Skulls in the Stars

Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker

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They are intelligent machines the size of a small moon, packed with enough weaponry to cauterize the surface of countless planets and destroy any defenders. They bear the scars of countless battles, which they have always won.  They were built millennia ago by one alien empire to eradicate the other — the doomsday weapons followed their programming to the letter and eliminated both.  They have one purpose: the extermination of all life.

And now they have come across the human civilization, spread across the cosmos. Humanity calls them “Berserkers.”

Such is the overarching premise of the Berserker series of books, by Fred Saberhagen; the first of these, simply titled Berserker, I finished reading recently.  Saberhagen eventually either wrote or contributed to 17 books, the last appearing in 2005.  I don’t know if I’ll read all of them, but I really enjoyed the first. Some thoughts follow.

The book is really a loosely connected collection of short stories that appeared in various publications between 1963 and 1965. They are tied together as a psychic history of the Berserker War recorded by a member of the logical and peaceful Carmpan race. In fact, the Carmpan notes that humanity is unique in the known cosmos for its warlike nature and, ironically, that made them the only race that could resist the onslaught of the Berserkers.

Also ironic is Saberhagen’s original inspiration for the Berserkers.  One might think that a legion of genocidal war machines that turned on their creators would have been the original impetus for the stories, but it turns out that Saberhagen first conceived of the concept as a way to tell a story about a protagonist struggling to find a way to fake artificial intelligence to fool an enemy — basically a story about a Turing test.  After writing this first story, “Without a Thought,” in 1963, Saberhagen realized the Berserkers could be used to inspire many different tales.

And the stories in Berserker are impressively diverse.  Some are very personal stories, focused on individuals dealing with the Berserkers, while some are massive war stories with consequences for the whole galaxy. Some stories are quite dark, featuring the human prisoners of the Berserkers and those humans that choose to collaborate.  One story is, basically, a comedy.  The tales are not completely independent, and as the book progresses a number of important characters reappear, sometimes in surprising ways.

Remarkably, though, considering the stories are about machine versions of the apocalypse, they are overall optimistic.  The overall theme of the tales is how the bravery, ingenuity, compassion and selflessness of humanity is a match for the evil machines.  Though, it should be noted, not every human in the stories honorably acquits themselves.

There is a nice sense of a cat-and-mouse game in the stories, as the Berserkers and humans seek to outwit each other. Many of the twists and turns in the stories are quite good.

The only limitation of the stories I can note is one very common to science fiction of the era: a lack of strong female characters.  The woman are largely passive objects in the stories to be fought over and won.  I personally didn’t find it ruined the book for me, but it is worth being aware of before reading, as I’m sure others mileage will vary.

The idea of the Berserkers is a compelling one, and such out-of-control war machines have become more and more prominently features in science fiction as our own artificial intelligence research advances. One early example is the sugarcone-like planet-eating weapon in the classic Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine.” The episode came out in 1967, and has often been said to have been directly inspired by Berserker; the screenwriter Norman Spinrad disputes this, however.

The planet-eating sugarcone of Star Trek.

A more recent example that was most likely inspired by Berserker are the Reapers of the video game series Mass Effect.  The Reapers are a legion of bio-mechanical intelligent starships, built by a long-dead race, that exterminate all intelligent organic life in the galaxy on a periodic cycle over about 50,000 years. I haven’t seen any direct acknowledgement of Saberhagen’s influence, but it is hard to deny.

The Mass Effect Reapers pay Earth a visit.

And, without saying too much for fear of spoilers, the more recent and brilliant game Horizon Zero Dawn, in which primitive humans fight savage robots, has strong connections to Saberhagen’s original idea. (And the game is HIGHLY recommended by me, btw.)

Horizon Zero Dawn robots are not fans of humans.

There’s one other interesting connection to make regarding Saberhagen’s work. I recently did a blog post about old role-playing games that still have a vibrant community following; it turns out that Berserker has something similar! In 1976, a fellow named Rick Loomis started a play-by-mail science fiction wargame called Starweb; Berserkers are one faction that players can choose to represent.  In a charming twist, Saberhagen gave the gamers permission to use the term “Berserker,” and in exchange they gave him permission to use a fictional version of Starweb in one of his later novels!

So, in summary, Saberhagen’s Berserker is a fun and clever science fiction novel. I’m planning to read the next in the series and see how far I get!

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