The Berserker Story by Fred Saberhagen

Intro & Credits

The Berserker Story

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Intro & Credits

This short piece of reflective non-fiction by Fred Saberhagen was published only once, as far as I can tell: in the Summer-Fall 1977 issue of ALGOL Magazine. Luckily, I was able to contact Andrew Porter, the editor and publisher of ALGOL, who kindly gave me permission to reprint the article, provided Fred also gave permission (which he did). So I'd like to thank both of them very much for the opportunity to resurrect and share with the world this fascinating capsule of insight on the Berserker series.

Copyright (C) 1977 by ALGOL magazine; reprinted here by permission of Andrew Porter, the publisher, and Fred Saberhagen, the author.

The Berserker Story
Fred Saberhagen

Time: early summer, 1962. Place: the sweltering (or freezing, it must have been one or the other) Chicago apartment of neowriter Saberhagen, who is laboring over what he considers to be a jim-dandy of a story idea, viz: the construction of a functional, checker-playing computer without any hardware more advanced than a game board (simplified from regular checkers), a few small boxes, and a stock of beads of various colors.

Having got well along with plotting and writing the story, which he has chosen (without thinking about it) to make an adventure set in interstellar space, Saberhagen realizes that he has yet to name, describe, or even begin to think about the deadly menace whose destruction by his clever hero is already scheduled for the penultimate page.

"I know what," says Saberhagen to himself, off the top of his then-ungrayed and crewcut head. And without giving the matter any more conscious deliberation than that he types a new opening paragraph:

The machine was a vast fortress, containing no life, set by its long-dead masters to destroy anything that lived. It and many others like it were the inheritance of Earth from some war fought between interstellar empires, in some time that could hardly be connected with any Earthly calendar... Men called it a berserker.

The rest, as someone has said in another context, is history. Or at least it has been going on ever since. Some fifteen years and eighteen stories (if my count is correct) later, readers in Japan, England, Brazil, France, and who knows where have had a chance to read about berserkers. Some of them (and even some editors) are still asking for more. There are now berserkers in computer games, though I believe that in that alternate universe they are still vastly outnumbered by the Klingon forces. What was to have been an ephemeral menace has turned into something approaching a lifelong career.

I still have Fred Pohl's acceptance note for that first berserker story, which he bought and renamed 'Fortress Ship," a title I still have not learned to love. The note reads, in part:

I like the berserker ship in 'To Move and Win"1 very much; I'm not quite as fond of the rest of the story. (The concept of the wild, huge ship seems to promise much more color and drama than the checker game provides.)

In subsequent notes (and in conversation, when Fred and I finally met at a convention) he urged me to write more berserkers, and solemnly assured me that a series of connected stories was the most certain road to fame.

And you know, he was right. Or, anyway, the berserker series has, and has rubbed off on me, a name-recognition potential far greater than anything else that I have ever written, though the series actually makes up less than half my published output of science fiction. That first berserker has brought in many times the $50 earned by its first showing in Worlds of If, and new requests for reprinting are still at hand in 1977.

In mathematics there are series that converge and others that diverge. So, I think, it is in story-telling. In a convergent series of the literary type (I had one, I believe, in my trilogy The Broken Lands, The Black Mountains, and Changeling Earth) the writer sooner or later feels increasingly constricted by what he has already put down about his characters and settings. As in real life, choices once made must be lived with. Not as in real life, the author retains the prerogative of bailing out of his cornered position in that world, to another world that he already knows; and sooner or later the prerogative is exercised.

The divergent series of stories, on the other hand, is more like the succession of football seasons, or Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. One chapter's victories or disasters mean nothing when the next chapter starts.

Sherlock Holmes grew old, converged, and retired, though he had the (in his case, delightful) habit of coming back for a long succession of last bows. How can the berserkers grow old? It's been established that in their secret automated bases they can repair and improve themselves, and add to their numbers by new construction. Fred Pohl, in his editorial capacity, was a little worried upon reading one of the stories ("Stone Place," If, March 1965) that I had decided to wipe out the berserkers and wind the series up. No, by then I was already too smart for that. The metal killers came back from near-extinction as briskly as dandelions. Nor are they presently an endangered species.

A few hours ago (as I write this) I mailed off to my agent a new berserker short story, called "The Smile.''2 I'm also working on Berkerker Man, a novel which I think may be the best of the family to date. With a whole galaxy to range over, containing scores (at least) of Earth-colonized planets, and an occasional alien race if I need one, I don't feel the least bit crowded. Particularly with several thousand years established as a rough time-frame.

This is not to say that suitable ideas for new stories are always at hand. I believe it works something like the nation's proven reserves of oil; at times there may seem to be no more anywhere, but let a whiff of money stir the air, the metaphorical rod smiteth the rock, and lo, the needed material gusheth forth. Or trickleth, anyway; enough to meet the absolute necessities of the time.

Lack of ideas as a difficulty is peculiar to the series story, of course. About the only difficulty I can think of that is, other than convergence, is really no more than an irritant.

It has to do with background material; the establishing of the story's setting for the reader. For example, in how many different ways (limiting oneself to the English language) is it possible to repeat, restate, or paraphrase that explanation that The machine was a vast fortress, containing no life, et cetera? You can't leave the background out, or new readers won't know what is going on, and some of them will care. You can't keep sticking in the same sentences and paragraphs, or old readers (not to mention editors) may have the sensation of dropping their money in a too-familiar turnstile. So the writer, the one being paid here to do some work, has to keep on making the same old beloved background look fresh each time it is revisited. Of course when series stories are gathered into a book, even varied discriptions of the same thing quickly become too numerous, and background material so carefully created for the individual stories must be taken out. No
more, as I said, than an irritant.

To return to origins. The idea of automated war machines that no one can turn off was original with me, in the sense that at the moment I began to use it I was not aware that anyone else had done so. There seems to be no doubt that I was wrong. I stand ready to be corrected, not having the evidence before me, but I believe Sturgeon's "There Is No Defense" is an example of an earlier use, dating from 1948. Others have used the same basic idea since I began, and others will use it in times to come.

The point I want to make, though, is that this idea fit me, worked well for me, almost became identified with me, precisely because it came out of the bottom of my subconscious and through the top of my head. Writers who have
had things suddenly go right, as if of themselves, will know what I mean.

To repeat another bit of advice, this one, as I recall, from Damon Knight: Find something that you do well, and stick with it, or at least come back to it. For myself, I seem to do best with the far, far out; with ungodly and unlikely worlds and monsters; robot killers, the demons of Changeling Earth, sympathetic vampires. (My own feeling is that The Dracula Tape may be my own best book. Publishers' Weekly liked it. You've never seen it in a bookstore? Neither have I. Another story.)


1. How's that for a title?
2. Somewhere, someday, you may see it in print as "Fortress Face."

Copyright (C) 1977 by ALGOL magazine; reprinted here by permission of Andrew Porter, the publisher, and Fred Saberhagen, the author.


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