Fred Saberhagen

Brother Assassin

Brother AssassinBrother Assassin by Fred Saberhagen (1930 – 2007) is the second book in his Berserker series, which began with the 1967 collection Berserker.  This book is a sort of “fix-up” novel of three shorter works that were published in issues of the magazine If in 1967.  I gave the first book in the series four stars and I think I will be doing the same thing with this one. I own two copies of Brother Assassin; the 1969 Ballantine Books edition with Richard Powers cover art is very nice, but I read my other copy:  the 1978 ACE edition with art by Michael Whelan. Truthfully, this first ACE edition has a bunch of typos in it, but the font was easier for me to look at than in the Ballantine.

As one reads this book, it is very easy to notice that it is not from contemporary writers. The book feels vintage. It also feels a bit campy and pulpy, which it is, of course. Nevertheless, I do not think readers should be speedily dismissive of it just because it does not have the same feel to it as more recently published science fiction.  Brother Assassin is written somewhat simply – this is not the prose we would expect from China Mieville.  The characters are not pounded out in exasperating, excruciating detail. In fact, many may seem superficial or obvious. Yes, and, of course, the female character of the book is emotional and a bit immature (dare I say witless?)

Brother Assassin firstThis novel is broken into three sections. Each section is one of the shorter works previously published in If.  The whole novel describes the Berserker attack (infiltration of the past) on the already war-weary planet Sirgol. Each section of the novel focuses on  a particular insertion of Berserker forces into the timeline. How about that as a strategy – if you cannot defeat your enemy in the current time, defeat him by going to the past and destroying crucial elements of the historical timeline.  Certainly, this is not perfect science – it is not meant to be. It is written well enough, though, that the reader can pretend that it is possible and really invest in the well-being of the characters.

Continuity among all this timeline movement is held by the main character, Derron, who twice is sent back in time to deal with the Berserker “assassins.” Derron Odegard is an unhappy, but dutiful time operative. One would have to return to the original stories and then see what (if any?) differences were made or interludes added regarding Derron – but I think in its final form, this fix-up can be read as a redemptive storyline.

It’s not really ideal to think of this as a strict time-travel novel. It’s almost more ontological than it has any right to be. And there’s a delicious amount of heartstring-plucking ethics thrown in each section to make the novel more than just an action sequence.

The last section of the book is going to have different levels of depth and meaning for various readers.  Those of us GenX and back who were raised in the Church are probably going to have a different feel here than those Z-Gen types who have never been inside a church. So, reader perspective will change the feel. Nevertheless, the story is still interesting…. a re-imagining of the business with Galileo Galilei and heliocentrism. Saberhagen does an interesting job here of making all the participants in the debate seem real. St. Francis of Assisi is the other character that is juxtaposed between the heliocentric drama and the struggles of Derron and his timeline. Let me admit, while many parents read “Goodnight Moon” to their children, I was read the Little Flowers of St. Francis.  Like I mentioned: a reader’s background will change the level to which this story resonates with him.

Overall this is not high-tech hard science fiction. The work is flawed here and there.  I just plain and simple liked Saberhagen’s work with the main character Derron. I liked his work with the character Matt. I liked his styling of a Renaissance drama in the last section. So, based on feel – as opposed to anything else – I give this four stars. Its not great literature, but it was a good thing for me to read.

4 stars


BerserkerBerserker 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”

4 stars