My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Berserkers: The Beginning is a repackaging of much older short story collection set in Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker universe, a setting where an ancient warfare between two forgotten races spawned the Berserkers– once thought to have been autonomous killing machines designed to be “ultimate weapons” but time and a long ago scrambling of their code has warped their programming to declare war on all life. Berserkers are the progenitors (or perhaps the heirs) of science fiction plot devices like “The Doomsday Machine” on Star Trek.
I would rate these much higher, normally, however they are not a new read. This novel is a collection of stories from two sources: BERSERKER (the first collection) and THE ULTIMATE ENEMY (the fifth collection). In the old days, I would have rated it at least “Really liked it” but I’m not that kind of reader any more. I enjoyed Fred Saberhagen when I was a teenager for his cool ideas and his excellent plotting. As an adult, he still has cool ideas and excellent plotting– it’s just that I keep seeing the same themes throughout his stories: the Berserkers can’t fathom humans at some level, this always leads them to make some critical error. The humans exploit this error and the story usually ends on an up note as the author reveals the “big trick” the humans used to fool the berserkers yet again and win some victory large or small. It’s not that I have grown tired of the pattern, but I’m starting to recognize it.
Berserkers: The Beginning is a larger collection of short stories, and that is the creative space where Saberhagen was in his element. I’ve read many of his long form novels and liked them (particularly the Swords series) and my big criticism is that the plot meanders and repeats itself from time to time. Not so with his short stories from the 70s era. They are crisp, they execute quickly and they don’t have much in the way of ambiguity. I enjoyed this collection. In particular, each of the previous collections contains a couple of my favorites. GOODLIFE, from the first collection (Berserker) is an amazing story of a man born inside a Berserker, who has only experienced life as a “goodlife” servant of the Berserker. This might be the ONE story where we actually catch a glimpse of what might have been the race that created the Berserkers, via archive tapes. WINGS OUT OF SHADOW is a story from Ultimate Enemy and maybe my favorite. A historian with a collection of human “persona” that are stored digitally is captured by a goodlife collaborator and a Berserker and forced to wire the personae into a collection of fighters for the Berserkers. The Beserkers don’t realize that the personae are actually of World War I fighter aces….
B:TB collects these short stories from Volume 1:
“Without a Thought” (first appeared as “Fortress Ship” in Worlds of If, Jan 1963)
“Goodlife” (first appeared in Worlds of Tomorrow, Dec 1963)
“Patron of the Arts” (first appeared in Worlds of If, Aug 1965)
“The Peacemaker” (first appeared as “The Lifehater” in Worlds of If, Aug 1964)
“Stone Place” (first appeared in Worlds of If, March 1965)
“What T and I Did” (first appeared in Worlds of If, April 1965)
“Mr. Jester” (first appeared in Worlds of If, Jan 1966)
“Masque of the Red Shift” (first appeared in Worlds of If, Nov 1965)
“Sign of the Wolf” (first appeared in Worlds of If, May 1965)
“In the Temple of Mars” (first appeared in Worlds of If, April 1966)
“The Face of the Deep” (first appeared in Worlds of If, Sep 1966)
and these from Volume 5:
“The Smile” (first appeared in Algol, Summer/Fall 1977)
“Pressure” (first appeared as “Beserkers Prey” in Worlds of If, June 1977)
“The Annihilation of Angkor Apeiron” (first appeared in Galaxy, Feb 1977)
“Inhuman Error” (first appeared in Analog, Oct 1974)
“Some events at the Templar Radiant” (first appeared in Destinies, May-Aug, 1979)
“Starsong” (first appeared in Worlds of If, Jan 1968)
“Smasher” (first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Aug 1978)
“The Game” (first appeared in The Flying Buffalo’s Favorite Magazine, May–June 1977)
To sum up, I love SF short story collections with a lot of action and this collection delivers that requirement nicely. There’s a notable progression in style between the first “Oh what a twist!” original stories written in the Sixties to the Ultimate Enemy stories written in the Seventies. They later ones are more mature, with better characterization and with less reliance on Deux est machina endings.
Good fun. Not the most complex read, but for what it is, it surely delivers.