WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL: PERRY RHODAN #1 ENTERPRISE STARDUST

This loose series of posts started out in response to my random science fiction (and fantasy and horror and now including other genres) paperback grab-bag box, but let’s expand that out to the series I’m collecting as well, which I talked about here a few weeks ago. When the random behavior prompt came up to read a Perry Rhodan novel, the next in line was actually the first in line…

Do you find it strange that I’ve collected almost the full run of a series passing the hundred book mark without actually having read any of them first? Well, y’know… not everyone gets it.

Anyway, what even is this whole Perry Rhodan business?

Perry Rhodan is the titular character of what has become, over 61 years, the longest-running science fiction series of all time. Begun in what was then West Germany in 1961 as weekly magazines, the series and its various spin-offs have sold more than two billion copies, half of that in Germany alone.

Back in 1969, enterprising editor/science fiction, fantasy, and horror super-fan Forrest J. Ackerman teamed up with Ace Books and his wife, Wendayne Ackerman (who handled the English translations) to bring Perry to an American audience. Obviously Perry resonated with at least a few American fans, since the Ace English series managed to bring out 126 Perry Rhodan books between 1969 and 1978.

The first of the Ace books, and the one I’ve just finished reading, is Enterprise Stardust, by K.H. Scheer & Walter Ernstling. The slim little 192-page book actually contains two Perry Rhodan novellas: Enterprise Stardust and The Third Power, so what we can assume were actually the first two issues of the German magazine.

Enterprise Stardust begins with a American mission to the Moon, commanded, of course, by steely-eyed American astronaut Perry Rhodan. Enterprise Stardust, named for the moon rocket Stardust, gets Perry and his crew to the Moon—the first to achieve that milestone, just ahead of the Asiatic Federation and the Eastern Bloc. I believe this was meant to be set in the near future, and one where, clearly, the Cold War continued to wage—even get much worse—seeing the world divided into two major powers: an alliance of the Eastern Bloc and the Asiatic Federation vs. the Western Bloc. I can see how someone living in West Germany in 1961 would see the world that way. But reading it in 2022 it feels less like near future SF than alternate history SF. What if, in 1969, the Western Bloc did land on the Moon, and also had a cure for leukemia, but nuclear war was an itchy trigger finger away?

In each of the three parts of the world, a man was sitting in a room deep underground, in front of giant control panels and electronic computers. He was connected to the command posts by video screens. His hand rested quietly on the table, close to a red button.

This button seemed to wink ironically and say, “Well,, go on! Why don’t you push me? Are you afraid someone else will do it too? Or do you fear that the end of the world will come if you push me?”

These red buttons, each an invitation to Inferno!

With this simplified but dangerous world set up, Perry is off to the Moon, where he almost crashes, then discovers a strange mystery he first assumes is the wily Asiatics (there’s some terminology that reads as, let’s say… insensitive by today’s standards—be prepared for that in any fiction written in the 60s or earlier) but instead they discover a crashed alien starship.

Perry makes an uneasy contact with the alien Arkonides and quickly cooks up a deal with their captain, Khrest. The Arkonides, an older, much more advanced species, and one once at the head of an interstellar empire, has fallen into decadence… 

Khrest turned his head painfully. “They are engaged in the usual simulator game. It has contributed much to the collapse of will and spirit among my people. Billions of Arkonides stand vigil by those screens daily while games are created by different masters of the medium. Highly complex. It is the audio-visual representation of elements in the subjective psyche. My people would waste their lives in this fashion. The situation is gradually worsening. For example, there are only fifty persons on board. Rarely do I get to see them, but when I do, they are seated, trance-like, before the fictif screens. Our degeneration is not to be found in the realm of normal attitudes or ethics but rather in total relaxation and surrender of will.

Goddamn video games… every time. But please note that this was written in 1961, and do with that as you will.

Whatever the cause, this cultural malaise has gotten so bad that when their starship crashed on the Moon, none of them knew how to repair it, or even particularly cared if it was fixed. And it’s even started to affect them physically. Khrest, and maybe the rest of his crew, is dying of leukemia. So Perry offers him the Western Bloc’s leukemia cure in exchange for the Arkonides’ advanced technology, which then leads into the second novella, The Third Power.

Perry, being our hero and therefore smarter and better than anyone—he is that broadly drawn at least in this first installment, but let’s keep an eye on that—decides that the advanced technology of the Arkonides will tip the fragile balance of power in the world and bring on nuclear war. So Perry decides to establish a “Third Power,” which is, basically, himself, and a few of his crewmen who decide to stay with him. He lands the Stardust in the Gobi Desert and proceeds to hold the world hostage… for its own good…

Someone had prevented the war. A single individual had been greater than all the great powers. He had opposed them and had forcibly wrung peace from them.

Perry Rhodan!

…in case you were wondering who the hero of the story was.

Are Perry’s impulses messianic or fascistic?

Again, let’s see how that plays out.

So then, what we have here is definitely quickly written space opera, translated sans finesse, with plenty of action and an overt but interesting political message. Imagine Dune if it was written over the course of a couple weeks then translated over a few days into German. The Germans might not have bought a billion copies of that series, and accounts for the series slipping into obscurity at least here in the States. But as an editor, I have built up an ability to look past the technique and into the story, and the story here is solid, with some interesting, if dated, political ideas.

Now, having established that Perry Rhodan is awesome and has a friend in Khrest though an uneasy alliance with the Arkonides in general (Khrest’s sister has a problem with him…) that’s granted him access to some wild tech… where do we go from here?

I’m in at least as far as…

 

And I’ll let you know if it was worth collecting all these crazy books one random behavior modification prompt at a time.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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