The British science fiction writer Brian Stableford had a prolific period in the late 1970s, during which he inter alia created a hexalogy about the bitter starpilot Grainger and the Hooded Swan starship. I got hold of the books as soon as they arrived in Sweden around 1980 and found them enjoyable. Re-reading the stories 35 years later, my middle-aged self still finds them entertaining and thought-provoking. I also see a few things that my youthful self didn’t.
The series comprises the titles Halcyon Dift, Rhapsody in Black, Promised Land, The Paradise Game, The Fenris Device, and Swan Song. The protagonist, the “I” of the stories, is Grainger, a middle-aged star pilot who starts in book 1 as a ship-wrecked castaway on a forlorn planet. He is rescued, gets heavily in debt as a result, and as a consequence spends the rest of the stories as an indentured pilot for Titus Charlot, a master scientist bent re-aligning the course of galactic history. Yes, we are speaking about the whole galaxy here. The Milky Way serves as the backdrop when Grainger pilots the Hooded Swan from world to world on behalf of Charlot. She is the fastest tachyonic ship ever, capable of speeds of up to 50,000 c.
Stableford is a master of made-up terminology, expertly coining words for things that don’t exist, like the tachyonic trans-c cosmos through the Hood Swan flies (e.g. its “contortive domains” and “hyoplasmic lesions”) or the technology used in the starship engines (e.g. the “mass-relaxation web” and the liquid “flux”). I would hate translating these books into another language.
Stableford also knows ecology quite well and several plot points are based on the interaction between alien ecologies and the human species. What you don’t know about a planet’s biosphere may well mess you up.
The author provides a social commentary from a working-class perspective. There is a clear western European touch to how Grainger, a man from a simple background, describes the power-play between major corporations and the science world of New Alexandria that he becomes an involuntary witness to. The stories are cleverly designed to tell only what the reader needs to know about interstellar politics — no ranting expositions or thudding info dumps — but the hints are unpleasant and contain elements that later will be expanded upon in the 1980s cyberpunk wave.
For instance, the rapidly growing mega-corporations wield military power at the same level as governments and they are ruthless in a desire to “own” the cosmos. The New Alexandria science elite is less rapacious, but equally megalomaniac in its desire to reshape the laws of human evolution through the acquisition and synthesis of knowledge, human and non-human. It is a conflict between “control by possessing” and “control by knowing”. Both sides get their hands burned during the stories, because cosmos is too huge and therefore beyond human grasp.
Grainger continuously delivers snarky comments on what he sees as destructive and mad ambitions, even though he knows that working-class chaps like him cannot do much about what is going on. No heroes will save the galaxy from its future: the impending major war. That attitude is also reflected in how violence is handled in the stories: petty, unpleasant and often counter-productive.
Stableford sends the reader to a variety of weird and beautifully described locations: the interiors of a chaos-ridden nebula, the tunnels and shafts of a drilled-out asteroid world, a paradisiacal resort-planet-to-be (of course there is a snake lurking in it), the storms of a Neptunian giant world, and so on. He is almost equally skilled at portraying societies. Grainger’s visit to a decaying Earth in book 1 is well-conceived. The cradle of mankind has turned into a backwater, harmful to its inhabitants because of environmental poisoning. Stableford’s non-human sapients are also suitably alien at the border of comprehensibility.
Grainger as a protagonist develops through the stories together with his fellow crewmen on the Hooded Swan: captain Nick, co-pilot Eve, engineer Johnny. They learn and mature through the stories. For an adult reader it is obvious that Grainger has a hard time understanding that other people actually like him, perhaps because he is depressed and wants to be the archetypal grumpy loner. This makes him an unreliable narrator. He also carries an intelligent alien parasite — something he keeps as a secret all the time — with whom he has mental conversations ranging from the informative to the bitter. The parasite often grasps the ins and outs of the conundrums first and, because he mimics his host’s behavior, behaves like a smartass.
Science marches on and leaves yesterday’s science fiction behind — that’s a truism. 35-40 years have passed since publication and you will immediately see what contemporary innovations Stableford missed. There is merely a hint of a primitive internet look-alike in the first book. People don’t use small personal computers in any shape and they usually rely on whatever knowledge they have in their heads. Books are printed. But the Hooded Swan is still futuristic and her neural human/ship interface connects the pilot’s five senses to her sensory devices in a vivid way.
Yes, I enjoyed re-visiting Grainger’s future: beauty, adventure, snarkiness, and an unusually good prose. The books are still around so you might make a trip in the Hooded Swan into the unknown.