Berserker is a collection of pseudo-short stories. It was published first in 1967 after collecting the stories which were mostly published in Worlds of If magazine. I read the 1984 Ace edition. The cover for my edition was done by Boris Vallejo.
It is difficult to simply refer to the contents of the book as short stories. To say that takes away all the connectivity and linear timeline that is actually present in the book. Although the stories are individual and standalone to an extent, they must be read in order and to cherry-pick out of the book would ruin much of it.
On first look, the cover and title probably make one suspect the contents are juvenile man versus brainless aliens. Something similar to the movie Starship Troopers or any high-explosion, scarce plot story. I admit I kind of expected such a story – and maybe even hoped for that style just a little bit. Surprise, surprise – the stories are far from juvenile. The stories pose political, ethical, and scientific questions. Each story is written as if it is one facet in the war against the berserkers – one facet because the war is not simply a war. The war is a dynamic evolving event that changes based on, of course, location and time, and with the obvious variable: who is fighting it.
One of the most interesting outcomes is the character development throughout the novel. The characters readers meet in one story carry-through to another story, wherein their situation may be different, but they are still congruent characters.
Berserkers are machines. I really see them as the true ancestors of Cylons, Borg, and Terminators. The machines were built – a very long time ago by some alien race of which we know nothing. The Berserkers only have one goal: destroy life. Life – which is a bit more expansive than the typical mandate to destroy mankind. These machines did not name themselves berserkers, in the course of the wars mankind dubbed the machines berserkers.
Berserkers are self-aware. This means that though they are unaltering in their goal, they can “learn” and “adapt.” For example, throughout the stories, the berserkers adjust their methods for achieving their goals. They recognize life-units (particularly mankind) are crafty and emotional. Therefore, the berserkers develop tactics that can overcome what the humans do.
Of course, humans still have all the usual character flaws – division, greed, lust, deception, selfishness, etc. So, the berserkers can sometimes play on the foibles of humans. But sometimes, the scale moves and humans are selfless, brave, and faithful which is unexpected and can often catch berserkers off-guard.
This book is just the first in the berserker series. The stories here build upon each other and I suspect much of this carries forth into the other Berserker novels. I’m giving this collection fours stars because it had much more depth than I expected, I love these ancestors of so many science fiction machine-enemies, and it was a quick read that did not drone on and on. I definitely want to read the rest of the Berserker stuff. This is the first Saberhagen I’ve read and I am quite impressed.
- “Without a Thought” – interesting, but probably should not come first in the collection.
- “Goodlife” – essential reading in Berserker universe; first appearance of Hemphill and the term “goodlife”
- “Patron of the Arts” – unique facet
- “The Peacemaker” – unique facet
- “Stone Place” – necessary and essential story
- “What T and I Did” – disturbing horror-esque facet
- “Mr. Jester” – very creative
- “Masque of the Red Shift” – necessary reading
- “Sign of the Wolf” – probably the weakest of the bunch
- “In the Temple of Mars” – awesome story, connects with all the rest
- “The Face of the Deep” – excellent ending, connects with “Patron of the Arts” and “Stone Place” and “Masque of the Red Shift”