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The Return of Perry Rhodan
by John O'Neill

Click on any of the covers below for a larger image.

Perry Rhodan practically introduced me to science fiction.

I suppose he doesn't shoulder the entire blame. Like most other kids my age, I was taking my first cautious steps out of the realm of comics and young adult literature into the world of large words and small print. My guide and mentor was my friend John MacMaster, fellow inmate at St. Francis Xavier Junior High in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was the Fall of 1975, and I was eleven years old.

Art by Gray Morrow
John was into some pretty weird stuff in 1975. For one thing, there was this book he kept waving at me called Dune. The cover had a bunch of Lawrence of Arabia types standing around on rocks and sand, looking boring. I passed. John also bought his very own albums, which I thought was pretty funky, and he sat me down to listen to a composition titled "Welcome to the Machine" by an outfit called Pink Floyd. It was... okay. Although why they couldn't afford to record in a studio without all that talking and banging coming through the walls was beyond me.

John also gave me short stories to read by some guy named Harlan Ellison -- who used bad words. He dragged me outdoors in the middle of a Nova Scotia winter to look at stars in his telescope. And on Halloween he pulled me six blocks to an apartment building he knew where the superintendent dumped all his goods in the first half hour... only to end up with two bags full of apples. All in all, John was a swell guy, but it was obvious the stuff he was into was far too bent to ever catch on.

But I hit paydirt when he loaned me a tattered copy of Perry Rhodan #17: The Venus Trap.

The Venus Trap, by Kurt Mahr (Ace, 1972), didn't have a lot of boring gentlemen on the cover. It had dinosaurs. And spacesuits. And a guy with a raygun. Now this was more like it.

Although I didn't know it at the time, The Venus Trap borrowed fairly liberally from some of the truly canonical works of SF -- including Otis Adelbert Kline's Grandson of Terra series, Ralph Milne Farley's tales of Spaceman Miles Cabot, and of course the Venus series of Edgar Rice Burroughs (also his Mars series, and a handful of his Tarzan books, but it was doubtless a package deal). But everything it borrowed, it returned in spades.

You see, by 1975 science fiction that predicted life on Venus -- especially big-lizards-with-pointy-fangs life, or toothy vegetation that mimicked the steamy jungles of the Amazon -- had gone the way of the dinosaurs itself. By the late 50s, the surface of Venus was known to be an atmospheric boiler room, an environment where even hardened space probes got all sweaty and quickly packed it in. And when that long-held romantic notion of old school SF passed away, the pulp adventure tale succumbed soon after.

In 1961, the German language version of Perry Rhodan almost single-handedly began to breathe new life into the moribund pulp genre. By the time the ever-energetic Forrest J. Ackerman and his editor Frederik Pohl introduced an English language version in North America eight years later, Rhodan had enjoyed over 400 installments and attained a weekly circulation of 130,000. Literally hundreds of fan clubs existed, at least one feature film had been made, and total sales were approaching 70 million copies. Perry Rhodan was a phenomenon -- and in issue number 14, Venus in Danger, it brought its beloved companion, the Venus romance, back from the cryogenic freeze as well.

Art by Gray Morrow
It did it with obvious sleight of hand -- by suggesting that the true surface of Earth's sister planet had been deliberately screened from prying eyes with some kind of projector thingie, a galactic-budget special effect -- but it hardly mattered. Fans of the SF pulp adventure genre saw the wink and the smiles behind the curtain, and knew that they were in the hands of a team of writers who knew and cherished the fond conventions of old, but whose canvas and ambitions were far larger. The Venus romance was by no means the last classic pulp trope resurrected as a stage property for the sprawling cast of Perry Rhodan, but it was certainly one of the first to signal to North American readers the ride they were in for.

Not that I picked up on any of this in 1975. For me, it was merely a rip-roaring adventure tale, the first of its kind that I'd ever encountered, and it grabbed me in a way that few books had before (or since). I lost track of precisely how many volumes of Perry Rhodan I collected and read, but I was a faithful fan for years.

