The Berserker Stories

The late, great Fred Saberhagen created a series of stories and books about a race of genocidal machines called “Berserkers”.  These machines were named so after the Norse Berserker warriors, although they are even more terrifying.

As the lore goes, an ancient race known only as The Builders created a fleet of robotic ships to destroy their enemies.  After they annihilated their enemies, they decided that all life was their enemy.  It was a fatal mistake for The Builders as their creations wiped them out as well as their enemies.  The Berserkers didn’t stop there.  They created more ships and scoured life from the universe wherever they traveled.

This idea intrigued me the moment I read the first Berserker (1967) book.  The concept of gigantic, genocidal robot ships is darkly compelling.  Look at all the popular icons which followed in popular fiction.  For example we have: The Terminator, Cybermen, Cylons or even Ultron.  I’ll even give it to the Decepticons.  Hell, if we go back to 1967 we have the classic Star Trek episode of “The Doomsday Machine”.  That episode has Berserker written all over it (with apologies to Norman Spinrad.)  Dozens of other, less-known antagonists of a similar type abound in science fiction fandom.

Despite having terrifying fleets of giant death machines, very little combat is written in the Berserker stories.  Most of the big combats happen “off screen”.  Fred (and other writers) concentrated on outwitting the Berserkers, instead of out-fighting them.  Part of the lore is that the brute force approach failed when humanity defeated the main Berserker fleet.  After that the Berserkers worked in subtle and devious fashions.  They manufactured humanoid robots to infiltrate and/or assassinate (Terminator, anyone?)  To push the Terminator analogy further, Brother Assassin is all about Berserkers time traveling in attempts to destroy humanity.

For some reason the Berserker series started my love affair with robot/AI ships.  You would think they would scare the shit out of me, but instead they tickle my fancy.  I’m not sure I can coherently explain my fascination.  Perhaps it’s a power fantasy run amok.  Maybe I like gadgets–even if they want to kill me.  It might even be the scope of the threat/promise.  I never claimed to be rational.

I will say that Saberhagen had a way of firing up my imagination for worlds and gadgetry.  He did have a flaw, however–characters.  I can’t remember any of his characters in any meaningful way.  This is not merely with his Berserker books.  Many younger readers are probably familiar with his Books of Swords.  They were jam-packed with interesting backgrounds, worlds, gadgets and critters.  The characters?  Not so much.  In fact, one might argue that the most interesting characters in those books are the swords.  No sarcasm intended.  Go read them.

That’s enough, though.  With villains as awesome as Berserkers, you can sit back and coast.  The concepts are the big draw.  And draw they do.

I would consider the concept broad and deep enough to make a decent television series.  It would require a careful touch to not make it too much like more well-known fiendish robot enemies, but it could work.  I’d love to see it given as much respect as other older franchises.





Why I Hate Independence Day

Most people seem to love the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day.  I am not one of those people.  I can’t stand it.  I’m also not a fan of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, who crafted this “masterpiece”.

When I started this blog, I wanted to concentrate on things I actually liked.  Many friends complain to me that “I hate everything”.  So I figured I’d go with a positive vibe.  However, I have come to realize that occasionally I need to clear the air about my hates.  So I’ll start with a big one.  This damn movie.

The first time I watched this movie (in the theater) I didn’t think it was awful. It wasn’t that impressive, but I just shrugged.  I watched it on the Fourth of July with a bunch of friends in a jovial atmosphere.  Many months later, I noticed it playing on cable late night and thought “what the hell, let’s give it a second watch”.  It was only this time, as I watched it without the hype and the group of friends I had seen it with the first time, that I realized just how awful it is.  I remember thinking: “Jesus!  Was this really this bad before?”

Here is why.

Technical Stupidity

Let’s start with the easy stuff–the technical flaws.

We’re here with evidence that will lead to the arrest of Hillary Clinton.

