RETROSPECTIVE: Berserker by Fred Saberhagen

Monday , 6, April 2015 12 Comments

This book is pretty wild. I mean, you don’t just see an unstoppable foe here cut from the same cloth as Steve Jackson’s Ogre cybertanks or Steve Cole’s Star Fleet Universe Andromedan invaders. You get to see one of the earlier iterations of what would become Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Borg, sure. But you also get credible precursors to both Terminator cyborgs and those weird androids from the Alien series. You don’t just get a universe that’s teeming with hundreds of “Death Stars” destroying world after world and fighting in epic space battles. You also get a major character that loses a hand in battle and then gets it replaced with cybernetic prosthetic. Another guy that gets put into a suspended animation in some kind of coffin device– and he gets hung up on a wall like some kind of trophy to boot!

But the now iconic tropes here are not served up according to the same array of plot points that frame up the movies that have burned them into our collective consciousnesses. No, this collection of short stories from the mid-sixties has far more in common with the first volume of the Foundation trilogy than its cinematic descendants. Another striking feature is the absence of any sort of traditional “square jawed hero” in the same vein as John Carter of Mars, Conan of Cimmeria, or Dumarest of Terra. There’s just a range of competent “regular guys” that quietly do their duty in the context of a titanic struggle. As with the Honor Harrington series of today, it’s the space battles that are the big draw here. But I think that as with Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx novels, it is the setting itself that is most appealing.

This is one of those universes that are positively teeming with alien life. The opening story features an alien “pet” called an aiyan. It looks like “a large dog with an ape’s forelegs.” While not smart enough to convincingly “let the Wookie win” in a futuristic holographic chess game, it is capable of conducting modest repairs on a one-man fighter in the thick of battle. (Sort of like certain droids in a popular mivie franchise.) There’s also the mentat-like Carmpan, the biologically pacifistic creatures with “slow and squarish” bodies. Along the same lines as the witches from MacBeth, these aliens use their Vulcan-like mysticism combined with cold hard mathematics enable them to deliver prophecies with a ninety percent accuracy.

It is the berserkers that steal the show, of course. The initial premise of their programming is a little odd:

It used no predictable tactics in its dedicated, unconscious war against life. The ancient, unknown gamesmen had built it as a random factor, to be loosed in the enemy’s territory to do what damage it might. (page 1)

The Achilles’ Heel of this doomsday machine is a the strategic housing which holds “a block of some isotope with a long half life.” This is the MacGuffin that makes it possible for the berserker to behave in an unpredictable manner. And yes, though this depiction of artificial intelligence is necessarily dated, Saberhagen does at least demonstrate his ability devise and explain an algorithm for playing a checkers-like game that can actually “learn” over time. The first story in the collection may appear to be a bit contrived, but it actually retains some educational value that is still relevant today to budding computer scientists.

Another oddity in his depiction of these gigantic war machines is their off the wall psionic attack:

Hard experience had taught men something about the berserker’s mind weapon, although its principles of operation were still unknown. It was slow in its onslaught, and its effects could not be steadily maintained for more than about two hours, after which a berserker was evidently forced to turn it off for an equal time. But while in effect, it robbed any human or electronic brain of the ability to plan or to predict– and left it unconscious of its own incapacity.

This strange technology appears to be quietly set aside in subsequent tales, but the author does explore some more of its implications when he allows the human civilization to reverse engineer it for their revival of Greek or Roman style religious practices.

The overall arc of the stories in this collection is nothing like what you’d see in an Honor Harrington novel. This is not about a small smartly run high tech fleet going up against a larger aggressive and poorly coordinated outfit. There are protagonists, but no Mary Sue characters. And we don’t get chapter after chapter establishing the bad guy’s hubris while the good guys leverage the fog of war to get into just the right position to roll them up at little cost. This has its up sides and down sides. I mean, David Weber’s formula for setting up a rousing space battle just plain works. But reading in the first story that it only took three human ships to defeat a single berserker doesn’t seem quite right when they are more and more established as some kind of epic menace. And the human navy’s secret weapons are just deployed with little to no fanfare when they’re needed for a story without there having been a lot of desperation or suspense established first. Had these tales been reworked into a bona fide novel, there would have no doubt been a great many changes.

But the human weapons technology is different. It is not at all like what you’d expect to read about after spending a lot of time with games like Traveller and Star Fleet Battles.

