This article originally appeared in Van Helsing’s Journal, an American horror/fantasy magazine.
How the unlikely combination of a German SF pulp and a larger-than-life English language editor spawned a US paperback success that endured for almost a decade.
If you suffered from insomnia during the 1960s or 1970s, or if you were just a fan of the late night TV programming of the era, there’s a good chance you may have stumbled across a B-grade, Italian-produced German science fiction film notable for its appalling English dub and titled Mission Stardust. This 1965 movie told the story of American astronaut Perry Rhodan, the first man on the moon, and how he found a crashed alien spaceship there and befriended its crew.
The unremarkable film (SOS aus dem Weltraum in the original German) has low production values, attractive leads (Lang Jeffries as Rhodan and Essy Persson as Thora) and a catchy theme song typical of the era. But while the movie is for the most part forgotten, the series of novels upon which it was based is still very much alive in Germany and – surprisingly enough, given the reticence of English language publishers to release translations of foreign SF – enjoyed a remarkable paperback run in the US for almost 10 years with a circulation peaking at 50,000.
Perry Rhodan is somewhat of a German publishing phenomenon and has been so for more than 40 years. It has been published each and every week since September 1961 as a ‘heft’, a digest pulp magazine format still commonplace in Germany. At time of writing the current issue is #2210 which makes Rhodan unquestionably the world’s longest running SF series in any media (the lead characters all received the gift of immortal life early in the run thus allowing the storylines to span thousands of years). None of the original corps of four writers are still contributing, however – in fact only one, series co-creator Walter Ernsting, remains alive.
That Rhodan came to be published in English at all is due to Ernsting’s recognition of its potential in that market and his friendship with the man who was to become the series’ ‘English language representative’ and managing editor during its 1969-1978 English run. Forrest J Ackerman was still an active contributor to SF fandom rather than prodom back in the 1950s when he helped found the Science Fiction Club Deutschland alongside Ernsting, then still trying to break into the German market as an author. Because the only SF being published in Germany in the fifties came from American and British writers, Ernsting wrote his first novel under the American-sounding pseudonym ‘Clark Darlton’ and pretended he had merely translated it from English; consequently he was saddled with the pen name throughout the rest of his career.
In 1965 Ackerman and his German-born wife Wendayne met Ernsting in person for the first time at a book fair in Europe and spent a few days as his houseguests. During their visit Ernsting made Forry a present of a complete set of the Perry Rhodan series he had created in 1961 with noted German author KH Scheer (Ernsting was responsible for the name, supposedly from a combination of Perry Mason and Japanese movie monster Rodan, ‘Americanized’ with the addition of the H). He also suggested that Ackerman could introduce Rhodan to the US market and, in a famously oft-to-be-repeated quote, that “Wendy could translate it in her spare time”. By 1975, when the series was appearing in English three times a month, Wendy was perhaps wondering what she had let herself in for.
Though concerned about the difficulties of selling a US publisher on the concept, Forry agreed to give it a try, and soon after was doing the rounds of the major US publishing houses attempting to interest them in Wendy’s translation of the first issue. Some considered the series juvenile, others thought it too ‘European’; finally Don Wollheim, then an editor at Ace Publishing Co, agreed to try it out in 1969.
One of the obvious difficulties in marketing Rhodan in English was the relatively low word count of each story: around 30,000-35,000 words, fine for a weekly 64 page digest pulp, but in paperback this came to between 90-100 pages, hardly sufficient to expect a reader to shell out a hard-earned 75c for. Ace intially combated the problem by publishing two stories in each paperback, but by the sixth issue, editor Ackerman solved the problem by introducing a new format: the ‘magabook’.