Okay, first we get this super-advanced alien race coming to Earth to conquer it in mile-long spaceships.  They’ve mastered anti-gravity, force fields and projected energy weapons.  Apparently, however, they haven’t figured out satellites, because they didn’t bring any of their own.  They have to use terrestrial satellites to coordinate their attack.  Sure, apparently they have thousands of smaller craft they could use for this, but instead want to use Earth satellites because . . . reasons?  Apparently so the plucky Earth scientists could figure out what you were doing.

Second, if you have this level of technology and all you want to do is level the planetary civilization, why enter the atmosphere?  Hell, why exert yourself at all?  Drop a few hundred small asteroids and watch the fireworks.  Easy as pie.  You don’t even have to look at those pesky Earth vermin.

Third, if you have a force field which can withstand a hydrogen bomb, why would you need to send out a bunch of fighters to deal with primitive Earth fighters, armed with lesser weapons?  Just ignore them.  Seriously.  This is like an aircraft carrier flying a sortie with fighters because pelicans are smacking into the side of the ship.

I should punch out Iron Man now! I am GOOD!

Fourth, if you have a force field around your smaller ships which is apparently just as impervious as the one around the big ship, why would running into the ground damage it?

Fifth, if you have an alien with an exoskeleton battle suit, how does Will Smith knock it out with a punch?

Sixth, hacking an alien computer language in a day with a Mac?  Really? 

The Character Void

Now we come to the harder stuff.  Characters.  Or lack thereof. 

Don’t worry, honey. Mom will die, but she’ll die to give this movie the illusion of depth.

This movie has the emotional depth of a puddle.  There is absolutely nothing beyond the surface.  Nothing.  Zero, zip, Nada. I’ve seen public service announcements with more gravitas.

The aliens blow up cities in a dramatic fashion, killing millions.  At what point do we see flash-burned survivors digging through rubble, trying to find their loved ones?  People succumbing to despair and perhaps committing suicide?  Genuine horror and shock?  The only inkling of real emotion is when the First Lady croaks.  That’s it.

Millions of incinerated people almost makes us mad. Or sad. Something.

When the pilots get ready to attack after cities have been incinerated, do they pray, scream to heaven, panic, etc.?  Any of them?  No, it’s “Let’s light the fires and kick the tires!” to go kick alien butt!  Wee-hoo!  Everybody reacts like this is just a minor thing.  Compare this with the 2011 Battle Los Angeles reactions from the Marines.  They’re all obviously scared and confused, but go out to face the enemy anyway.  That movie has flaws and cliches, but at least I actually believed the emotions of the characters.  I could identify with them.  They felt real.

In Independence Day, I might as well have been watching robots. 

Don’t get wrong, there are some decent actors in the movie.  Will Smith does his best with what he’s given, but it’s thin and he’s not a wizard.  I also doubt he minded much, since this movie catapulted him to super-stardom, but you’ll notice he wisely declined to participate in the sequel.

Take that, Star Whackers!

Nobody reacts like people.  They react like animated cut-outs that superficially resemble people.  It’s actually a little creepy.  Remember when Randy (“I’ve gone crazy”) Quaid suicides into the ship?  His son witnesses this.  His son, who finally discovers his father isn’t crazy and was right for years, so now he has a chance to reconnect with him.  How does he react to this ironic tragedy?  He says something to the effect of how proud he is of him and he smiles.  Are you kidding me?!  How about some tears?  Deep regret?  Something?!

I hope you gentlemen are here to extract me from this shitty movie.

And finally, the aliens.  They’re a complete blank slate other than “We’re bad and we want to kill you”.  Nothing that wrong with a cryptic enemy if that fits.  Unfortunately, it usually fits with a grim or horrific motif.  Independence Day isn’t trying to be grim . . . I think.  I honestly don’t know what kind of tone they were shooting for.  Some kind of depth of motivation would have helped with the aliens.  Something.  Anything to flesh them out or make them interesting.  But we got nothing.

There are a few other annoying details, but they’re minor.  This covers the main, hideous flaws.  This movie was the beginning of my hatred for Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (or as I like to call them, the “Twins of Satan”) but their rape of Godzilla (1998) was the last time I paid a penny to see their abominations.  (shudders)