“Berserker” by Fred Saberhagen – Life’s Fight Against the Unfeeling Machine

In the far distant past an unknown race simply called The Builders perfected a vast fleet of killing machines. The machines’ mission was simple; exterminate all intelligent life that was not The Builders. However, something went wrong and the machines turned on their creators. After eliminating The Builders they continued on with their primary mission to exterminate all intelligent life. Now, countless millennia later, they have found our galaxy and are proceeding with their unyielding plan. If The Builders gave the machines a name it has not been discovered. Humans call them Berserkers.

Berserkers are vast thinking machines whose only objective is to overcome intelligent life wherever they find it. They have the ability to learn and to repair themselves. They are also capable of building weapons, robots, and even flesh covered robots. They can overwhelm with force or with more subtle devices or actions. They are difficult to destroy but not impossible and they can also be fooled. A tough opponent however you look at it.

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The Ace cover of Berserker by Fred Saberhagen.

Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker was first published in 1967 as a collection of eleven stories that were published from 1963 to 1966 mainly in Worlds of If. In these stories humans seem to be the only species capable of physically fighting the berserker machines, and while they are aided with technology and such from other species the full force of the war is carried by humanity. Each of the eleven stories presents a view of the fight against berserkers with several of the stories linking up into a larger loosely connected narrative.

While the stories were originally published on their own, in this collection Saberhagen has added a narrative voice in the guise of this being from the collection of the Third Historian of the Carmpan Race. Each story is now prefaced with a little word from the historian.

The first story is “Without a Thought” (originally published as “Fortress Ship”). In this story computer programmer Del Murray, along with his aiyan helper, are facing a berserker alone in his ship. His lone ship is not strong enough to destroy the berserker, but others are coming to help. Unfortunately, berserkers have a mind control weapon that impedes coherent thought allowing them to destroy their enemies more easily. After such an attack is finished the berserker challenges Murray to a game to test if he is truly intelligent. By coincidence Murray is also a chess genius so he knocks up a crude system that allows his aiyan companion to play the game while he is under the control of the mind ray.

I found this to be an inauspicious start to the series and while I do appreciate stories that involve problem solving, this one has a plot that offers too convenient a solution with very little effort on the part of the players. Still, as an introduction to a wider universe it’s not terrible if only for the background information you receive.

Next is “Goodlife”, a story about a group of prisoners, led by Hemphill, as they try to destroy the berserker they are aboard. While imprisoned they encounter Goodlife, a teenage boy that has spent his life aboard the Berserker being conditioned to serve it. Hemphill and his fellow captive, Maria, try to understand Goodlife and use him to help in their quest to destroy the berserker.

I felt “Goodlife” was a much better story than the previous one. It had some real drama punctuated with action and good dialogue. The idea that any life form that sides with the berserker is called Goodlife and enemies are Badlife is a bit quaint, and while the designations are not terribly romantic it does serve to highlight the binary nature of the Berserker thinking. With “Goodlife” we are starting to get into the meat of the Berserker Universe and Saberhagen has a better grasp on what he wants it to become.

The third story “Patron of the Arts” is another odd one. Piers Herron, an artist, has been captured by a berserker while travelling aboard the Frans Hal along with many of Earth’s most valuable pieces of art in an effort to preserve them. Herron attempts to prove to the berserker that art is good by showing it a painting Herron has done to represent the berserker.

The idea that a machine can learn to appreciate the finer points of human existence is a fairly common one. Some succeed better than other, many better than this attempt. I don’t find it good enough to recommend reading and if you come across it I would say skip it.

Next is “The Peacemaker”, Carr travels out alone in an unarmed ship in order to engage a berserker in peace talks. It is strictly a ruse to give his world time to ready their warships in order to battle the berserker, but Carr is a convincing speaker and finds a unique and beneficial way to distract the berserker by offering to help it study what life is.

This story may not seem like much at first and my description paints a rather dull and simple story, but the wry little twist at the end of the story lifts it into something that couldn’t help to elicit a grin of enjoyment at the expense of the berserker. It wasn’t the ending I was expecting and that is a difficult thing for an author to achieve in any story.

“Stone Place” is the first ‘proper’ war story of this book. It has been discovered that the berserkers are assembling a fleet to overwhelm the human forces and strike a decisive blow in their effort to destroy life. Mitchell Spain, a sometimes writer and poet, and a soldier who has distinguished himself, has come to Earth to be part of the fleet gathering to face the berserkers.

The Earth fleet is under the command of Johann Karlsen, a brilliant tactician and younger brother of Filipe Nogara, the ruler of the Esteel Empire. Karlsen is expected to lead the fleet to victory. Mitchell Spain is to lead a force to board and destroy a berserker. The job is dangerous enough but there is dissension among the leaders of the combined forces and infighting, so what is already a deadly mission becomes possibly suicidal. Fortunately, Karlsen has the aid of Hemphill, a veteran and capable soldier we have previously met.

