One of the reasons the Berserker series
is so endearing is this: behind the battles between man and machine
there is a backdrop of deep enigma and fundamental questions of
existence. As readers, we get only a hint of the greater forces
and philosophical notions at work underneath the plots and struggles
of the surface, and then only after having read almost the whole
series. But that taste is just enough to fascinate. On this page,
I will try to explore some of the shadowy underpinnings of the
Berserker universe, as well as set down any other random thoughts
or questions I've had while reading and documenting this series.
one warning: here there be spoilers
Other Extant Races of Humanity? - It
seems likely that other races of humanity currently exist undiscovered
by Solarians. The sheer number of unexplored worlds would make
this probable if not for the Berserkers, who may have wiped out
any such races. But the Carmpan seem to feel that Solarians are
fighting to save many races of humanity. One could argue that this
just may include Carmpan, Solarians, the several other extant human
races we know about, and the Elder Races, but in Berserker
Wars we read that the 3rd Historian talked about the Elder
Races remaining in the path of the Berserkers in order to help
save Solarian and other worlds. This implies there are
other races out there, though not conclusively. Those other races
may have since been destroyed, or they may in fact be the ones
that we learn of in the books (though Solarians live nearby all
of them, they may have moved in only recently). But in the way
they act and in their communications the Carmpan seem to indicate
an abundance of life in the Galaxy, including humanity. The Carmpan
even suggest outright that there may be races of humanity in the
Galaxy still unknown to them.
Other Lost Races of Humanity? (ones who fought? the
Elder Races?)- We know that the Builders wiped
out several races of humanity before facing the Red Race. As
much has been inferred from information about the Builders
retrieved from Berserkers and given to us by the Carmpan. We
know that the Berserkers wiped out more than one race of humanity
before meeting Solarians. The Carmpan have as good as said
so, and in the 50,000 years the Berserkers plowed across the
Galaxy before meeting Solarians, it seems inevitable they would
have run into some form of humanity. And if they hadn't wiped
those races out, that would mean the races were actively resisting
and still in existence, and then Solarians wouldn't be the
last hope that Carmpan treat us as. Although, that could be
happening on the very far end of the Galaxy where the Carmpan
can't quite see.
The question of whether other races have ever put up a decent fight against
the Berserkers (whether those races perished or still fight somewhere) is an
interesting one. Some of the oldest Berserkers have ancient battle wounds,
too old to have been caused by Solarians. Such damage could have been inflicted
by the Red Race or the Builders, but after the Berserkers finished them off
they should have had plenty of time to fully repair themselves, being as those
two races were obviously the two strongest forces in the neighborhood at that
time and any other threat would have been comparatively minimal for the Berserkers.
Still, Solarian humanity, with its capacity for violence, is treated as something
of a special case by the Carmpan.
Getting back to lost races, another question is: what would happen
if a race made it into residence in the Taj before being exterminated
outside of the Core? Would that race still exist? Would they still "count?" The
Carmpan say, in Berserker Wars, that getting to the Core,
the Taj in particular, is what really counts for a race of humanity
("All exact counting of races should be done there [The Core]"),
so it seems such a race would still exist enough to contribute
able to influence
events outside the Core still? Would it be able to communicate
with the other races? I get the feeling that such may be the condition
of the Elder Races, and that is why they are so shadowy to Solarians.
Carmpan can communicate with the Elders because the Carmpan have
residence in the Taj too, and seem to understand it. Okay, so Michel
Geulincx made it into the center of the Taj, but I think he was
more than a regular Solarian by the time he got there, and no other
Solarians were really aware of the achievement or would be likely
to understand it yet anyway. Evidence for the Elder Races possibly
being wiped out in the outer Galaxy could be derived from the Carmpan
statement that they kept themselves in the Berserkers' way to help
save Solarians and others. They could have entirely sacrificed
themselves in this.
What about AI? - The Berserker Universe
is interestingly different in science fiction in that Solarian
humans have NOT pursued artificial intelligence (AI) due to the
dread of the possible creation of more Berserker-like machines.
