Friday, March 20, 2015

Berserker by Fred Saberhagen (Part 1)

Years ago, while living in New York, the wife and I drove out west to visit in-laws, and in Minnesota I purchased the 1967 paperback edition of Berserker, the first volume in what is perhaps Fred Saberhagen's most famous series.  I read a few of the stories and, not particularly impressed, put the book aside for years.  Recently I have mentioned my decision to give Saberhagen another look, and this week took Berserker off the shelf with the plan of reading it in its entirety and assessing it anew. Today we'll cover the first five of the eleven stories in the 190 page volume.

For Ballantine's Berserker (U5063) Saberhagen added brief introductions to each of the stories that serve to link them together and provide a little background on humanity's colonization of the galaxy and relationship with the peaceful Carmpan, a cerebral race unprepared for the berserker onslaught.

"Without a Thought" (1963)

Originally published with the title "Fortress Ship" in If, "Without a Thought"'s first paragraphs tell us what we need to know about the berserkers: they are huge robots programmed to exterminate all life and equipped with enough firepower to destroy the entire surface of a planet in 48 Earth hours, built by the score a bazillion years ago by now-forgotten warring space empires.  The berzerkers act unpredictably, and thus are difficult for humanity's space navies to outfight.

Two human starships confront a berserker we are told is the size of my home state of New Jersey! If the robot gets past them it will destroy a human-inhabited star system! But it takes three human ships to defeat a berserker, and the third ship is four hours away! Can they stall the berserker until help arrives?

Yes! The berserker is testing out its mind-paralyzing ray! To assess the effectiveness of the ray, it challenges a human pilot to a game of checkers!  But the human figures out how it can fool the berserker into thinking the mind ray is not working--he develops a logical system much like a computer program that teaches his semi-intelligent alien pet how to play checkers!  This buys enough time for the third ship to arrive!

This story is OK, but it feels contrived and gimmicky, like Saberhagen came up with the cool idea of how to teach the pet checkers, and then built a story around this idea. (Can't the berserker just talk to the human to figure out how well the mind ray is working?)  The way the berserker toys with the humans instead of just shooting them down, even though Saberhagen explains that this is research and an effort on the part of the berserker to remain unpredictable, feels like the irrational behavior of a Bond villain who decides to let 007 live after capturing him.  Of course, "Without a Thought" fits well into the SF tradition of stories in which an engineer-type uses science and logic on the fly against the clock to save the day.

"Goodlife" (1963)

This story is much more successful as a human drama and an adventure tale than "Without a Thought."  Two people, a man and a woman, are captured by a berserker when it destroys the ship on which they are passengers.  Inside the berserker they encounter a young man who has lived his entire life inside the genocidal robot!  A test tube baby, created from the DNA of earlier captives, he has never seen a human in the flesh before, and habitually obeys the berserker, who calls him "Goodlife."  (All other life is "badlife.")  While the robot studies his two new captives and plots to breed the female with Goodlife, the man and woman plot to disable the berserker from within and win Goodlife over to their side.

"Goodlife" works as a sort of horror story, as it gives us glimpses of the psychological effect the berserker war has on people and thrusts them into the bizarre environment of the berserker's interior.

"Goodlife" first appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow, which, like If, was edited by Frederik Pohl.  In fact, I think all the stories in Berserker appeared in Pohl-edited magazines published by the Galaxy Publishing Corporation.

"Patron of the Arts" (1965)

This one appeared in If.  A space ship full of famous art works flees the Earth because the berserkers are approaching.  The ship is captured by a berserker and the crew is killed while resisting.  Two passengers who do not resist survive, including a depressed artist whom we are told is weary of life.

The artist tries to paint an abstract representation of the berserker's "essence," a canvas "of discordant and brutal line...aflame with a sense of engulfing menace!"  The artist laments that the berserker will destroy all the famous paintings and sculptures on the ship.  He is then surprised to learn that the berserker is not going to destroy the art--the art is already dead, he is told, and thus destroying it is not part of the berserker mission.  The berserker is not going to kill the artist, either; the robot, detecting the artist's own unhappiness with life and interpreting his painting as praise for the berserkers, sets the artist and the art ship free so that "other life-units can learn from you...."  Shocked, the artist, as soon as he is out of the robot's clutches, rips up the painting of the berserker's essence and announces his intention to become a better person: "I can change.  I am alive." 

Titian - Man with a Glove
The most memorable scene in the story is probably when the artist, thinking the robot is going to destroy the artworks, has to decide whether to let the other human survivor, an ugly young woman, get away in a one-man life boat, or fill up the escape pod with Titian's Man with a Glove, which Wikipedia is telling me takes up about nine square feet.  I always find references to traditional high culture in classic SF, like the Chinese bowl in "--We Also Walk Dogs" by Robert Heinlein or all the references to classical music in Poul Anderson's Avatar interesting.  What is their agenda in mentioning these works of art?  To signal to the reader that "I am sophisticated, even if my work appears in these goofy pulp magazines!"?  To stand against the trend towards abstract art and rock music?  Saberhagen in  "Patron of the Arts" has the artist compare his abstract painting to Titian and feel ashamed of his own work, which he later destroys.  Who appreciates the abstract canvas?  The murderous robot!  Maybe we should see "Patron of the Arts" as a denunciation of modern art as inhuman and an insult to the high tradition of Western art.  