The idea was simple but had never been tried before: all the features of a pulp magazine format within the pages of a book. Forry had grown up with the classic SF pulps like Astounding and Amazing and saw the classic space opera feel of Rhodan as an opportunity to educate a new generation of young readers in the wonders of what he called ‘golden age’ sci-fi. He introduced short stories, editorials, a serialized ‘classic’ story, letters column (the Perryscope!) and eventually even subscriptions which were administered by Wendy from their home. By issue #17, each paperback was running between 160-180 pages and later in the run some spanned more than 200.
In keeping with the naïve, early sixties ‘boy’s adventure’ pulpiness of the writing – space opera fare owing much to Doc Smith’s Lensman series, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon and some of the Hollywood sci-fi movies of the 1950s – the series was intially aimed at a pre-teenage male audience. Forry even deliberately modelled the editorial style on the old Captain Future pulps, giving full rein to his passion for punning and signing off editorials as “your hyper-pal, Forry Rhodan(!)”. However, once the letters started coming, Forry and Wendy realised they had misjudged the average age of the audience – there were many young adults, university students, and a large number of servicemen who were buying the series. Consequently the decision was made to reorient the series to a more mature presentation and style.
Ackerman had already made a name for himself as the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland (a publication he edited concurrently with the entire English language run of Rhodan) in which he strove to keep alive the names of actors like Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney Sr and educate the predominantly youthful readership about films made long before they were born. With Perry Rhodan, he had a chance to do the same for his first love, science fiction. He wrote copious editorials on SF’s history and origins, and men like Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell Jr; he introduced readers to ‘golden age’ writers like David Keller, Raymond A. Palmer, Eando Binder, Ralph Milne Farley, Otis Adelbert Kline and Stanton A. Coblentz; he serialized ‘lost’ classics like Pursuit to Mars (a sequel to Wells’ War of the Worlds) by Garrett P. Serviss and Exile of the Skies by Richard Vaughan; dug out from his archives classic short stories like Spawn by P. Schuyler Miller, then book reviewer for Analog. And perhaps his crowning achievement with the series, certainly one of the revivals of which he was most proud, was the republication of a pioneering work, a round-robin SF serial called Cosmos which had originally appeared in a fanzine but which featured chapters by most of the leading SF writers of its time including Doc Smith, Edmond Hamilton, John Campbell and A. Merritt.
Professional reaction to the series was not good, with most of the reviewers in the field sniggering at its naivety and old-fashionedness, as well as the ‘pulpy’ writing which was often unfairly attributed to Wendayne’s (lack of) skill as translator (a comparison of the original German by anyone even mildly familiar with the language shows all the shortcomings clearly present in the original texts). One of the oddest criticisms, though, was that publication of Rhodan was taking away sales from ‘serious’ authors in the field, the readers’ minds presumably being filled instead with (as Forry memorably put it) “space opera dross”. This was particularly unfair insofar as Ackerman was using the series as a springboard to encourage readers to dip their toes into the ocean of ‘serious’ SF. He did this both through his own editorials (particularly memorable was his heartfelt obituary of John Campbell in #9) and through a series of guest editorials and coverage of conventions, films and other SF media. There was also a genuine effort to educate readers about wider concerns of science within our society: Ray Bradbury contributed an editorial in 1972 called ‘Apollo Murdered: The Sun Goes Out’ wherein he made a plea for funding not to be cut to the space program.
While Ackerman made no bones about the fact that he was not enamored of what was then called new wave SF, and that he saw Rhodan as an opportunity to republish the classics, he did not shy away from coverage of current authors. In fact, the magabook was renowned for giving new writers a chance at first professional publication: it was listed in writers’ guides as a paying market, submissions were encouraged, and even fans got their big break as short story writers within its pages. It must be admitted, however, that Ackerman did show a preference for stories which reflected his own puckish sense of humor: particularly memorable was Steven Utley’s story ‘Parrot Phrase’, in which a parrot looking out an apartment building window witnesses King Kong plummeting from atop the Empire State Building, after which he sagely observes “Pieces of ape, pieces of ape …”
Despite having to endure these occasional (arguable) lapses of taste, readers were treated to so much supplementary material each issue that many were moved to write to the letter column that the features were better than the Rhodan stories themselves!
