Friday, December 13, 2013

Beserker (1967) by Fred Saberhagen

As I mentioned a few posts ago, reading this book has gotten me back into science fiction proper - or really, into it for the first time.  It's not because this book in particular is some remarkable and life-changing specimen of the genre but simply because it happens to be the SF book I persevered reading all the way through and thereby finally began to reap the benefits that only SF gives.  I love the literary and experimental stuff (from C. S. Lewis and Ray Bradbury to R. A. Lafferty and Gene Wolfe), but have struggled with more 'straight' or 'hard' SF.  I'm happy to say that with Saberhagen I'm on my way to rectifying that.

Berserker (1967) is a collection of linked stories that were first published in the pulp magazine Galaxy in the mid 1960s.  The stories' common theme is the drama of humanity's galaxy-spanning war with the titular machines, which are programmed to destroy all organic matter, especially human life.  Some of the force of this trope is felt in the fierce intelligence and ingenuity these self-perpetuating machines employ to accomplish their task.  This moves the conflict at times into the uncanny - which is all to the good in my opinion.

One of the best of these moments to me was in 'Patron of the Arts' where a captive painter is observed by the machine-unit he is painting.  The Beserkers are always sending out individual units that try to take on a human shape they don't really comprehend.  Hence, they are grotesque to the human eye.  The painter, however, was 'trying to catch not the outward shape he had never seen, but what he felt of its inwardness' and thus employed 'brutal and discordant lines'.  I suspect it was this story that at least partly inspired the wonderful cover of the Penguin edition of this book by the Italian artist Franco Grignani.  (It's the copy I have I'm glad to say.  You can see Grignani's series for Penguin HERE and you can see all of Penguin's wonderful SF covers through the years HERE.)
It seems that no one knows who made these killing machines to begin with or for what purpose exactly, but it is surmised they were some ultimate weapon of war that became all too effective, wiping out their own creators and taking their mission beyond whatever original scope it had to encompass the whole universe. One individual Berserker is gobsmackingly huge, described as being larger than the largest of cities such as New York and of a shape totally alien to any human thinking.  To see these freakish behemoths approaching in space was unnerving to the bravest.  Furthermore, the Beserkers had been ingeniously designed to carry out their methods of destruction in accord with an atomic isotope deep in their interior that randomly selects new strategies of attack and warfare.  I confess I don't readily understand the scientific idea here, but it is sufficient to convey effectively to me that the machines are innately unpredictable and all the fiercer of an enemy for it.  

One of the tales is called 'Masque of the Red Shift', which I have to say is one of my very favourite story titles ever. It, along with some of the others, contained moments of gory horror (hence the Poe shout out), which make this a fairly dark SF series, even though the writing and perspective are generally fairly upbeat. 'Sign of the Wolf' moves pleasantly into the realm of seeming science fantasy (where technology is understood as divinity and magic by primitive peoples) and the closing story 'The Face of the Deep' attempts some poetry in trying to convey an edge-of-the-galaxy scenario that bends and blends space-time itself into hard-to-describe colours and shapes.  The writing is fairly plain and serviceable, not generally literary or poetic, but the net effect of spending time in this fictional world definitely puts one in touch with a feel for the intergalactic and super-technological.  

I wanted to check out Saberhagen because he was yet another honoured SF author I only recently discovered was a Catholic.  My passion for theological fiction always brings me to investigate such authors sooner or later.  I'm not sure I'd call this work outright theological SF, but Saberhagen's Christian worldview was certainly evident and relevant to the plots and scenarios.  There were several debates between human characters as well as between humans and machines as to whether biological life is evidence of metaphysical meaning in the universe or whether we are alone and without ultimate purpose.  Saberhagen wisely left these discussions unresolved.  The faith of various characters was often mentioned, many of them turning to prayer in the conflicts and at least one of them, after inward wrestling, exercising the forgiveness of his political enemies in accord with his Christian principles.  This charity is shown to aid victory over the machines as well.  But none of this is intrusive. Many readers will no doubt have not noticed such details much or at all. Saberhagen is out to spin yarns, not preach sermons, and his worldview simply informs his work as any good craftsman's should.  

Saberhagen has a science fantasy series as well as a pseudo-horror series (a revisionist Dracula saga where ol' Drac is the good guy apparently - sounds great!), both of which I look forward to sampling in addition to more of the long Berserker series I've begun.

Up next:  Stolen Faces (1977) by Michael Bishop.


  1. Hi Daniel.
    I followed your Jewels of Aptor link to this blog and hence to this review. I read the Berserker stories that comprise this collection when they first appeared in Galaxy and If. Like you, I particularly liked Masque of the Red Shift. I wrote a letter to If praising them and when this was published, Saberhagen mailed me a copy of the book. I don't remember how he got my address.

  2. Thanks for sharing the reminiscence, Bill! What an amazing surprise that must have been! Original readers of older stuff (like R. A. Lafferty and early Stephen King as well as Saberhagen) have from time to shared their experience of reading the originals when they came out in the 60s or 70s and I always relish these perspectives and I'm grateful you share them with a johnny-come-lately like me.