And no wonder. Simply put, Perry Rhodan is one of the richest -- if not the richest -- Space Operas ever written. Astronaut Perry Rhodan's discovery of a stranded Arkon spacecraft on the moon triggered his first adventure in Perry Rhodan #1: Enterprise Stardust, sending Rhodan and his team on a journey around the galaxy, where they discovered ancient and terrifying alien technology, helped unify the Earth under one government, assembled a team of human mutants to do battle with an unstoppable alien menace, and went toe-to-toe with a decadent race of great age and enormous power -- all in the first ten issues. The influence of a tale of this pacing and scope on the field of science fiction was significant. Even today, few episodes of Babylon 5 -- arguably the finest modern Space Opera, and certainly the most prevalent example today -- do not contain an element or elements which hearken back to Perry Rhodan -- from the decadent fallen Centauri Empire (shades of the Arkons) to the proliferation of ancient and deadly space relics, and of course the menace of the Shadows themselves (a strong premonition of which appeared in issue 118, The Shadows Attack).

Art by Alfred Kelsner
Over the next hundred or so volumes, Rhodan and his band of brave adventurers expanded their power base and took on greater and greater threats. One unique and fascinating aspect of the Perry Rhodan brand of pulp action was that it was not merely of the two-fisted variety. By about issue 16 or so, Rhodan and Company (like Sheridan and team) represented a world government, with the burdens and responsibilities therein. To follow Rhodan's story was to track the Future History of humanity, across decades and eventually across centuries, as mankind pitted itself first against lurking alien dangers, then organized ones, and finally whole Empires and ancient Galactic Federations. The stakes and scale of the tale built slowly, with plenty of setbacks and unexpected twists, as humanity gradually took its place amongst the senior races in the stars.

Unfortunately, while the German language version continued to build up momentum in Europe, Forry Ackerman's grand experiment with a monthly pulp paperback in North America ended in 1977, after some 120 issues. Forry continued it on a subscription-only basis until issue 137 before throwing in the towel.

Art by Alfred Kelsner
And that, Rhodan fans assumed, was that. Until the arrival of Vector Enterprises on the scene in September of last year -- and the first appearance of Perry Rhodan on this side of the Atlantic in almost twenty years. Under the leadership of Managing Editor John Foyt and talented translator Dwight Decker, Vector Enterprises released Perry Rhodan as a new bimonthly magazine, starting with 1800: Time Lapse, the first issue of a new storyline: Bridge to Eternity. And at the almost criminally bargain price of $1.95 an issue, it was a hard offer to refuse.

The plot of the new issues was familiar in scope to everyone familiar with the 1970s Ace editions. On the planet Trokan, known as the Second Mars, forced evolution under a Time Lapse field has created something unexpected... something that may throw humanity into crisis. Members of Rhodan's band are called to investigate, and what they discover is far more than a temporal anomaly. As an added bonus, the issue contained Part I of a detailed series summary, filling in background info on the first 999 issues of the German edition. Finally, the magazine offered an introduction by none other than Forrest J. Ackerman himself.

Art by Alfred Kelsner
Foyt and his team followed up the initial magazine release in short order with issues 1801, 1802, and 1803, sticking to a more-or-less bimonthly schedule that has demonstrated their commitment. The issues are thoroughly professional, with quality translations and fine original art, and the series summation which wrapped up in issue 1802 was invaluable. (Now if only they'd bring back the shock-shorts and other short fiction that graced the back pages of the 1970s paperback series -- and first published such folks as Steven Utley -- we'd nominate them for sainthood.)

Further details, and subscription info, is available online at Vector Enterprises' website. For a complete review of the first three issues, see Mark Shainblum's article in this issue of the SF Site. And then be prepared to locate the magazines, and enjoy serial novels which offer complex, involving stories with an old-style mix of character and action. You won't be disappointed.

P.S. And if anyone out there knows the whereabouts of a Mr. John MacMaster, once of Halifax, Nova Scotia, please send him my way. But first tell him he's not getting his Pink Floyd albums back.

Copyright © 1998 by John O'Neill

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