Ace must have seen they had a success on their hands, for by 1972 publication was stepped up to monthly; by 1973 it was two a month, by 1975 the series briefly appeared three times a month until it was realized this was uneconomical and publication reverted to the previous rate. In Germany, overall sales of the series (which had by this stage run through four editions) had unsurprisingly surpassed the 100 million mark; in English, Rhodan boasted a circulation of 50,000 for the Ace editions. The presentation was complemented by eyecatching cover paintings by noted artist Gray Morrow, which curiously bore no resemblance whatsoever to events detailed in the stories inside, but Morrow’s work was so popular this didn’t seem to matter.
For the stories themselves, editor Ackerman rearranged the openings and conclusions, usually to ensure each episode started with a healthy dose of action and ended with a proper denouement, rather than the leisurely buildup and open-ended conclusion featured in many of the German issues. Occasionally it was necessary to change characters’ names (Fartuloon was wisely renamed Fratulon for the English audience) but for the most part the series remained intact. One of Forry’s major changes was to subtitle the series ‘PEACELORD of the Universe’ rather than the German ‘Inheritor of the Universe’ – it was the early 1970s, peace was in, Vietnam was out, and Forry was pushing peace in the pages of PR, rather at odds with the militant tone then prevalent in the stories (written, it must be remembered, during the early stages of the Cold War).
It was the very militancy of the series’ early episodes (Earth develops a large space fleet and goes to war against various nasty aliens whose motivations are never made particularly clear) that left it open to numerous allegations of fascism in the pages of European academic and SF publications; Rhodan himself was on one occasion described as ‘Hitler in Space’ by a European writer. This misnomer has stuck with the series down the decades, and a 2003 academic article by a British writer hyperlinked to the website of noted SF publication Locus attempted to make similar points, using the English-translated Ace editions as its basis. Ignoring the references in these stories to Rhodan being a democratically elected leader and the Terran World Government as composed of a parliament with democratically elected representatives, the same tired arguments were trotted out, and it’s a sad fact that Rhodan is seen as potentially fascist simply because it’s a German series. Much is made out of Rhodan’s calling the neutral power bloc he founds ‘The Third Power’ (the US and the Soviets being the other two). This is usually seen as a deliberate parallel to Hitler’s Third Reich, which shows nothing more than the critic’s ignorance. In fact the term ‘Third Power’ was supposed to signify a ‘third way’ political philosophy – a commonplace term in acadamia and political writings in the early sixties when the series was started, referring to the ‘centrist’ political perspective which seeks to create a synthesis of market liberalism and democratic socialism. Nothing at all to do with German ‘reich’ (realm) and a term well understood by the writers and European readers of the period (and obviously enough, any attempt by Rhodan to establish a new realm would have been a ‘fourth’ reich not a third). Perhaps recognising the potential for misinterpretation, Ackerman soon modified the English equivalent to ‘the New Power’, but by this stage, some damage had already been done.
Misunderstandings aside, peace was pushed in the pages of PR; as were other editorial messages. Ackerman was passionately anti-smoking: when he found the publishers were inserting fullpage colour ads for cigarettes in some early issues (a commonplace practice in paperback publishing of the period) he retaliated by writing in lines for the characters such as the following: “I’d glady give you a whole carton [of cigarettes] … it’s fine by me if a traitor to Terra wants to ride the cancer express to his own funeral”.
One of the most notable examples of this effort to communicate issues of importance appeared in #88, in which Ackerman reprinted (in full) ‘Stomp the Shadowman’, SF writer David Gerrold’s keynote speech to the audience of Westercon 75, which addressed the issues of stereotyping, putting celebrities on pedestals only to tear them down and making jokes at other peoples’ expense. A remarkable speech which deserved to be preserved for posterity, and which reached a potential readership of 50,000 thanks to the pages of Perry Rhodan.
