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.

 

 

 

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