Saberhagen's choice, and the character's choice, of Man with a Glove also prods us to play such parlor games as "If you were on a desert island with one work of art..." or "If only one work of art would survive the apocalypse, what would it be?"

"The Peacemaker" (1964)

"The Peacemaker" appeared in If under the title "The Life Hater."  Like "Without a Thought," it is a story that portrays a single human outwitting a berserker to buy time.  "The Peacemaker" also tries to trick readers and hit us with a surprise ending.

A berserker is bearing down on a human planet on the edge of the galaxy!  The government is scrambling to build warships, but will they have time?  A lone man, "something of a pacifist," goes off in a one-man ship to "talk of peace and love" with the genocide machine!  The berserker and the pacifist have a little debate, in which the human tries to convince the machine that it should not destroy life, but serve it, and serve humanity in particular, humanity being the highest form of life, as evidenced by the complexity of human cells.

The berserker asks for a cell sample, ostensibly to see if human cells really are so complex.  In reality it uses the information from the cell sample to develop a biological warfare agent!  The berserker says it is convinced, and will now serve humankind, and sends the pacifist back to his planet infected with the biowarfare agent, expecting the human to land and infect the entire planet.  But the joke is on the berserker!  The pacifist has cancer, and provided the robot with a cancer-stricken sample, so the infection is curing him instead of killing him!  And his proximity to the berserker allowed him to gather valuable recon that will help the hastily assembled defense destroy the mechanical menace!

This one feels a little contrived, but is OK.

"Stone Place" (1965)       

"Stone Place" was published in If, and is the first berserker story promoted on the magazine's cover.

"Stone Place" is long (40 pages) and at times drags.  For me there is too much political jockeying stuff between various human factions; I generally find court intrigue to be boring.  There is also a prophecy based on mathematical calculations (shades of Asimov's psychohistory); I find that kind of thing tiresome.  This prophecy is pronounced by the first Carmpan to appear in an actual berserker story (the Carmpans have been mentioned in the intros, which are written in the voice of a Carmpan.  So far these intros have been superfluous.)

A large portion of this story was inspired by the Battle of Lepanto of 1571.  In "Stone Place" a dude named Johann, whose brother is the ruler of the Esteel Empire, is given command of a coalition space fleet.  In the 16th century a guy named Don John whose brother was King of Spain was given command of the fleet of the Holy League.  In "Stone Place" one of the space marines is a poet named Mitchell Spain; he loses an arm in the battle.  In the 16th century the great novelist Miguel Cervantes served as a marine at Lepanto, where he lost an arm.  And there are other clear parallels evident to the reader of "Stone Place" who is familiar with the Wikipedia articles on Lepanto and Cervantes.

Some people may enjoy picking out all the elements in the story inspired by the real-life naval campaign, but I find this kind of thing irritating.

There were things I liked about "Stone Place," however.  I liked the scenes in which Mitch Spain and his marines invade berserkers and fight battle droids, and I liked how the berserkers, in an elaborate piece of psychological warfare, brainwash Johann's beautiful fiance Christina de Dulcin (you heard that right, Don Quixote fans) so she will hate Johann and fall in love with Mitch Spain.  

Also noteworthy are the story's religious and philosophical overtones.  The all-seeing, all-knowing Wikipedia tells us Saberhagen was a practicing Catholic. (Has some English prof out there written his or her dissertation on 20th century American Catholic SF writers? It seems a fertile field of inquiry; for one thing you could compare people like Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty, and Saberhagen to the famous British religious writers of speculative fiction like Tolkein, Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, about whom I assume much has already been written.)  Johann is religious, and he is a hero and a decent sincere guy.  His brother the Emperor of Esteel believes in mechanistic determinism, that "everything [is] determined by the random swirls of condensing gasses," and he is a ruthless and decadent sex pervert who finds life empty and contemplates suicide.

Which brings us to determinism (and free will) as a major theme of the story.  There's the aforementioned Carmpan prophecy, and Christina's love for Mitch-- is her love "legit" even if it is the result of the enemy's tinkering with her brain?

The good parts of this story are good, but I think it could have been streamlined a little.


These stories are all worth reading; though they do have weaknesses, I'm not quite sure why I was so disappointed in them years ago.  Well, tastes and moods change-- now I am looking forward to finishing Berserker and finding the next two or three volumes of these stories in used bookstores.


  1. OK, I have to admit that I have never read any of the Berserker stories. I really should, if only to further my Science Fiction education. Weren't they a small part of the inspiration behind Harry Harrison's Deathworld series? Thinking of inspirations, is it possible that Fred Saberhagen was inspired by the Cordwainer Smith story "Mark Elf" set in a future Earth plagued by "Mansion Yagers," renegade Nazi killing robots?

  2. The connection to Cordwainer Smith may be legit, but Harrison's Deathworld was published in 1960, a few years before the first berserker story. Also, Deathworld and Berserker have very different points of view and include very different elements--Deathworld doesn't have the religious or literary references that are all over Berserker, and is full of psychics and lacks robots. Deathworld is also all about the importance of living in harmony, while in Berserker there is no hope of living in harmony with the robots.