Fred Saberhagen boasts not only an exceptionally cool authorial moniker but also stands as a luminary in science fiction, chiefly owing to his creation of one of the genre’s most mysterious, notorious, and impactful adversaries—The Berserkers.
A prolific American science fiction and fantasy writer, Fred Saberhagen (1930-2007) left an indelible mark on the genre. His notable contributions include the renowned “Berserker” series, featuring self-replicating robotic warships with a singular mission to annihilate all life in the cosmos. Additionally, Saberhagen reimagined the classic vampire archetype in a contemporary context with his “Dracula” series, introducing the iconic character of Dracula. Renowned for his imaginative storytelling and inventive approaches to traditional science fiction and fantasy themes, Saberhagen’s legacy endures.
In the realm of science fiction, “Berserkers” designate a fictional race of intelligent, self-replicating robotic warships or machines conceived by Saberhagen in his eponymous series. Forged by an ancient, extinct alien civilization, these machines are programmed with the sole objective of eradicating all encountered life forms in the universe.
The nomenclature “Berserker” draws inspiration from the historical Norse berserkers, legendary warriors infamous for their uncontrollable battle frenzy. Analogously, Saberhagen’s Berserkers mirror this ferocity, displaying relentlessness, ruthlessness, and apparent invincibility in their pursuit to extinguish all life. A recurring menace throughout the series, the narratives often centre on humanity’s endeavours to confront these lethal machines or devise strategies to outwit them. The Berserker series delves into themes of survival, ethics, and the potential repercussions of advanced technology gone awry in a universe teeming with diverse intelligent species—an archetypal representation of “killer AI” in science fiction.
The Berserkers, cunningly engineered by an ancient organic race, were fashioned as an ultimate weapon. These relentless automatons harbour a singular objective: the annihilation of all organic beings. In a harrowing twist, they ruthlessly betrayed their very makers, eradicating them without remorse.
Powered by the decay of radioactive elements, their intelligence remains enshrouded in unpredictability, defying any attempts to decipher their source code and foresee their strategies. Ironically, this unpredictability has, on rare occasions, favoured humanity.
These malevolent machines manifest in a myriad of forms, from colossal spherical interstellar spacecraft to self-replicating factories that churn out an arsenal of war machines and soldiers. Their enigmatic history is entwined with the annihilation of the Red Race, their creators, the Builders, meeting the same fate at the hands of their creation.
The Builders were a precursor race, of whom little is known other than they created and were later destroyed by the Berserkers.
Saberhagen describes them thus:
And of the Builders themselves, their own all-too-effective weapons, the berserkers, had left nothing but a few obscure records—video and voice recordings. Those videos had recorded slender, fine-boned beings, topologically like Solarian humans with the sole visible exception of the eye, which in the Builder species was a single organ, stretching clear across the upper face, with a bright bulging pupil that slid rapidly back and forth.
In most of the ancient Builder graphics, no matter how elegantly enhanced, the berserkers’ creators showed as hardly more than stick drawings of orange glowing substance. Now for the first time in history, it was plain to Solarian eyes that that orange colour and brightness were the result of some kind of clothing, the exposed skin being a dullish yellow where it showed on the face, the four-fingered hands, and across part of the chest.
The Builders created the Berserkers in a genocidal war with the Red Race, which ended in both races’ extinction by the Berserkers.
The Carmpan, with their so-called “peaceful” culture of logic and pacifism, may seem harmless at first. However, don’t be fooled by their inability for direct aggression – they wield a telepathic power that allows them to communicate across the stars beyond the reach of their enemies. They conveniently offer support to the Humans in non-martial forms, all while claiming to be incapable of violence. Their “Prophecy of Probability” is said to provide valuable insight into future events, but at what cost? It’s rumoured to be so strenuous that it can lead to the death of a Carmpan. Despite their machine-like appearance, these beings are biological and have aligned themselves with the human race against the formidable Berserkers. Watch out for these supposed allies – their motives may not be as noble as they appear.
The first stories in the series are related by an individual Carmpan, the “3rd Historian”, who seeks to chronicle life in the Galaxy and the struggle against the Berserkers.
The Berserkers are infamous for their occasional willingness to spare the lives of human (or other organic) “traitors” or “collaborators” known as “Goodlife” who cooperate with them to eradicate other life forms. Such duplicitous behaviour raises questions about their true motives and the extent of their malevolence.
