The novel “Berserker” by Fred Saberhagen was published for the first time in 1967. It’s a fix-up of various short stories published in previous years.
During an ancient space war, two species fought each other to their mutual extinction. Of that war there what remained are only spaceships run by artificial intelligences equipped with powerful weapons, the ability to self-repair after suffering damage in battle and to build more spaceships with the characteristics needed for war.
The end of the war for these robotic machines were built for doesn’t stop their activity, which moves towards other species with the aim to lead them to extinction too. Among the sentient species, the Earth-descended humans seem to be the only ones who can fight these enemies they named the Berserkers.
In 1963 Fred Saberhagen published the short story “Fortress Ship” in which the Berserkers appeared for the first time in the magazine “Worlds of If”. The name derives from the Norse mythology, in which it indicates warriors prey to a murderous rage during a battle, due to the fact that these implacable machines have the precise purpose of destroying any life forms.
The crucial difference between the machines created by Fred Saberhagen and the warriors of the mythology is that the machines are equipped with an artificial intelligence and don’t just attack any living being with their weapons but seek victory by any means, even devious. They try to deceive their enemy, gather information when they can, using sentient creatures as slaves if they feel they need it.
For these reasons, the Berserker series is not a typical military science fiction. The various short stories fixed-up to form “Berserker” include space battles but also situations of a different kind such as contacts between humans and Berserkers, even if not exactly diplomatic. In one of the stories there’s even a philosophical conversation between a human character and a Berserker.
In my opinion this variety of situations is both the strength and the weakness of “Berserker”. Fred Saberhagen uses it to let us know the various strategies employed by the Berserkers and the different reactions of human beings in dealing with them. On the other hand, these are really short stories in which there are only a few recurring characters but most of them change between stories.
In essence, the author creates a mosaic that offers a big picture of the war but the pieces that form it are really small. The pace varies greatly depending on whether a story is an action tale or is based on conversations and reflections. The characters are functional to the stories and only some have some specific personality traits but there’s no room to develop them.
The narrator is not even human, but the Third Historian of the Carmpan Race, a peaceful species that provides humans with a sort of indirect logistic support during the war. The Carmpans are telepaths so the narrator, in the course of his work as a reporter of the war against the Berserkers, can describe the characters’ moods offering also a certain introspection.
What seem to me flaws reading “Berserker” today are normal characteristics for stories from the 1960s. Today a success would lead the author to write longer sequels much more quickly but at the time it could take a few years before that happened.
The first stories of the Berserker series were collected in this first book only 3 years after the publication of the first one and only in the 1970s Fred Saberhagen started writing the sequels with the longest format in mind and still kept on writing short fiction for the series, which were later collected in other books. In my opinion, even reading “Berserker” today its merits outweigh its flaws so I think it’s worth reading.