Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: Berserker By Fred Saberhagen




I orignially picked this book because 1) it was a library download, and therefore free; 2) the snippet made it sound like it was well-read and decently presented (which it was- not always a guaranteed with audiobooks, especially older ones); 3) it looked long enough to keep me occupied for a while. This book certainly delievered all of those things. The bonus is that it is also quite interesting.

This book is a collection of short narratives of the "Berserker War", told by a psychic historian who reads minds across time and tells us what he finds there (though his voice is so non-present that it might as well not be there, really just giving us short reflective intros and conclusions). The war is between humanity and "Berserker machines", massively large and clever automations whose sole function is to destroy life in all its forms. Mankind, being a particularly clever and resiliant form, quickly tops the list of Berserker targets.

As with most short story collections, some of these are quite good, some much less so. What is especially interesting about these stories (in addition to the normal technological aspects of any science fiction book) is that Saberhagen uses this comabt between "life and death" (as we are repeatedly reminded) to illuminate and comment on human nature. How man reacts with death constantly looming over his head shows something about him that is not otherwise visible. Each story explores a different aspect of this nature. Everything from courage to humor to sacrifice to, well, there's a lot of stories here. Each time humanity defeats the Berserker, it comes back with a different tactic. What at the beginning were massive planet-destroying machines become individual assassins; and when individual assassination fails, psychological warfare is embraced. And so on.

Interestingly, Saberhagen's strength as a writer is not always so much his ability to string words together (though he's solid enough when it comes to that- not great, just solid) as it is his ability to tell already familiar stories in a new setting with unique twists. For example, the climax of the book is a retelling of the Battle of Lepanto. Or, what I think is the most interesting and well-done story in the book, is the story of Orpheus juiced up with technology and a truly chilling version of hell.

Overall, this is a well done and interesting series. The few stories in it which are less interesting don't really drag it down enough to matter. This is just good solid science fiction doing what science fiction should do.

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