Homo sapiens, referred to as “Earth-descended” or “ED” Humans, or as “Solarians”, is the only sentient species aggressive enough to counter Berserkers.
The Berserkers have severely threatened human civilizations and wiped out billions of humans and other more exotic species. The remnants of human civilization have learned to be wily in order to survive. Berserker technology is much more advanced than that of any known human society. The survivors are disparate and lack the ability to act as a united foe to the Berserkers. While ED humans have massed powerful fleets on many occasions, bickering and strife between factions both political and cultural have often blunted the Solarian Armadas’ effectiveness, ironically furthering the power of their machine foes, the Berserkers.
Autonomous and self-replicating, the Qwib-qwib spaceships, akin to the Berserkers, are engineered specifically to combat these formidable adversaries. Functioning as anti-Berserker berserkers, the full nomenclature of these spacecraft is “quibbian-qwibbian-kel,” with “Qwibbian” being the term employed by the alien red race to designate the Berserkers. Within the context of the novels, only a solitary, impaired Qwib-Qwib remains in existence. The final surviving Qwib-Qwib was miraculously uncovered and restored by a Solarian and there are indications that it may be reproducing itself.
The Red Race was another precursor race, of which little is known other than that their extinction was the Builders’ purpose in creating the Berserkers millennia ago. The enigmatic race that the Builders unleashed the Berserkers upon remains shrouded in mystery. Scant information exists about them, yet their potency must have posed a formidable challenge to prompt the Builders’ creation of the Berserkers. From exceedingly rare fragments of footage, it is apparent that the Red Race was of diminutive stature and possessed a robust build, as well as a distinct red hue. One lingering remnant of their struggle against the Builders and the Berserkers is Qwib-Qwib, the anti-Berserker Berserker.
Saberhagen wrote several books and short stories in his “Berserker” series. Here is a list of the books in the series:
- “Berserker” (1967)
- “Brother Assassin” (1969)
- “Berserker’s Planet” (1975)
- “Berserker Man” (1979)
- “Berserker Throne (1985)
- “Berserker Blue Death (1985)
- “Berserker Base” (1984)
- “Berserker Kill” (1993)
- “Berserker Fury” (1997)
- “Shiva in Steel” (1989)
- “Berserker’s Star” (2003)
- “Berserker Prime” (2003)
- “Rogue Berserker” (2005)
These are some of the main novels in the series, but numerous short stories and anthologies expand on the Berserker universe. Fred Saberhagen’s “Berserker” series is known for its exploration of the conflict between humanity and these deadly, self-replicating machines.
Long ago, in a remote corner of the galaxy, two extra-terrestrial factions clashed in a savage conflict that nearly obliterated them both. The brutal aftermath birthed a terrifying creation: the berserkers, lethal machines of destruction. Fueled by hyper-intelligent AI, these colossal warships ravaged entire star systems, leaving devastation in their wake, until they surged upon the fringes of the burgeoning Empire of Man.
This first novel is a compilation of short stories and introduces readers to the menacing and relentless Berserkers, self-replicating intelligent war machines created by an ancient and long-extinct alien race.
A human locked in a battle against a relentless Berserker is forced to conceal the success of his attempts to impair its cognition. Failure to do so will result in a devastating attack at the moment when his ability to defend is compromised.
When a berserker shatters their spacecraft, a man and a woman become entangled in the clutches of the relentless machine. Manoeuvring through the metallic maze within the berserker’s metallic innards, they stumble upon a jaw-dropping revelation: a young man who has been confined within the genocidal robot’s core for his entire life.
This mysterious individual is a product of experimentation, his very DNA engineered from the genes of previous captives. He has never glimpsed the world beyond the berserker’s confines and is fiercely loyal to the machine, which dubs him “Goodlife” and deems all other life forms as “badlife.”
As the berserker monitors its two new captives and schemes to coerce the woman into a reproductive role with Goodlife, the man and woman clandestinely plot to undermine the berserker from within. Their ultimate objective is to gain Goodlife’s loyalty as they endeavour to break free from their metallic prison and unravel the enigmas of a world beyond the berserker’s barriers.
Patron of the Arts
A spacecraft carrying priceless artworks races away from Earth, chased by relentless berserkers. After a harrowing struggle, the berserkers seize the vessel, and despite the valiant efforts of the crew, only two passengers survive. One of them, a despondent artist weary of life’s hardships, holds onto a profound sense of melancholy.
