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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Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction

I have noted a disturbing trend in science fiction recently.

By ‘recently’ I mean ‘the last few decades’.  Science fiction and science fiction fandom apparently has a civil war going on.  On the one hand, you have the old school hopeful science fiction.  The kind of SF that has troubling futures, but balanced by the heroes and mankind getting smarter and more capable to meet the challenge.  It still poses troubling questions, but offers up possible solutions.

Then there’s the other side.  The side in which the planet is doomed, mankind will fall and our own foibles doom us all.  Or in which humanity is the stupid, brutish and warlike idiots, saved by the kind, benevolent and wise aliens.  Woe!  We are so stupid!

I’ve seen it in all media–movies, television, books and comic books.  The trend of seeing the future as an unending bleakness isn’t new, but didn’t become a major force until the sixties and seventies.  I think at some point it became ‘trendy’ to be pessimistic in SF.  Writers are always seeking the next ‘doomsday’ to be worried about.  If it isn’t nuclear war, it’s overpopulation, ozone depletion, acid rain, global warming, etc., etc. 

I get it.  The future is uncertain and dangerous.  They miss the point, however–the future has always been uncertain and dangerous!  You think Cro-Magnons didn’t fear what the next year would bring?  You think the ancient mariners traveling across the Atlantic to find the New World weren’t fantasizing the worst?  Science fiction at its best is either a cautionary tale to avoid future pitfalls or an inspiration to illuminate the way for the next generation.  Sure, there’s nothing wrong with dystopian futures, especially when dipping into horror, but as a change of pace–not a staple.

It seems to me this disconnect is especially wide when we consider the magnitude of technological achievements and development around us.  The free market and technology has lifted over two billion people out of poverty in the last four decades.  The percentage of people living in abject poverty has dropped below 10% for the first time in history.  (The percentage of people in abject poverty in 1800?  94%!)  Violence keeps dropping, life expectancy keeps increasing, quality of life keeps improving.  And on and on.  Yet all we hear in the news is Doom! Doom! Doom!

Maybe that’s it.  The 24-hour news cycle offers us a constant barrage of everything that’s wrong.  Many writers feel wrong by not reflecting this cavalcade of misery into their writing.  Like it’s a cheat to do otherwise.  Like they’re not “keepin’ it real” or something–even if it flies in the face of reality.

This schism seems to have a political component to it as well.  The hopefuls tend to be more conservative or libertarian.  The hopeless are progressives.  What this says about the two philosophies I’ll leave to others to interpret.  However, we have recently seen the SF Cold War get hot with the advent of the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies with the Hugo Awards.  I won’t say that conflict is completely about the hopeful/hopeless conflict, because it’s not.  That’s an element of it, though.

I don’t mind cautionary tales.  Hell, War of the Worlds is a cautionary tale about British colonialism.  It’s a time-honored trope.  What bothers me is that it’s now the default setting, despite positive progress on a staggering scale.  Where is the new hopeful science fiction?  Where is the next Star Trek?  The next Asimov?  Have we become so negative we find those very ideas quaint?

I haven’t.  I still think science fiction is at its best when it shines brightest.