In this story we see the first confrontations between Rhodan's self-declared neutral “Third Power” and the Western and Eastern Blocs. Among the “weapons” that protect the Stardust and her crew are an antigravity ray, a psychoradiator that effects an irresistible hypno-compulsion on its target, and a massive force-field generator that creates a six-mile diameter bubble centered on the spaceship in the Gobi Desert. As a demonstration of he power at his command, Rhodan has Thora fire an energy beam from the Arkonide cruiser on the moon to literally drill a massive new volcano into the crust of the earth in the Sahara Desert. The leaders of both East and West are determined to bring Rhodan down – East to capture the Stardust and the Arkonide super-science, West to destroy it to prevent the East from acquiring it. But some forward-thinking individuals seem sympathetic to Rhodan's reasoning and goals – most interestingly Allan Mercant and his agent Lt. Klein. The former's position is more ambiguous, but the latter, along with other intelligence officers from the opposing blocs enter into a secret pact to aid Rhodan. Klein manages to gain access to Rhodan within the force field and lets him know he has friends on the outside. Meanwhile, Reginald Bell escapes the bubble in a captured helicopter and makes his way to Australia where he gains the help of Dr. Frank Haggard, the developer of the cure for leukemia that Khrest needs. He brings Clark Fletcher along with him and sets him free to return home to the United States. Fletcher had opposed Rhodan's plans, but his memory of all events related to the Stardust and the Arkonides has been blocked by the psychoradiator. (In a poignant side-story, unbeknown to Rhodan and Bell, Fletcher is captured and dies under intense interrogation. Our heroes are not infallible, and at times the consequences of their actions are not at all what they plan – sometimes tragically so. Another example is Reg accidentally sending some attacking pilots to their deaths by ordering them to fly straight up, which they do, unable to turn as their planes fly so high they lose all power and come crashing back to earth.) Reg manages to return to the Stardust with Dr. Haggard soon before the situation deteriorates. The Asiatic Federation continues to believe that this is all a Western plot and unleashes a preemptive nuclear strike – which the NATO powers answer with their own nuclear arsenal – but Rhodan has Thora deploy a nuclear suppression field that renders the nukes inert, preventing a nuclear holocaust. As thanks, Rhodan and his crew are declared enemies of mankind by both powers.
For a more detailed summary, see http://perryrhodan.us/php/displaySummary.php?number=2
I continue to be intrigued by the character of Allan Mercant – without skimming ahead in the series I can't confirm it, but I know I remember that name from when I read later books as a kid. In this story we start getting hints (maybe they were present in Enterprise Stardust as well) that there's something more to this character. Rumors among other characters are that Mercant can “read minds.”
There's quite a bit of somewhat dark humor in this volume, usually centered around Reg's adventures and use of the Arkonide weapons against those who stand in the way of his mission. He takes glee in making soldiers do humiliating things such as slithering away from him back to their barracks on their stomachs. As noted above, in the beginning his ill-considered commands have some tragic results, but he seems to learn from his mistakes and use the weapons more judiciously as the story progresses.
The character of Clark Fletcher … sad. I remembered the other three names when I started reading Enterprise Stardust – Rhodan, Bell, and Manoli. Here we find out why I didn't remember Fletcher. From the beginning of the first book he was presented as a weak, unheroic, albeit sympathetic character, very much out of in sync with those whom we know are going to be the heroes of this series. Rhodan had been concerned about his constant distraction, having a pregnant wife awaiting his return from the moon mission. It seemed that his main motivation when the Stardust returned was getting back to her. Whether from conviction or fear, he did not believe in Rhodan's dream. And so he was released – as I mentioned before – unwittingly to his doom. His interrogators, not conceiving that he simply could not tell him what they wanted to know, eventually induced so much stress that he died of a stroke. “Never would he know of the birth of his child. Never would he know his little girl.” Those are two of the saddest lines I've read in a while.
A little more about the 1970s English translation of Perry Rhodan: It was the enterprise of sci-fi superfan Forrest J. Ackerman and his wife Wendayne (the chief translator). Forry's own account of how the project came about can be found here: http://www.perry-rhodan-usa.com/posbiintro. Among the interesting tidbits I learned there is that, contrary to what I'd always believed and heard, the hero's name is not “ro-DAN” but rather “RO-d'n” with the accent on the first syllable. There's also some information on the process of translation, how some of the main characters' names were changed from their German originals (“Reginald Bell” was originally “Reginald Bull,” for instance), and that the German originals did not have chapters. You can read the rest for yourself, including a fact that explains the seeming discrepancy in the authorship between the German and English versions of The Third Power.