Swan Songs: The Complete Hooded Swan Collection
(Big Engine, £16.99, 647 pages, paperback, published 2002.)
This heavy book contains all six novels featuring the Hooded Swan Spaceship and its pilot Grainger: Halcyon Drift, Rhapsody in Black, Promised Land, The Paradise Game, The Fenris Device and Swan Song, with a modest modern introduction by the author. Each book is a self-contained mystery that involves adventures in space and usually in alien habitats. Something of a bargain at less than three pounds per book and you'd have to do a lot of burrowing around second hand shops to dig them all up.
So, thirty years on from their first publication, should anyone want to read this series and would anyone benefit from reading all six one after the other? According to the introduction, they are the best selling books of Brian Stableford's career. They deserve to be, despite their faults, of which he is all too aware. They are still remarkably original, maintain plot and develop the central character in a believable and enjoyable way, which is more than just a set of mannerisms and quirks that can get irritating. They work well as six continuous episodes and don't get tedious or repetitive in style or content. Because they are set so far in the future, the books haven't really dated at all and they are wilfully non-formulaic and capriciously complex at times.
What is so good about them? First, as the author writes in the introduction, they are pacifist space opera and while a certain amount of death and mayhem occurs, the plot is generally advanced with more subtle forms of conflict, including the threat of much death and mayhem, but the latter are generally seen as bad things by most of the protagonists, even the badder ones. And ethics are in splendid shades of grey. Second, they are biology SF rather than physics SF, which I found very striking when I first read some of the novels in the 1970s. I haven't counted then, or now, but more hard SF authors seem well grounded in physics than in biology. Alien ecosystems are generally portrayed in a believable way and are central to the plots of three of the novels. The novels are particularly commendable in making writing weaknesses be strengths. Stableford knew that it would be impossible to portray fully biodiverse worlds in a believable way, so the ecosystems detailed are each conveniently fairly simple for different but biologically plausible reasons.
Another related strength of the novels is their convincing portrayal of aliens. Too often aliens in SF are basically humans in other skins, whose motives are as scrutable as anyone's, or they are duplicate 'space invaders' who have certain species traits -- humans bad kill kill kill etc. -- but no convincing individuality. The aliens throughout Swan Songs are individuals whose motives are confusing and inscrutable, but can be glimpsed.
Another good thing is that the galactic politics behind the action is quite well depicted. As with most space opera, the books are weaker on explaining how and why society holds together over such vast and diverse spaces. The drive and navigational techniques of the Hooded Swan are good fun though. Each book involves some form of mystery that keeps the reader going, even through the almost unavoidable paragraphs of exposition. But again, turning weakness to strength, Stableford makes Grainger a bit of a bore and science nerd as well as a sarcastic but brave and kindly git. So he's 'allowed' to witter on about the details that we need in order to understand how an ecosystem or a drive unit works. Well, we don't really understand the latter at all, but it sort of sounds good at the time.
I've not even mentioned the stuff they go on about in the blurb yet: Grainger is a 'laconic anti-hero'. I prefer Stableford's own explanation that he is sarcastic and somewhat shy, being based on the young Stableford himself. His shyness extends to a considerable disinterest in women, although maybe that was Stableford using weakness in the writing as strength again, for although the female characters are too flimsily depicted to be believed by anyone, never mind attract anyone, we accept that this is Grainger's egocentric world view. Grainger also seems very likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (except that this hadn't been identified in the 1970s), for he lost his engineer -- who he cared about more than anyone else in the world -- in traumatic circumstances and shows little interest in forming other human relationships, although these increase gradually through the novel sequence as he gets more attached, in his sarcastic and dismissive way, to his new motley crew, that includes his dead engineer's sister.
The crew includes the alien mind parasite -- the Wind -- who infected him while he was marooned after the crash when his engineer died. The Wind and his developing relationship with Grainger make an interesting subplot to the whole book series, while conveniently giving our hero some superpowers. Grainger is at first horrified by having another being in his head who can control his mind and body, but they develop a symbiotic relationship and the Wind is a fine example of how well aliens are depicted in the books; a balance of explanation and mystery, with some of the mystery resolved by the series' end.
Grainger himself makes a lovely mess of character issues and some PhD student with an interest in a psychoanalytic approach to literature would enjoy giving him a seeing to: Grainger at one point wonders if his engineer's sister (who is also a pilot trying to supersede Grainger) might come to love him, but does nothing about it. He does kindly explain to her that he didn't even like her brother (so how did they pass the time on those long lonely voyages?). Twisted but realistic, I think, and a nice final illustration of how the books in many ways offer more complexity than the author probably intended when writing them.
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© Richard Hammersley 14 September 2002