What's the most successful science fiction story series ever written? How about one that has sold over a billion copies so far, plus various spinoffs, and has influenced a generation of writers? Perry Rhodan was created in 1961 by KH Scheer and Clark Darlton, and was conceived as a 30-volume epic booklet series with a single story arc, back in the days when you could attempt such a thing.
When it reached the end of its run, such was the appetite for the series, whose main character was the space explorer Rhodan, that it continued – up to the present day – heading for nearly 3,000 instalments. So why have we never heard of it?
Well, despite being German it was first published in English as far back as 1969, thanks to Forrest J Ackerman, the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. His wife made the translations, and it continued in English with a variety of writers and translators. Such was Perry's popularity in Brazil that Flash Gordon was renamed after him.
Rhodan's exploits were inspired by the Russian/US space race, and rode the wave of euphoria that accompanied the moon landings, adding comic strips, collectables, encyclopedias, audio plays, and various pieces of music and art to the novels (the composer of the soundtrack for TV's Babylon 5 released an album inspired by Rhodan). The early books are juvenile and workmanlike, and while most of the dialogue is wretched, the plotlines became relatively complex. Perry's subsequent authors stepped into each others' moonprints utilising an extremely prosaic style, but they did something few others had attempted, employing popular physics theories to create an immense cosmology of unified cycles, "grand cycles" and themes, encompassing negaspheres and neuroverses, chronofossils and netrunners. I have a low tolerance level for what Victoria Wood once christened the "interplanetary ming-mongs" school of SF writing, but it's not hard to appreciate the youthful appeal of a fully-formed alternative moral and physical interplanetary system.
George Lucas points out that many of the starships in Star Wars were influenced by Perry Rhodan, who even made it into space when a Dutch astronaut took one of the magazines with him. While most English-speaking SF buffs claim to hate the series, they missed its development into a more complex and intelligent universe because by 1980 the stories were no longer being translated. Perry's many authors created the grandest SF space opera ever written, but you'll only find German copies available.