(note: read Berserker Prime for some interesting developments
with Solarians and AI before the Berserker war had really got going)
So robots tend to be dumb. But since the central struggle in the
and the main
questions in the series revolve around the distinction between
the two, the question comes up: would AI count as life? This question
is explored with such characters as Hilary Gage (Berserker
Base) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (Berserker Kill). The
former tries to prove his humanity by creating poetry. The latter,
interestingly, goes through several versions, which demonstrates
that his intelligence, his awareness, may be easily augmented.
If this is true, and he can also be copied, then evolution of such
AI should be possible. So even if there's question as to whether
Gage or Hawksmoor count as life, they may be able to develop into
it. We can learn more on this issue by looking at the Berserkers.
Though the Berserkers are highly intelligent, they lack something
that would put them on par with sentient, human life. This is evidenced
by the breakdown of the Berserker in the Taj when it tried to get
too close to the center. But could the Berserkers ever advance
beyond that? Could sophisticated AI develop into a human race of
its own? Perhaps yes, if we look at the end of Brother Assassin.
The Berserker unit sent to kill Brother Jovann in the planet Sirgol's
past, described as "probably the most complex and compact
machine that the berserkers had ever built," ends up attaining
the status of a living being. It asks Derron Odegard about fearing
the passage of life to non-life, it registers as a fledgling lifeline
on the Time Ops monitors, and it is tamed by Brother Jovann's power
of love for all life. How can this be? The unit, in addition to
being very complex, was sent forward in time from a staging area
about 20,000 years in the past. Apparently such a journey also
advances any traveler along an evolutionary gradient. This implies
that AI, even Berserker AI, has the capacity to evolve into something
that counts as life. But why wouldn't that have already happened
to the Berserkers after 50,000 years of reproducing across the
Galaxy? At one point, I forget which book, it is said that Berserker
replication needs to be closely supervised. This could be necessary
precisely to prevent what happened in Brother Assassin,
to prevent Berserkers from turning into that which it is their
purpose to destroy. Thus, it does appear to be possible for AI
to "count" as life. The Berserker unit Shiva from Shiva
in Steel may also be a step toward life status as it was seemingly
more advanced than any other units. Since its fate at the end of
the book was unclear, perhaps it will sit around undiscovered long
enough to undergo some change. Doesn't seem likely though. Finally,
in Berserker Fury there was some talk of organic vs. non-organic
life, but in that instance I believe it was just a goodlife ploy.
Are the Berserker's Destined to Fail?
At the end of Berserker Man, it is suggested
all galaxies share a higher purpose/tendency,
and that galaxies themselves may even be higher-order living entities
of some sort. If the greater destiny of galaxies is to live, then
perhaps the Berserkers are fighting a lost cause.
In Berserker Wars, the 3rd
Historian's famous History Document is described. It is said to
contain a recount of the exploits of the Solarian starship named
after Johann Karlsen near/at the core of the Galaxy. This, of course,
refers to Berserker Man. But it is said that the event
is treated by the 3rd Historian as "foreshadowing an ultimate victory
for the cause of life." Recall also that the Berserker Director
unit was unable to enter the center of the Taj.
How did the Berserkers get out of control in the first
place? - The Builders weren't stupid. They'd
apparently defeteated prior space-faring adversaries so they
knew all about warfare, and even to be capable of making the
Berserker hardware suggests they were extremelty adept technologically.
So why would they intentionally build machines programmed to
destroy all life which they couldn't shut off?
One possibility, discussed someplace in one of the books, is that there was
a shutoff trigger, but that it malfunctioned (more on this in a minute). Another
suggestion is that the area in which the Builders unleashed the Berserkers
was so far away that they didn't think the Berserkers would be able to come
back and get them. This doesn't seem likely, as the Berserkers were programmed
to spread and replicate so the Builders had to have foreseen them getting around.
One thought: perhaps the Red Race somehow intervened in the Berserkers'
programming. Say that the Berserkers were originally only programmed
to destory the Red Race, or all life within the Red Race's vicinity.
In the Red Race's final hours, when it became clear that not even
Qwib-Qwibs could save them, they may have somehow alterred the
Berserkers' instructions (perhaps boarding one, or transmitting
the equivalent of a software virus) as an act of revenge on their
killers, the Builders. But then why not reprogram the Berserkers
to kill just the Builders, and not ALL life? I guess if the Builders
could be dastardly enough to do it, why not their adversary. And
perhaps looking extinction in the face could bring out the worst
in any race.
