Brian M. Stableford’s Hooded Swan series consisted of the following short novels:
The Halcyon Drift (1972)
Rhapsody in Black (1973)
Promised Land (1974)
The Paradise Game (1974)
The Fenris Device (1974)
Swan Song (1975)
The story arc begins with a sullen man trapped on a desolate planet.
1. The Halcyon Drift:
Grainger is rescued from Lapthorn’s Grave, the planet on which he had crash-landed two years earlier. He’s not alone; he has picked up hitchhiker on-planet, a psychic entity that shares his brain.
Rescue leaves Grainger deeply in debt, which in turn allows plutocrat Charlot to draft Grainger as the pilot of the highly experimental starship Hooded Swan. Some of Grainger’s acquaintances serve as crew. The ship also has a Charlot-supplied captain, DelArco (which means Grainger has an immediate boss, which he doesn’t like). Charlot, the Big Boss, has Big Plans for the fate of the universe and Grainger is slated to play his little part whether or not he wants to.
The first mission takes Grainger and the Hooded Swan back to the Halcyon Drift, near Lapthorn’s Grave, to steal a march on the other ships looking for a lost ship. One of those ships belongs to Grainger’s old Khor-monsa friend Alachak. Grainger is forced to choose between loyalty to an old friend and loyalty to a company that has forced him into an open-ended series of dangerous missions.
2. Rhapsody in Black
The Hooded Swan is dispatched to Rhapsody, the barely habitable world of a blue star. It is one of a number of religious colonies in the area, all of them based on a nasty religion that has turned its back on galactic civilization.
The inhabitants of this marginal planet live in subterranean tunnels. They have discovered something odd, something that the evil galactics must not be allowed to know. When the Hooded Swan touches down, the whole crew is detained.
The secret the locals are hiding is a potential threat to galactic civilization itself! Now, it might be considered EVIL to allow the destruction of civilization, but … if Grainger were to sell the secret, he might be able to pay off his debts and be free of Charlot. Decisions, decisions.
3. Promised Land
In this book, the Hooded Swan takes Grainger and the crew to New Alexandria, one of the three main powers in the human universe. There Grainger rescues a small alien girl, Alyne, from security officers. The girl is from the world of Chao Phyra. Her species is meek and submissive, which has led humans to consider them natural-born slaves. Too bad for their homeworld.
Until human settlers invaded, Alyne’s people were the only humanoids on a world populated by invertebrates. The Hooded Swan is dispatched to Chao Phyra to follow up on the biological conundrum posed by the existence of the humanoids. Grainger and crew unearth a heretofore unknown chapter in galactic history.
“Seemingly natural-born slaves” turns up a couple of times in Stableford’s fiction. They are never natural-born.
4. The Paradise Game
Portions of the world Pharos have been leased from its natives by rival plutocrat Caradoc, who has turned them into chic, expensive gardens of Eden for wealthy back-to-nature types. There is some doubt that the natives really understood the contract they signed. Charlot, always happy to jam his thumb into Caradoc’s eye, arranges for the Hooded Swan to visit Pharos.
As usual, the ecology of Pharos is odd and yet nobody notices this until Grainger (a pilot with no particular training in biology) happens to visit. There is no death on Pharos, no sex, no predators, and no conflict. An examination of the fossil record shows that this development is recent. What and why? The answer is yet another threat to galactic civilization.
5. The Fenris Device
The third starfaring race known to humanity is that of the Gallacellans. The Gallacellans are uninterested in contact with any other races (which includes humans). It is thus quite odd that they have asked the humans to do a favour for them. There is a Gallacellan starship marooned on a hostile world called Leucifer V. Since Gallacellan ships are not up to the rescuing, they need human help.
If Leucifer itself were not bad enough, the crew of the Hooded Swan find themselves grappling with would-be hijacker Maslax, a deranged dwarf.
If Grainger can survive this, he might well win his freedom from Charlot.
6. Swan Song
Grainger wins his freedom, but this turns him into a target for Caradoc, who wants to pump him for everything he knows about Charlot. Grainger evades capture, but is soon lured back into Charlot’s service. The Hooded Swan’s sister ship has vanished into the Nightingale Nebula, which actually may be a hole into another universe. The only ship that might be able to save them is the Swan; the only man able to pilot it is Grainger. Grainger may be a misanthrope, but he does care about his former crewmates. He signs on for the rescue.
The mission will prove more expensive than Grainger could imagine.
The Hooded Swan stories are gloomy and morose to the point of parody. If it were possible for space to be overcast and drizzling, it would be so everywhere Grainger goes. In the author’s defense, the books were written in the 1970s and he’s British.
Grainger is socially awkward and irritable to the end. There’s something of a character arc: he grows from a surly hermit to a grumpy introvert with a tenuous social network. One feels sorry for his psychic companion, trapped in the same head as abrasive, miserable Grainger.
One can see some of the tales as first drafts of ideas Stableford will reuse later: the slave race from the final Daedelus story, the all-consuming entity from the Emortality series, and so on. This setting is simple; the author uses the same biological hooks again and again. His later work is more ambitious, but not always as enjoyable as these stories. Though perhaps “enjoyable” is not the right word. They’re readable. Perhaps they would have been more enjoyable if the protagonist hadn’t been an antisocial depressive.
If you are looking for morose space opera told from the point of view of a misanthrope, featuring puzzles with depressing answers, you might like this series.
The Hooded Swan books are available here.