The distance between fleets was still too great for normal weapons to be effective, but the laboring heavy weapons ships with their C-plus cannon were now in range, and they could fire through friendly formations almost as easily as not. At their volley Mitch thought he felt space jar around him; it was some secondary effect that the human brain notices, really only wasted energy. Each projectile, blasted by explosives to a safe distance from its launching ship, mounted its own C-plus engine, which then accelerated the projectile while it flickered in and out of reality on microtimers.

Their leaden masses magnified by velocity, the huge slugs skipped through existence like stones across water, passing like phantoms through the fleet of life, emerging fully into normal space only as they approached their target, travelling then like De Broglie wavicles, their matter churning internally with a phase velocity greater than light. (pages 115-116)

Humanity does not have enough of these ships to do much more than soften up the berserkers before they get into beam and missile range. To decisively finish one off, they have go get their ramships close enough to do this:

Reality shattered in through all the protection and padding. The shaped atomic charge at the tip of the ramming prow opened the berserker’s skin. In five seconds of crashing impact, the prow vaporized, melted, and crumpled its length away, the true hull driving behind it until the Solar Spot was sunk like an arrow into the body of the enemy. (page 100)

So, unlike a lot of space combat games, boarding actions are central to the resolving the battles. Complicating matters even further, the marines sometimes come from different worlds than the naval personnel, the emperor is quite cognizant of the political threat posed by his best admiral, and the various human factions are at least as concerned about each other as they are the mortal threat posed by the increasingly well coordinated berserker fleets.

All in all, this is quite an enjoyable collection of stories. Taken together, they are not as coherent as the Foundation trilogy and they lack the kind description and characterization you’d find in Robert E. Howard’s work. But you do get the sort of epic battles that science fiction owes its readers: three hundred Death Star sized robot ships fighting two hundred forty-three human starships– with space marines having to fight a high tech Iwo Jima inside them against an army of robots. Yes, Asimov did a service to humanity by showing us that robots didn’t all have to be insane killers… but this is good stuff, too! And the wide range of story premises here allow the author to explore philosophy and humor and even the sort of more thoughtful approaches to science fiction that you would expect from, say, Ray Bradbury. This is exactly the sort of thing that I would have expected to find in science fiction magazines during the eighties and nineties, but which just wasn’t being done in anything I picked up. I’m glad I took a chance on this one as it contains one of the quintessential space battles of science fiction and the material as a whole makes for an excellent backdrop for a GURPS Space campaign.

12 Comments
  • Darius says:

    Absolutely loved that book since I first stumbled into it back in middle school

  • Random says:

    Wasn’t there a story in that series where a character tricks the berserker into curing his cancer?

    I must now break out my SFB stuff and reminisce about figuring out correct ESG-shield impact interactions.

  • Amadan says:

    Loved the series when I read it many years ago.

    Sad to say, the Berserker boardgame published by Flying Buffalo is… terrible.

  • Tom Rhodes says:

    First heard the stories as an audio book I got at a truck stop on a road trip. Laughed at all the movie bits stolen in the anthology. Had to get the book, then found out it was the movies that stole from the book. Kind of like all the bits and pieces from the Barsoom series that show up in SciFi of the golden era.

  • Mike Mike says:

    Just got this off Amazon… great recommendation!

    • Jeffro says:

      Sweet! I’m liking the second one even better, by the way. It’s three connected novellas and it’s clear that Saberhagen has leveled up as a writer by the time that he did them.

  • Dancy Larence says:

    The C+ gun is actually not dissimilar to the meson gun in Traveller.

    BERSERKER MAN does have a bit of a Mary Sue-type character, arguably.

    Some of the latter Berserker stories go a bit down hill (or get pretty weird) but the core stuff is very good.

    An interesting thing about Saberhagen is how closely he was connected to adventure gaming, with his early licensing of Berserker(e.g., to FBI’s Star Web).

    His Octagon is a good read in that respect.

    My friend David used to borrow Saberhagen’s more obscure book titles for his starship designs – I remember encountering ships named “Coinspinner” and “Veil of Azlaroc”

    • Jeffro says:

      I did not make the connection to Traveller’s Meson gun when I read this. Thanks for that!

      I started the second Berserker book and I was surprised at how good it was– he really got an order of magnitude better with that one.

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *