I suppose that some people might consider it a great convenience to be sharing their skull with another mind, on the grounds that two points of view are better than one. They might even consider it to be especially convenient that the alien mind couldn’t stay alien, but had to organize itself along lines similar to their own—become human, in fact. It means, after all, that one need never be alone. It means that one never need be completely isolated from one’s own kind. It means the everpresence of a friend, which might be necessary in times of dire need […]. It means an extra force with which to oppose the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and illimitable seas of troubles, and an extra chance to end such troubles.
But as well as all that, it is also a bloody nuisance.
Brian Stableford Rhapsody In Black (1973)
Brian Stableford is a British science fiction and fantasy author, also active as a critic, translator and academic commentator. The Hooded Swan series of six novels, published between 1972 and 1975, is how he first caught my attention. According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, (and certainly more importantly for Stableford) it also marks the point at which he significantly penetrated the American science fiction market. Since then, I’ve also enjoyed some of his fantasy alternate histories: The Empire Of Fear (1988), in which vampires are real; the David Lydyard trilogy (1990-1994), ditto werewolves; and the Empire Of The Necromancers trilogy (2008-2010), ditto Frankenstein’s monster.
But the Hooded Swan books, presented in Pan’s iconic silver-blocked titles with striking cover art by Angus McKie*, still hold a particular place in my memory, persisting across four decades. So it was clearly time I revisited them.
The novels are very much of their era—there are sprawling spaceports, dotted with starships poised for take-off, and rimmed with the inevitable spaceport bars, where arguments end in fist-fights. The aliens are all comfortably humanoid, and there’s that old reliable contrast between the civilized central part of the galaxy, and the Wild West out on the rim.
To this, Stableford brings a noir sensibility via his first-person narrator, a disillusioned and down-on-his-luck pilot called Grainger (no first name), who has a Chandleresque line in weary cynicism. Here he is, telling his aspiring engineer Johnny Socoro how he got into debt after crashing his previous spaceship:
‘An outfit called the Caradoc Company charged me for their services in rescuing me from a rock where I went down. They took me to New Rome and got me clobbered for twenty thousand.’
‘Hell!’ Johnny was suitably impressed. You can judge the social standing of man even now by the sums of money he reacts to.
And here he is assessing the credentials of a group of men who have just abducted him and his companions:
The heavy mob looks the same the universe over. They have never really escaped the influence of the clichés laid down by the earliest exponents of the art of strong-arming. They always have big shoulders and slack features, and a casual swing to their movements deliberately styled to suggest that they can—and maybe do—bend iron bars between their fingers. Our welcoming committee was trying hard—if subconsciously—to give this overall impression, but they weren’t very good at it. Gangsters may be born or made, but these men had had gangsterism thrust upon them.
Only when he’s talking about his ship, the Hooded Swan, does Grainger allow himself to approve of anything. Here, he describes how it feels to fly a spacecraft to which he is neurological linked:
We climbed and we circled and we fell and we zoomed in a gigantic arc. Slowly, almost languidly, I began to tighten the arc, to reduce the radius of the spiral. My body bent and my wings billowed, and I could feel in the tenure of my bones and the texture of my skin and the tonus of my muscles exactly how much she could take. I knew beyond all doubt what my ship could do, because I was she and she was me. My ship, was the Hooded Swan. Mine.
I could fly faster than light.
I could fly higher than the stars.
I could fly through clouds and through rainbows.
So that’s almost all the set-up you need to know. Grainger is in debt. In order to pay off his debt, he is contracted to fly a starship that he falls in love with.
Oh. And then there’s the alien mind parasite. While shipwrecked alone for two years, Grainger begins to believe the wind is talking to him. After a while, he realizes that the voice in his head is real. He has been infected with an entity that uses his brain’s processing power to run in parallel with his own consciousness. It knows everything that Grainger knows, and it cannot help but adopt Grainger’s world-weary attitude. So that’s what’s going on in the quotation at the head of this post. The story arc, across six novels, is about how Grainger reaches a grudging modus vivendi with the nagging voice in his head, and how the “mind parasite” (actually, we’re told in the second novel, a commensal organism†) slowly proves its usefulness to Grainger.
So, to the novels. The first, Halcyon Drift (1972), is largely concerned with establishing the structure for the later stories—Grainger’s shipwreck, the mind parasite, the rescue, the incurred debt, and the resulting indenture to his new boss, Titus Charlot, who is a sort of prefiguration of what we’d now recognize as a manipulative and amoral tech millionaire. The supporting characters are assembled, in the form of the Hooded Swan and her crew, and Grainger flies his first mission, to retrieve the cargo of a lost starship, wrecked somewhere in a dangerous region of space called (you guessed it) the Halcyon Drift.
With Rhapsody In Black (1973), Stableford begins to use his two areas of expertise (a degree in biology and a doctorate in sociology) to good effect. Grainger’s next mission takes him the planet Rhapsody, where an isolationist religious cult, who live underground in near-permanent darkness, have stumbled on a piece of exotic biology with dangerous implications for the whole of galactic civilization. Grainger’s hostile relationship with his mind parasite, whom he refers to as “the wind”, slowly develops into a sort of brittle interior banter. And he begins to realize that the wind can do more with Grainger’s nervous system than merely inhabit it.
Promised Land (1974) finds Grainger in the rainforest of Chao Phrya, trying to find an abducted alien child. The human colonists of Chao Phrya view the planet as their Promised Land, and have marginalized the native alien Anacaona, imposing human culture upon them—there are clear resonances here with the way European colonists dealt with indigenous peoples, historically, but Stableford is too good a writer to have his characters explain all that to the reader. As Grainger and his little party push into the rainforest, and the mission descends into chaos, he slowly discovers how alien the thought process of the Anacaona are. There’s a genuinely tense finale featuring two-ton spiders, in which Grainger’s relationship with the wind changes permanently.
The Paradise Game (1974) takes Grainger to Pharos, a planet with a very strange biosphere, where he finds himself in the middle of a three-way stand-off between law enforcement, a mega-corporation intent on developing the planet for its own use, and an environmental activist group who are using ecotage to thwart the proposed development. (Given the advent of Greenpeace a few years previously, the conflict was a topical one at the time of writing.) As Grainger pieces together the nature of Pharos’s ecology, an unexpected crisis point is reached, and he again has to rely on the wind’s subtle ability to tweak his physiology.
In The Fenris Device (1974), Grainger must attempt to recover an ancient alien spacecraft from the dangerous surface of a storm-wracked planet. The spacecraft’s original purpose is mysterious, but it is rumoured to carry a weapon capable of destroying moons (the “Fenris device” of the title). The already hazardous process is complicated by the presence of several competing factions, including a hijacker, and Grainger’s reliance on the aid of his mind parasite reaches a whole new level. By the end of it all, Grainger is ready to quit his job.
Finally, in Swan Song (1975), Stableford deploys the “called out of retirement for one last mission” trope. But he does it knowingly and gleefully. Here’s Grainger, summarizing the situation to a friend:
“Intrepid rush into danger. Old man on brink of death. Mock-heroic space pilot and aging crony. Youngster in the engine room. Seemingly impossible rescue attempt set against a background of cosmic concepts sufficient to make the mind boggle. Isn’t quite what it was in Planet Stories, though, is it?”
The action takes Grainger and the Hooded Swan on a rescue mission into a bizarre pocket universe, and Stableford manages to weave together multiple interpretation of the phrase “swan song” while bringing the series to a satisfactory, if melancholy, conclusion.
What I liked about these novels, and still enjoy on re-reading, is how well Stableford mashes up the narrative furniture of 1970s planetary romance with the sensibilities of noir fiction from the 1940s. In my head, Grainger raps out his lines in the rapid-fire clipped manner of a cynical private investigator in a black-and-white movie. The novels are all short (150 pages of mass-market paperback), so the individual stories are necessarily quite simply constructed, but there’s a well-planned story arc that spans all the books, and Grainger is an engaging anti-hero. I’m not sure about some of Stableford’s more purple prose, and some of his word choices seem a little odd (see “the tenure of my bones” above), but overall I greatly enjoyed revisiting them.
And, as seems to be the case for most of my obscure-but-classic science fiction reviews these days, they’re all currently available as e-books from Gollancz’s Gateway collection.
* McKie’s interpretation of the spaceship Hooded Swan as an actual swan-shaped vehicle was inspired. It aligns perfectly with the spirit of Stableford’s writing, in which the Swan swoops and soars like no other spacecraft, under the control of its ecstatic pilot. But the physical descriptions in the novels suggest that the Hooded Swan has a rather stereotypical upright “rocketship” design, with fins and engines at the bottom and a control station at the top. And, as the first novel makes clear, the name of the ship derives from a direct translation of the Latin binomial Cygnus cucullatus, once applied to (of all things) the dodo. So we must all bless Angus McKie for his feat of imagination.
† Stableford, who has a degree in biology, was of course aware of the difference between a parasite, which harms its host, and a commensal, which does not. But, oddly, he also used the word symbiote for the commensal state. Symbiote was an accidental coining by Hal Clement, in his 1950 novel Needle, which subsequently achieved a certain currency in science fiction, but the standard term in biology is symbiont.