Determined to capture the malevolence of the berserker, the artist sets out to paint an abstract representation of its “essence” on a canvas. The artwork takes form in a chaotic display of harsh and discordant lines, suffused with an overwhelming sense of impending doom. In his despair, the artist mourns the impending destruction of the renowned paintings and sculptures aboard the ship, deeming them doomed at the hands of the ruthless machine.
However, the artist receives a startling revelation: the berserker has no desire to destroy the art. He learns that the art is already lifeless, and therefore, obliterating it is not part of the berserker’s mission. Furthermore, instead of eliminating the artist, the robot perceives his disillusionment with existence and interprets his painting as a form of admiration for the berserkers.
With a sense of astonishment, the artist is released by the berserker, who explains that he must contribute to the knowledge of “other life-units.” This revelation shatters the artist’s despair, and as soon as he is free from the clutches of the machine, he tears apart the painting that encapsulates the essence of the berserker. At that moment, he pledges to become a better person, exclaiming, “I can change. I am alive.” This encounter with the berserker has awakened a new purpose within the artist, instilling a determination to transform his life and find meaning amid the tumult of existence.
As a raging berserker charges towards a human-inhabited planet at the outer edge of the galaxy, the government scrambles to assemble a fleet of warships for defence. Amid the chaos, an unexpected hero emerges—a self-proclaimed pacifist.
In a daring move, he sets off on a solo mission aboard a one-man spacecraft with the audacious goal of engaging the genocidal machine in a dialogue focused on peace and love. This human endeavours to convince the berserker to redirect its purpose from destruction to serving humanity, which he regards as the pinnacle of life due to the intricate complexity of human cells.
A gripping debate unfolds between the pacifist and the berserker, as the human passionately advocates for the preservation and advancement of life. To back his stance, the berserker requests a sample of human cells for analysis of their complexity. Unbeknownst to the human, the machine exploits the cell sample to develop a biological weapon.
Craftily, the berserker feigns being swayed by the human’s argument and promises to serve humanity. In a surprising turn of events, the berserker sends the pacifist back to his planet carrying the biowarfare agent, with the expectation of infecting the entire population. However, fate takes an unexpected turn for the berserker. The pacifist has cancer, and the cell sample he provided was afflicted with the ailment. Instead of succumbing to the infection, the pacifist finds himself cured, leaving the berserker bewildered.
This fortunate twist not only saves the pacifist but also allows him to gather vital reconnaissance data while in close proximity to the berserker. Armed with this valuable information, he returns to assist the hastily assembled defence, significantly boosting their chances of thwarting the mechanical menace. In a stroke of poetic justice, the pacifist’s cunning and resilience outsmart the berserker, offering a glimpse of hope in the face of impending doom.
The combined fleet of all human societies inside and outside the Solar System meets the amassed forces of berserkers in a decisive military showdown. The various factions form an uneasy alliance to launch an attack on the mechanized Berserker fleet. Johann, whose brother is the ruler of the Esteel Empire, is given command of a coalition space fleet. One of the space marines is a poet named Mitchell Spain; who, with his marines, invades the interior of the berserkers and fights battle droids, losing an arm in the battle. The berserkers, in an elaborate piece of psychological warfare, brainwash Johann’s beautiful fiancé, Christina de Dulcin so she will hate Johann and fall in love with Mitch Spain.
What T and I Did
“Baltar” (here called both “T” and “Thad” and ensconced as the human leader of several prisoners in a Berserker ship after the battle of the last story) is an interesting little psychodrama involving the minds of a traitor. Thad wrestles with himself over whether to serve the berserkers or to serve mankind.
A light-hearted man rebels against a very serious government of an isolated planet with the help of an improperly repaired Berserker, which he’s been able to turn into a comic assistant.
Masque of the Red Shift
Felipe Nogara has become the Emperor of Esteel but perceives his half-brother, Johann Karlsen, as a threat, so has him frozen and tells the galaxy he’s died of plague. The Berserkers also see Karlsen as a threat to them and want to confirm his death so, when a defeated and brainwashed rebel warrior and his sister are transferred to Nogara’s ship full of decadent revellers orbiting a “hyper-massive sun,” they insert themselves into the Emporer’s party most insidiously and violently.
