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Swan Songs: The Complete Hooded Swan Collection
Brian Stableford
Big Engine, 655 pages

Swan Songs: The Complete Hooded Swan Collection
Brian Stableford
Brian Stableford was born in 1948 at Shipley, Yorkshire. He graduated with a B.A. in Biology from the University of York, going on to do postgraduate research, first in Biology then in Sociology. In 1979 he received a D. Phil. Until 1998 he worked as a Lecturer in the Sociology Department of the University of Reading. Since then he has been a full-time writer and a part-time Lecturer at several universities.

Brian Stableford Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Fountains of Youth
SF Site Review: The Dictionary of Science Fiction Places
SF Site Review: Inherit the Earth
Big Engine

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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In my younger days I went through a period where the only thing to read was early space opera, John W. Campbell, Jr., Ray Cummings, Edmond Hamilton, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Jack Williamson, and a number of far more obscure authors. Certainly the basis for the whole Star Wars universe, this genre was notable for the non-stop action, galaxy-scale conflicts and gee-whiz sense of wonder. However, the genre had its down side: dialogues like college freshmen in physics class, super-science side by side with stupid science, stereotyped good/evil, male/female characters and ludicrous arms races. In one Edmond Hamilton novella, the heroes walk around on a dead, but highly radioactive sun, described as ten times the size of ours, wearing their civvies. The arms races (particularly in the Campbell stories) follow the general theme of: my ray blaster can obliterate your city... oh, yeah, well my new improved ray cannon can obliterate your planet... well fine! I can obliterate your galaxy with my new space fragmentor... you swine! you pushed me to it, I'll have to use my universe collapsor -- thankfully they didn't know about the multiverse. Certainly later works like Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and James Blish's Cities in Flight collection improved the genre substantially.

The six novels collected in Swan Songs: The Halcyon Drift, Rhapsody in Black, Promised Land, The Paradise Game, The Fenris Device, and Swan Song, (summarized in the links) manage to maintain the charming aspects of the genre, introduce some new elements, while thankfully avoiding the more painful excesses of the past. First, the hero and main characters don't speak college boy gibberish, they are adult and have adult relationships, if anything their philosophical monologues occasionally get a bit out of hand. The super-science is mostly used as is, rather than backed up by didactic exposés of space drive mechanics, and the author, a former scientist himself, avoids the bonehead scientific pitfalls of some of his predecessors.

The main character, Grainger, is everything the heroes of the 30s space operas were not. After surviving shipwreck on a remote planet where he picks up a symbiotic inner-voice entity, Grainger, to pay off the costs of his rescue, must indenture himself as the pilot of an untried new research starship, the Hooded Swan. He's doesn't give a rat's ass about the glory of his home world or of his "employer's" goals to collect alien technologies and knowledge, which send him, reluctantly, all over the known universe and other places besides, gathering up information or artefacts. Grainger is a curmudgeonly veteran space pilot, who tries as best he can to refute the adage that "no man is an island." He doesn't rescue/mate with alien princesses, kill evil megalomaniacs out to conquer/destroy the universe, he just gets along with his life and job piloting the Hooded Swan. While Grainger is no deeply unhappy or doomed Cornell Woolrich character, the second novel's title "Rhapsody in Black" and the mildly pessimistic mood of the novels in general certainly suggests that there may be a smidgen of tribute to Woolrich's Black Novels in the Hooden Swan novels.

Unlike much of the early space operas where it was quite clear what current socio-political issues were being paralleled (red-blooded Americans vs. evil cowardly fascists/communists), besides an envisioned threat of business conglomerates running the universe, there isn't a repetitive unifying socio-political agenda. Brian Stableford postulates interesting life forms and societies, which the main characters have to interact with and attempt to comprehend, rather than simply annihilate and move on as heroes. All this said might suggest that Swan Songs is just a step away from the difficult reading of a Olaf Stapledon, but the novels certainly have a healthy dose of rip-roaring action, chases, things blowing up and the like, it just isn't couched in stupid science or outdated politics.

So if you're like me and have grown up past the point of enjoying the majority of pre-WWII space opera, this collection of the complete Grainger novels will make for some light but entertaining reading, with enough edge to the main character to make it clear that he isn't Captain Future (or Buzz Lightyear, if you're under 20) and intelligently enough written that some questions beyond who has the biggest ray-gun do get posed and answered.

Copyright © 1998 by Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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