Fred Saberhagen’s Brother Assassin

An army of intelligent war machines are dedicated to the utter annihilation of humanity.  When they begin to lose their war in the present, they send an unstoppable cybernetic assassin back into the past to kill a key figure in humanity’s history, in order to destroy their resistance before it can begin. Humanity’s only option is to send one of their own back as well, to protect the key figure no matter the cost.

Does that story sound familiar?  It very well may, but I’m probably not talking about the one you’re thinking of!  I’m summarizing Fred Saberhagen’s Brother Assassin (1969), the second in his long-running Berserker series of books.

For those unfamiliar, the “Berserkers” are a fleet of massive and intelligent machines, mostly spacecraft, that were created by an alien empire millennia past in order to destroy their enemies.  The Berserkers did their job too well, though, and destroyed both civilizations, and then moved on to relentlessly hunt down and eradicate all biological life in the galaxy.   And they were incredibly successful at it — until they finally met effective resistance in the form of humanity, whose violent tendencies ironically made them the galaxy’s best hope for survival.

As I noted in my post on the original book, Saberhagen’s stories are not intended to be about the Berserkers themselves; he uses them as a vehicle, of sorts, to tell all sorts of other tales.

And in this case, it is a story about time travel!  It would be far too disruptive to allow rampant time travel in the Berserker stories, so Saberhagen introduces us to the planet Sirgol, the only place in the universe where a temporal anomaly allows time travel.  The civilization on Sirgol, in fact, was ironically founded by modern explorers who, approaching the planet for the first time, inadvertently traveled back 20,000 years into the past.  In making such a big leap, they regressed mentally to a primitive state, and eked out a living as hunter-gatherers, building up their science and technology until, in contemporary times, they are comparable to the rest of humanity in the galaxy.

When the Berserkers fail in their direct attack on Sirgol, they send machines back to three key periods in the planet’s history to change their war for the better.  One contingent of machines heads back to the primitive hunter-gather society to kill its leaders; a second heads to a feudal society to assassinate a king during a pivotal alliance.  A final contingent heads to a Renaissance era to destroy scientific progress at a pivotal moment.

Opposed to them is Derron Odegard, an elite operative of the Time Operations Section of the Planetary Defense Bureau. He is has to devise solutions to the attacks that the killing machines devise, but is he smart enough to outwit an army that has won for thousands of years?

The novel is broken into three sections, each dealing with one of the Berserker attacks, and each of them is a rather different story.  For the earliest attack, Odegard must deploy human controlled androids to the past for the fight, in order to avoid the mental regression that comes with actual humans traveling so far back.  This story is primarily an action tale.

The second part, set in medieval times, is difficult to describe without going into spoiler territory.  The crux of it, however, is that the Berserkers succeed in killing their target, which leaves Odegard with the daunting predicament of figuring out how to keep history on the correct track without its key historical figure.

The third part is the most clever, and probably the one that was Saberhagen was most interested in.  The Berserkers take a more subtle approach and target Vincent Vincente, a Galileo-like figure in Sirgol’s history, and attempt to demoralize him before he can inspire others.  The Berserker’s method of attack is clever, and the solution that Odegard comes up with is also very clever, and rooted in real science!  The era is recent enough that Odegard himself is able to travel directly back into the past, and the stakes are that much more personal for him.

The stories are loosely tied together with a romance subplot between Odegard and one of the victims of the Berserkers’ attacks.  Like many of Saberhagen’s stories of this era, the subplot isn’t particularly engaging and the woman character is somewhat undeveloped.  But this doesn’t stop the novel from being a lot of fun.

The similarity between Brother Assassin and James Cameron’s original Terminator movie, at least in their broad outlines, are striking.  One wonders if Cameron was inspired by Saberhagen’s tale, at least unconsciously? Cameron, however, lists other science fiction inspirations, including The Outer Limits of the 1960s and science fiction films of the 1950s.  Since he would have been 15 when the book first came out, though, it does not seem unlikely that he might have read it at the time and part of it stuck with him.  It is also reasonable to think that such stories — of machines destroying mankind — were natural for a lot of imaginative people in the latter half of the 20th century, the era when computers and technology were really developing at a frightening pace.

Like the first Berserker novel, Brother Assassin is an expansion of tales that first appeared in science fiction magazines.  In this case, a shorter version of the entire book appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1967.

For those who enjoy light, fast-paced science fiction, I can certainly recommend Brother Assassin.  It is clever and put some nice twists on the traditional “travel back in time to kill someone” trope.

Brother Assassin is only the second in a long, long series of Berserker novels that Saberhagen wrote! The last one appeared in 2005, only two years before his death. I haven’t decided if I’ll read the entire series, but I am tempted to read a few more. Will report back soon…

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