As well as educating the readers, Forry was keen to encourage as many organised fan activities as possible. He knew this was the best way to ensure a dedicated following which would keep the series in print and himself and Wendy in their roles as editor and translator; and his own beginnings in SF fandom meant he knew exactly how to generate interest. Each new club in American ‘Rhofandom’ was publicised in the editorial and letters pages; regular lists of clubs sorted by state and region started to appear, and reviews of fan publications were featured in each issue. Finally, in 1975 the first US Rhodan convention was announced, scheduled for the following year in Washington DC! The guestlist naturally featured Walter Ernsting as well as William Voltz, at that time the head writer for the series, and ‘Kurt Mahr’ (real name Klaus Mahn), another of its writers who, though German-born, lived in Florida and worked for NASA as a physicist. These three were joined by AE Van Vogt, Gordon Dickson, Ben Bova, Ted White and Forry (Wendayne was at home suffering the after-effects of an impacted wisdom tooth) and the entire event was the subject of an editorial in #99, cheerily titled ‘Rhocon 1 was Fun!’ This tongue-in-cheek piece attributed to Seena and Nader Mason included such gems as “Clark Darlton was observed imbibing beer on 1 or 2 occasions (or 22) and … Rosmarie Ernsting has informed us that a slight mistake was made in translation: the planet Walter created is not Barkon but BEERCAN!” It also featured the following memorable description of the series’ managing editor: “Forry [was toastmaster] and began by apologising if he did an inept job because he said he had very little experience around kitchens and had never been able to master making toast. He warned the audience that the humor was not going to improve and they had better escape while there was still time, at which point 55 people left. This was very embarassing because there were only 50 there in the first place (the waiters joined them).” It was only many years later that Ackerman fessed up: Seena and Nader were two of his numerous pseudonyms.
Given all this activity, most readers may have thought the future of Rhodan in English was assured. But just about this time, the end was already in sight. Ace Books was bought out by Grosset & Dunlap and a new publisher and editor of the SF line came in, neither of whom cared for the series. While sales had been dropping, the main problem seems to have been that the series was considered too lowbrow, despite it having proven itself a very successful cash cow for Ace over the previous eight years. But the new management wanted to position the Ace imprint as a leading edge SF publisher for the coming 1980s, and Rhodan was very old-fashioned space opera.
The end ostensibly came in January 1978, just a year short of a decade since the first Ace edition was published. Forry and Wendy had known for some six months, as no new material had been requested and Ace was merely publishing everything left in the backlog; but still, the publisher steadfastly refused to officially inform Forry that the series would no longer be published.
But this was not quite the end. Wendy Ackerman had been running the subscription service for the paperbacks, sending out copies from home, the ‘Ackermansion’ in Hollywood. Readers would write letters, occasionally telephone and, if they were in the neighborhood, visit in person. Wendy had built up a strong rapport with the fans, encouraging them to try their own translations of German issues (which she supplied), advising on translation difficulties and so on. When it became obvious that Ace was no longer interested in publishing the series, Wendy took it upon herself to try to keep the ball rolling. For some time, SF author Stuart J. Byrne had been helping out with the translations; now he was to be responsible for the bulk of them, while Wendy coordinated the project and had the stories typeset and published herself in a cheap digest pulp format similar to the original German editions. These were made available by subscription only, but unfortunately only 5000 readers signed up – just ten per cent of the former readership.
As there was no money to pay him for his efforts, Forry relinquished editorship of the series to concentrate on Famous Monsters and paperback anthologies. He also relinquished the ten per cent commission to which he was entitled as the agent who had started the series’ English run; if he hadn’t, the cost of publication would have been too high. As it was, Wendy struggled valiantly on until 1979 – an additional 18 issues over those published by Ace – but then the axe fell. The German copyright holders had already had their fingers burnt when Ace cancelled the series without bothering to tell them; this non-communication had caused several months’ delay to Wendy’s efforts to bring the series back, during which time some readers cancelled subscriptions and others complained with nasty phone calls and reports to the Better Business Bureau. By the publication of issue 137, it was all over – the venture had proven too costly to turn a profit, and the Germans instructed the Ackermans to cancel the series.