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Author Fred Saberhagen.

“Stone Place” is perhaps the best story of this collection. It provides a grimly realistic view of collation forces and the kind of difficulties a leader could face if certain decisions don’t adhere to the tastes and views of some groups. It also offers a view that even in times of great crises, some people will try to advance themselves and their causes at the expense of anything else. The action part of the story is almost a bonus. If you were to read only one story in this collection this should be the one.

The story that follows, “What T and I Did”, again takes place aboard a berserker among a group of prisoners taken at the destruction of Atsog. Thad is hurt and being tended to by a doctor, he can only see from one eye with a patch over the other. He is told not to remove the patch or his eye my not recover. However, when he does remove the patch Thad is transformed into T, a violent outlaw that aided the berserker in destroying Atsog.

I think this story may have been inspired by the first full corpus callosotomy operation in 1962. Saberhagen may have been trying to explore the possibility of such operation to rehabilitate the worst things in human nature. It’s an interesting premise, but there was probably too little information available at the time to make the story too deep. It’s an okay story and furthers the development of the Berserker Universe only a little. I’d recommend the story, but not highly.

The seventh story of the collection is “Mr. Jester”. This was my least favourite story both in premise and execution. It references lightly the events of “Stone Place” but doesn’t rely heavily on them. One thing it does do well is highlight the different cultures that have arisen on different human worlds. There is no unifying culture among humanity and we shouldn’t expect one. In the end, though, I would recommend skipping this story.

Next we come to “Masque of the Red Shift”. Filipe Nogara, aboard his flagship Nirvana, has lately conquered Flamland and added it to the Esteel Empire, however, his brother, Johann Karlsen, has succumbed to a deadly virus there. At least that what is generally known to be true.

An incoming courier ship carrying Flamland rebel Janda and his sister Lucinda is captured by a berserker craft. The berserkers are using the courier to get aboard the Nirvana to confirm the death of Johann Karlsen. The berserkers set up a decoy to get on board Nirvana and Lucinda agrees to aid them.

This is another militant story in the Berserker Universe. There is intrigue and action aplenty with a not unexpected result at the end. It also connects more directly with “Stone Place”. This is the type of story Saberhagen tells best, a fast moving and well plotted piece that draws you in on all fronts. It’s also the kind of story you expect from a book like Berserker. It’s must read story in this collection.

In “The Sign of the Wolf” we are transported to an isolated world that has regressed into an agrarian society and where Earth has become a legend and technology greater than a forge is forgotten. Young Duncan’s only dream is to escape the shepherd’s life he leads and to receive a sign from the Sky-Gods so he might be accepted into the priesthood.

Unknown to Duncan, or anyone else on the planet’s surface, a berserker has discovered them and is heading cautiously towards them. This caution is perhaps the berserker’s mistake as it allows long dormant planetary defences to come online. But that isn’t enough to destroy the berserker.

This is a middling story. It again emphasises the size of space and the length of time human expansion has been going on, but ultimately it is one of the weaker stories of the collection. I the ending is completely expected so it’s difficult to recommend this story with any enthusiasm.

The penultimate story is “In the Temple of Mars”. Soldier turned journalist, Mitchell Spain, has been invited aboard Filipe Nogara’s new space castle the Nirvana II to catch a lift to meet and interview Nogara. The Nirvana II is commanded by High Admiral Hemphill. The Nirvana II is so massive, though, that even Hemphill doesn’t know everything that is aboard her. So deep within the bowels the Esteel secret police have been experimenting with the berserker mind control ray with a sickening plot. However, Hemphill has a plot of his own.

This is another story with a more action oriented plot. Saberhagen writes an exciting story and this is no exception. The plots between the secret police and Hemphill are nicely abutted serving as solid counterpoints to one another. This story is required reading from this collection.

The last story “The Face of the Deep” I will mention nothing about as it will spoil earlier plots for those of you who have not read them. I will say that it is an excellent story with a sense of grandeur that a good space opera should have. It also serves as an excellent way to cap off this collection of stories. I would give it high marks with the caveat that one must read “Stone Place” and “Masque of the Red Shift” in order to fully appreciate this one.

Berserker on the whole is a very good collection of stories showcasing Fred Saberhagen’s wide and skilful talents as a writer. Saberhagen wrote no less than eighteen Berserker novels and anthologies. It has also inspired a board game in 1982 that I wish had been better realised than it had been.

The Berserker board game published by Flying Buffalo, Inc. in 1982. A disappointing effort.

Berserker is the kind of setting I have always been fond of and while the quality of the stories do vary I would heartily recommend the book to anyone wanting to dip their toes into the deep pool that Saberhagen created. I have no doubt you will come away enthused and impressed by Saberhagen’s efforts.

As an aside, if you do like this type of setting I would also recommend looking at the Bolo series by Keith Laumer, the Man-Kzin Wars series started by Larry Niven, and David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series; all of which have the same depth as Berserker.

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