviews columns were gushing over, especially when the translations had just started moving into the far more sophisticated storylines being developed by William Voltz in the Atlan spin-off – and which he brought back to the main line when he took over as master storyline planner in 1975, slowly developing the series to aim for a more discerning older audience. Not to mention the fact that they killed the series right when space opera was enjoying a comeback via Star Wars.
The only explanation I can think of is the self-consciousness of English genre fiction that grew through the 60s and into the 70s – a looming hunger to be taken seriously, to be viewed as literary equals in an increasingly consolidated market. In this environment it’s easy to see the pressure Jim Baen (who was SF editor at the time) and Tom Doherty (publisher) might have been under to reframe Ace’s SF offerings to a more “high-brow” focus.
But this concern for respectability is a great loss – by all reports, the modern Rhodan is rich and fairly sophisticated space opera, and it seems to me that the English SFF landscape is poorer for having sneered this series off stage back in 1978.
 SFBC has changed since I was a member – it doesn’t look anywhere near as appealing now as it once did, but in those days I discovered real greats through their catalog, and several of my favourite authors I learned to love because of one of their editions.
 Mainly because at that point they were increasingly out of print.
 Co-written with his wife, Judith, under the pen-name J. A. Lawrence as short story collections between 1967 and 1978, these little pocket books by Bantam were sometimes better than the TOS episodes they were based on and I consumed them hungrily.
 Though actually literally the German market equivalent of the dime novel.
 I have assayed original German issues on a couple of occasions, but sadly my German is just not up to it – though it might have been if I’d been lucky enough to discover Rhodan when I was 13 or 14.
 Ackerman and his wife, Wendayne – who did most of the translation – repackaged the originals by combining issues and reformatting the English issue layouts something like the pulps they remembered from their youth.
 Currently: a Portuguese translation available in Brazil, and translations into Russian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Czech, and Dutch – Italian and Finnish translations seem to have sputtered out. There was also a short-lived pirate version in Hebrew!
 And long before the two reboot efforts in the 1990s and 2006.
 And in fact, Lucas has mentioned Rhodan as an influence – less than Flash Gordon, but big enough to shape the design of some of the space ships.