The Berserkers have been around a very long time – and not just in the fabric of its own universe. Fred Saberhagen published his stories of planet-sized robotic killing machines gradually extinguishing all life wherever they encountered it in 1963 and ever since, its been a strong contender: Berserker stories were still being published in 2005, with Rogue Berserker as its most recent title.
Its hard to say whether Saberhagen created the original race of robotic killing machines, but in the wake of Berserker, there are an awful lot of similar creations expounding upon the concept and not just in SF Literature circles – the Inhibitors of Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space series, the Necrons of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 and the Reapers/Old Machines from Bioware’s SF RPG video game, Mass Effect and these are just the most notable ones. Aliens and their robotoc creations have always been rather opposed to human life (and life in general), so as a concept they have attracted the imaginations of many an author.
Berserker has been sitting on my “Reading List” shelf for nigh on eight years now, ever since I kicked off my own “vintage SF reading spree”, though it was a very hard task to actually find a copy. Eventually, I buckled in to online stores and got myself a nice paperback version. It sat there for quite some time, as my reading list is well over fifty books and never seems to go down at all, but Berserker got fast tracked when the Little Red Reviewer announced her Vintage SF Not-A-Challenge.
Berserker is an anthology of short stories connected by the common thread of their subject matter – the Berserkers, and described by one of the Carmpan, a race of telepathic aliens that almost saw extinction at the hands of the Berserkers, if they hadn’t have allied themselves with good Ol’ Humanity. The Berserkers are the left over weapons of an ancient war between two technological advanced races, the Builders and the Red Race. When the Builders perfected their doomsday creations that would later be called “Berserkers” by the children of Earth, they weren’t to know that they would take their programming to incredible lengths and continue their destruction well after the last of the Red Race was to fall, or that they’d be the next and definitely not the last, civilization to fall prey to them. Since then, the Berserkers have roved the galaxy, exterminating any semblance of living sentience – learning about their enemies, understanding their defences and taking them apart piece by piece until nothing is left. They are pretty much the biggest kick in the teeth Asimov’s Laws of Robotics ever received, I think.
A Berserker is not just a killing machine, they are automated worlds and manufacturing plants designed to sustain prolonged war, some measuring fifty to a hundred miles across, or bigger, as big as asteroids or even moons. Saberhagen at times describes the damage inflicted upon the Berserkers over thousands of years of war in more detail than he does the ships themselves, giving a sense of scale of the machines that are truly cyclopean. In this, I feel his creations echo their modern day equivalents in the “New Space Opera” we’ve had these last few decades.
Of course, from a modern point of view, comparisons to the numerous robot killing machines in movies, comics, video games and books such as Terminators, et al, are inevitable. Saberhagen uses the idea of the Berserkers creating smaller, more specialized drones for tasks like boarding human vessels, waging war on a planet’s surface (to disable planet based defenses) or interacting with captured humans in order to learn about them. These human sized robots are pretty much straight up Terminators, though with very different programming. They tend to act as conduits for the Berserkers’ minds rather than possessing their own identities, tools for the task at hand.
Berserker’s stories are wide ranging and capture different points of view, historical notes and the effects of the war against the Berserkers on humanity, rather than slinging out descriptions after description of space battles, as I was expecting (and really, shouldn’t have been.) Several stories describe the lives and exploits of recurring characters, often introduced as a central character in one story and becoming periphery to later ones, keeping the stories fresh with unexpected turns, while also keeping them in focus. The concept of the book could easily have been widely sprawling and suffered because of it. After a few stories, familiar names begin to pop up and kick planet-sized robot batootey. In many ways, it feels like a “Band of Brothers”, or even a “World War Z” of the Berserker war.
There are some oddities – one involves massive amounts of protein and synthesized dairy products used as “weapons” – where the story tone doesn’t quite match the gravity of the rest of the book, but they make for welcome diversion.
I find it interesting that Saberhagen didn’t actually set out to write a story or novel about the Berserkers directly, and instead invented them to support a different idea, where a human being was forced to create a mechanism of seeming intelligence, using a monkey (always the monkeys! When in doubt throw a monkey into the mix, that’s what I always say!) to get out of the situation he was in. The Berserker became that situation and from those beginnings gathered a life of its own, continuing on beyond the expectations of its creator, perhaps reflecting the Builder’s own creation of the Berserkers, or should that be the other way around.
As a short story collection, it is an enjoyable read and even dates well compared to today’s equivalents, I feel, but there is a flaw, but I don’t think it can be helped. Its a case of introducing the unstoppable and then finding a way to stop it. The Berserker weapons have been cleaning up the galaxy for many, many years, though I don’t recall it ever being mentioned how long exactly, but long enough for all mention of the Builders to be erased from all knowledge – and they’ve been eradicating entire space-faring cultures like they were popcorn chicken. They take hits from shaped atomic charges and weapons that cut into them gashes fifty miles deep and they keep going, functioning at almost near full capacity. The inevitable problem an author will face is – how do you stop them?
The stories start out suggesting a few ways, but after awhile, these explanations tend to fall by the wayside and the answer appears to be nondescript excessive force, somehow less satisfying than the methods described in the earlier stories, or and this is where my gripe comes in, the value of Humanity. Saberhagen seems to hint that “Humanity” is a descriptor for any intelligent race, but the book seems to undermine this.
I feel that one of the biggest conceits of SF is that Humanity is special, far beyond the importance of other species. It is implied in Berserker that without Humanity the rest of the Galaxy’s sentient species would have been eradicated, so they have succeeded where many other interstellar empires have failed. They are special, and it is this quality that saves the day. Don’t get me wrong, it is a sound device for heroic fiction, where the central character – in this case, Humanity – needs to be victorious at story’s end, but when evoking the galaxy as the stage and its numerous races and individuals as characters, it seems trite and unrealistic to put forth Humanity as its saviour. I’ve talked about this in an article called The Human Centric Universe, about Humanity’s role in human literature, but I don’t feel it has a place in modern, post Iain M. Banks Space Opera, at least not without tongue slightly in cheek. Humanity has a role to play, but not in an all encompassing, messianic sense.
I think we’re all grown up enough to accept there are other species out there, just as important as we are. We just have to find them before the Berserkers do.
Berserker paperback, Boris Vallejo for Ace Books.
Rise of Planet of the Apes, Weta Digital.
Berserker plate, Enki Bilal