Ironically, it was about this time that the series in Germany was reaching the peak of its popularity and the publishing milestone of its 1000th issue, which saw print in 1980. By the early 1980s the German publishers had five editions of Rhodan on sale each week, two weekly editions of the spin-off series Atlan, and three monthly editions of a supplemental paperback series: the dedicated German Rhofan could purchase a total of 31 different stories each month! The series itself had left its ‘boys’ own space opera’ origins far behind and become a cosmos-spanning saga of deeply philosophical implication: Rhodan had learned about the ‘onion skin’ evolutionary model by which individual races were evolving to become Superintelligences, Superintelligences were evolving to become either Matter Sources (positive) or Matter Sinks (negative) and these evolving in turn to become either Cosmocrats or Chaotarchs, the highest forms of evolution in the Multiverse. Rhodan was a member of the Knights of the Deep, an order formed to protect the extra-dimensional ‘skin’ beneath the structure of the Universe; he had been pre-destined for his role by a Superintelligence, millions of years before his birth. And he was struggling to find the answer to the third Ultimate Question: who initiated THE LAW and what does it accomplish? A far cry from the early days, and it’s a real shame that those critics who judged the series by its Ace run never got further than stories from 1963 and the English language Rhofans never got to read of the heights the series eventually scaled.
The latest postscript to the saga of English Rhofandom came in 1996, when an entrepreneurial fan, California-based John Foyt, persuaded the German publishers to let him revive the series from then-current German issue #1800 and begin a new English language run. Showcased at the 1997 World SF Convention, the first issue was dedicated to Wendayne (who had died in 1990) and featured an introduction from Forry. But this series lasted only four issues – apparently few readers remembered the 1970s paperbacks, and Foyt had published his new venture as magazines which were soon lost amid the newsstand display.
In Germany, the series has survived the tragic death of its highly-regarded head writer William Voltz in 1984 at the age of 46, the passing of its co-creator KH Scheer and the retirement of Walter Ernsting in 1991. It has celebrated its 2000th issue and its 40th anniversary and for the past several years there has been much talk of a TV miniseries pilot which is currently in the pre-production stages. Fans have been given sneak previews of computer generated aliens and spacecraft models for the series which is planned to be English dubbed and hopefully sold to the US – and there is speculation that all this may lead to an English language revival of the novels.
If it does come, will English readers remember it? The Ace Rhodan editions were distributed throughout the US, Canada, the UK and Australasia for almost 10 years. There was even a British edition of the Ace translations published by Futura from 1974 to 1978. Yet people have moved on and Rhodan has perhaps been forgotten. The whimper of its cancellation has left a bad memory for many; Forry is apparently reluctant to discuss the series (although he seems happy to autograph editions!) and Wendy is remembered not for her more than 100 Rhodan translations but simply as the late Mrs Ackerman and for her translations of Stanislaw Lem and her Famous Monsters article ‘Rocket to the Rue Morgue’. But there are those of us who still remember when the sci-fi section of the local bookshop contained a whole wall of Rhodans, when fans debated the covers, the storylines and the characters, when the critics carped and rolled their eyes despairingly at this old school space opera – a sure sign that it was not only being noticed, but bought by eager readers in the thousands.
Note: This article was originally written several years ago and has now been outdated by events. Walter Ernsting and Forry Ackerman are both no longer with us but Perry Rhodan continues unabated, having now passed issue #2700. You can see what he’s up to today at http://www.perry-rhodan.net, but be warned, you’ll need to be able to read German!