Rhapsody in Black, by Angus McKie

Where it all started…

The summer of 1985 was where it all started, with issue #29 of Imagine magazine. Imagine was the British born sister mag to the D&D focused Dragon magazine, but featured content from all over the fantasy, science fiction and horror genre, including gaming, books, movies and so on. Issue #29 was special because it was devoted to science fiction in all its forms. It had an interview with SF author Bob Shaw, (famous for Orbitsville, the Brit rival to Larry Niven’s Ringworld), a full pull out adventure module based on his book “Ship of Strangers” and one other thing: a glorious cover by Angus McKie.

The cover image captivated me so much that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for … well, I still haven’t stopped really. It featured a sleek, sophisticated spacecraft orbiting a placid watery planet, surrounded by sun-dogs and lens-flares from the distant sun. The ship was graceful and elegant, with smooth curves, a mirrored hull and stylized graphics here and there. In my Traveller RPG adventures, I had to have it – so I wrote up stats after building it in the Traveller ship design sequence, tying it onto one of my characters through a dangerously exorbitant mortgage which would take several lifetimes to pay off. I drew up floor-plans for it, sketched pictures, basically going the whole nine yards with it.  I named it the “Interstellar Queen.” And apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

Of course, the name has a story behind it: when I first got the magazine, a friend saw the cover and exclaimed, “Hey, that’s the Interstellar Queen!”  At that point, I had no idea of the significance of what he said. I was a kid and I did what kids tend to do, I claimed the idea for myself. That name was mine!  And so I used it, writing stories, living my RPG adventures, paying off that mortgage. And after awhile I believed it, but.. there’s always a ‘but’.

But my friend’s words haunted me. He wasn’t a very creative type, so how did he come up with such a beautiful name? Or did he? I figured he didn’t come up with it himself so I began searching for a reference for it. Keeping in mind that this was long before the Net appeared and I lived in rural Somerset in the UK, there was very few places either of us could see it. Two years later, I was emigrating to Canada due to reasons beyond my family’s control, but before I left, my friend asked me over for a visit. We ended up looking through books, watching movies, and so on. Amongst his brother’s books we discovered a title I would later come to know as the Terran Trade Authority series – I can’t remember which one it was, but there was a full spread of a very familiar spaceship, along with the cover painting from Imagine #29 and it was labelled the “Interstellar Queen.”  My heart sank, but only because my extremely shaky ‘claim’ to the name needed to be put aside and forgotten.

However, it was far from a sad event, as I discovered the real source of the painting, which was done for a series of books by Brian Stableford, The Hooded Swan.  The artist Angus McKie had done paintings for all of the first Pan Books editions, and they were captivating. That’s where things reversed themselves completely. My obsessive desire to fill the Queen and her universe with my own details and adventures was put aside and now I was equally obsessed with finding out about the universe others had given her, particularly the Hooded Swan books for which the painting was done  and the Terran Trade Authority itself for reinventing the image as the Interstellar Queen. This would turn into a long, long quest.

From “The Paradise Game”, by Brian Stableford.

With regards to the Terran Trade Authority, I came to realize that I had already flipped through at least two of the books when I was around 11-15 from my local library and when I made that connection, I realized I had to have copies of them for myself.  However, I wouldn’t see another copy for many years and wouldn’t own my own for even longer. I was now in Canada, scrabbling around in a Used Bookstore, one of three or four in St. Catharines at the time (now sadly only two, the best ones are gone) and I came across three of the books, for $5 each – what a score!!!  Great Space Battles, Space Wrecks, Spaceships 2100-2200…!  (I’m still looking for a reasonably priced copy of the rare “Starliners” book to complete the series – they tend to go for $100 Cdn, incl shipping, I supposed that’s karma for getting the others at $5 a pop!)

The same thing happened for the Hooded Swan books, finding two of them at a different used book store while hunting for a copy of Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker and finding only the other Berserker books (There’s always lots of Berserker books, never the first one.) Anyway, I managed to score the first two books in the Hooded Swan series: Halcyon Drift and the book with the cover that started it all: Rhapsody in Black.

At that point, it had been almost twenty years since I had seen the cover and my interests had changed a little bit, so I popped the books on my reading list and hoped to get to them shortly. As any book lover who keeps a reading list might be able to testify, that reading list usually grows faster than one can read the books on it, there’s simply too many books to check out! To be fair, I did start the book shortly after I got it, but was quickly sidetracked by books from other authors, probably by that evil man Iain M. Banks.

Well, I can finally say that I am bringing this story to a close, some 27 years after seeing that damn painting! This last week, I finally got around to reading the first in the series “Halcyon Drift” in its entirety and I’m glad to say that it was a good one. Which I’m relieved to say, as 27 years is a long time to wait to read a stinker!  The book is a product of its generation: 150 pages, moves fast, ties together nicely, not a sprawling epic like far too many books (and series…) these days and it gave me food for thought (but for a different article further down the road).  I think its weathered well against a lot of modern books,though it lacks for the “large scale” of New Space Opera; I’d say its style is comparable to Jack McDevitt books like “Seeker” (whose covers feature another fave SF artist of mine John Harris. Curse you McDevitt!!!)  I’m on to “Rhapsody in Black” now and hopefully the rest of the series of six books.  The quest isn’t quite over, as I’ve yet to get my grubby paws on the other four books, but in the age of E-Bay, Amazon used books, and other services, it won’t be as bad as things were in the mid-eighties, rural England.

Angus McKie

The Cover for the first Hooded Swan book, Halcyon Drift by Brian Stableford

I suppose that after all this, I should describe what the Hooded Swan series is all about. In short, its the sort of book that might have Han Solo as the lead character. Its set in a galaxy where intelligent species have laid claim to large chunks of stars and a thriving interstellar empire  had arisen. As far as human spacecraft go, the tech has plateaued and in five hundred years or so, and now there’s a new development, combining human tech with the alien Khormon, resulting in the revolutionary “Hooded Swan.” It just needs a pilot and he doesn’t want the job. That man is Grainger (no first name), a reknowned pilot but hard to work with. A bit of a scoundrel, you could say. He is also host to an alien brain parasite…  And he’s just been rescued from the Halcyon Drift, a notorious part of space full of space-time distortions making it extremely hard to navigate. The peeps who rescued him want a ridiculously large compensation, but all that could be waived if he takes a job in piloting the Hooded Swan. The only problem is that the Swan’s first mission is to return to the Halcyon Drift in order to retrieve the cargo from the legendary spacecraft the “Lost Star” which went down in the Drift over 80 years ago. There is a secret aboard that ship and lots of peeps want it bad… the Caradoc Company, the New Alexandrians and the entire Khormon race.

So, was it worth the 27 year wait?  Yeah, I think so… /drool

Image Credit: All images, art by Angus McKie.