Another idea: maybe the Red Race disabled the Berserkers' shutoff switch. This
idea holds with "Some Events at the Templar Radiant" in which a sort
of manual override switch is discovered and used, and in the story "Mr. Jester"
in which a Berserker unit's safety switch is triggered when its brain is transferred
from one ship to another.
Here's one more completely different idea. Consider that the Berserkers
are the most advanced known example of AI in the Galaxy. Perhaps
the Builders were unable to create such intelligent software directly
and instead had to evolve it, a process which would necessarily
be out of their complete control. By the time the eveolving Berserkers
obtained the level of intelligence necessary to do their job, that
job may have turned out to be not quite what the Builders had in
mind. But they couldn't alter the programming at that point because
the complexity of the AI had evolved beyond their understanding.
Something similar happens in Aasimov's I, Robot.
Yet another idea (now that I'm re-reading this section a few years
later [05-29-02007]): the Berserkers might have been intended as
a "doomsday device" for the Builders, analogous to a nuclear bomb
that would automatically trigger planetwide annihilation if its
owners were attacked (as appearing in the movie Dr. Strangelove for
example). The idea is that a doomsday device would offer
ultimate protection to its owners because any enemy would be also
destroying itself by attacking the device's owners. Perhaps
the Builders hoped to effortlessly subjugate the Red Race with
such a device. But perhaps, as in Dr. Strangelove,
something went wrong, and the doomsday device (the Berserkers)
was accidentally triggered. Maybe some of the Red Race's
forces didn't get the memo about ceasing fire, or maybe they prefered
mutual annihilation to going extinct alone.
Why can't Berserkers successfully imitate life?
We are given a hint in Beserker Prime as to why the Berserkers
are never able to successfully imitate life. As
the Carmpan in that book is reading the thoughts of the Berserker,
we read this: "Deep in the berserker's fundamental programming
were commands, biases solidly built in, that prevented it from
attempting the direct imitation of any kind of life. Even
the voices that it generated to speak to the living enemy must
be, by a branch of the same prohibition, clearly distinguishable
from the natural models." (page 143 in the hardback) I
think that this was probably a precaution put in by the Builders. They
wanted to be able to keep definite track of their innovative new
weapons, and didn't want to have to worry about the Berserkers
camoflouging themselves as life. It also makes tactical sense:
if a Berserker can pass itself off as living, there is the danger
of another Berserker destroying it. (for a more pragmatic
explanation of this restriction, see the QUOTES page.)
Berserkers have tried at various times to imitate life, but always
failed. Now we know that they fail because their own fundamental
programming works against them.
Would downloading human minds into non-biological
bodies deter the Berserkers?
The "crazy" President Belgola in Berserker Prime is
the only one in the whole series that seems to come close to this
strategy. The Berserkers don't seek to destory human-made
robots (as evidenced in that same book). So perhaps it's
only the biological substrates of thinking minds that they are
programmed to destroy. Belgola seems to want to merge humans
with machines as a way to transcend death and progress toward some
greater order, perhaps even joining with the Berserker. I
wonder, if humans were merged/made into machines in such a way,
would the Berserkers still see them as life? (see around page 180
in the hardback version)
In Berserker Base there was the man whose mind was downloaded
into a computer and who then helped to fight the Berserkers. I
can't recall just now if the Berserkers' attitude toward him was
made clear, but I'd imagine that they'd attack such a being if
it was helping badlife, but perhaps not if it wasn't.
The modern sublime ancient
One of the captivating elements of the Berserkers for
me has been their sublime ancientness. They fascinate with that
horror of something so monstrously old that it defies comprehension,
yet is still functioning, inexorably. Add to that their unfathomably
vast physical size and their unknowable (truly alien) intelligence,
and they are really a modern gothic force/symbol, in the vein of
An answer to the Fermi Paradox
In a posting
on Everything2.com, Pseduo_Intellectual points out
that: "The existence of berserkers is one possible explanation
for the Fermi
Fermi Paradox: if there are numerous
extraterrestrial civilizations [e.g., as estimated by some calculations
of the Drake
Equation], then why have we had no contact with them?
So the explanation provided by the concept of Berserkers is: we
have seen no evidence of civilizations from other stars because
soon after they become spacefaring (if not before), they are eradicated.