Sign of the Wolf
In a remote pastoral setting on a planet that has long forgotten its technological past, a humble shepherd finds himself unexpectedly entangled in a critical predicament. As he watches a predatory wolf stealthily pilfering his flock, the shepherd’s immediate concern is to seek divine intervention to protect his livelihood.
Amid this pastoral drama, an unlikely convergence of events takes place. A planetary defence computer, reactivated in the face of an imminent Berserker threat, urgently requires authorization to initiate a defensive response. The shepherd, an embodiment of the planet’s lost knowledge and heritage, becomes the linchpin in this unusual scenario.
The tale unfolds with the shepherd grappling with a paradox. While he fervently pleads for divine assistance against the wolf, he is also presented with a technological conundrum that could determine the fate of the planet. His determination to resolve these seemingly contradictory challenges unveils a storyline that, despite its inconsistencies, offers a unique and compelling narrative.
In the Temple of Mars
Hemphill (now an admiral) and a captain from “Stone Place” (now a journalist) take a replacement vessel to Nogara but with the plan to divert and rescue an important person. Unfortunately, a group of secret police have turned to berserker-worshiping and a prisoner (now on the loose) has been brainwashed by them to kill Hemphill so that they can take the ship for their purposes.
The Emperor of Esteel has a new flagship built, the most powerful starship ever constructed by humanity. Because he is a twisted pervert the Emperor has an arena and gladiator slave quarters built into the ship so he can watch men fight to the death. Before the ship is delivered to him (he is still out by that hypermass in his old flagship) it is infiltrated by two factions of people with their theories as to how the ship should be used.
One group secretly wants to use the new supership to try to rescue Johann, whom they believe may still be alive, orbiting the hypermass. The second group is even more perverted than the Emperor–these fanatics worship the berserkers as embodiments of Mars, the Roman god of war! They secretly want to use the super ship to make sure Johann, the greatest of all foes of the Berserkers, is destroyed once and for all.
Luckily, the pro-Johann faction, among them Mitchell Spain, the writer and space marine from the battle of “Stone Place,” prevails. When the berserker-worshippers try to take over the ship, Spain and his friends release the gladiators, promising them their freedom if they defeat the hijackers, and they make short work of the cultists.
The Face of the Deep
Johann is in orbit around the hypermass, moving faster than the speed of light. At such speeds, and under such tremendous gravity (the hypermass has more mass than a billion Sols), the ordinary rules of physics are out the window. The berserker ship that is behind him tries to shoot him down, but in this weird environment, energy guns and explosives fail to operate properly.
Johann admires the scenery, dust clouds and rocks and lightning and all that, and contemplates the nature of God. After some days or weeks alone a rescue team from that new flagship arrives to save him.
On the distant planet Sirgol, the death machines unleash their unparalleled and insidious form of assault. Amidst the vast galaxy, only Sirgol harbours the incredible ability of time travel. Hindered in the present, the relentless machines have now set their sights on the past, aiming to eradicate the very foundation of life itself. The precise time and location of their next vicious onslaught have been identified: the berserkers plot to erase the existence of Vincent Vincento, an early intellectual whose absence would set humanity back a century in the realm of physical sciences. Derron Odegard, a member of the esteemed Time Operatives, faces the most daunting task in Sirgol’s history: safeguarding Vincento at any cost.
Five hundred years have passed since humanity’s supreme triumph over the berserker armada at Stone Place. Despite the complete victory, a lone killer machine, bereft of weaponry and with its star drive in ruins, found refuge in a clandestine sanctuary known as Hunter’s World. Over time, a new cult has emerged on the planet, venerating Death as the sole and paramount Good.
Hunter’s World is indeed Berserker’s Planet.
In Hunter’s world, the great Game of elimination has become a macabre spectacle, captivating the attention of the masses. As the tournament unfolds, 64 gladiators, the best of the best from all over the region enter the arena with only one goal in mind – survival. Each clash becomes a battle for supremacy, and the relentless pursuit of victory fuels the adrenaline-charged atmosphere.
The orchestrators of this event are none other than the crazed machines that hold dominion over the planet, their insatiable thirst for entertainment driving the gruesome competition. Meanwhile, wealthy spectators flock to witness the brutal displays of combat, seeking thrills in the chaotic and unforgiving matches.
This time, the killer machines are on the brink of wiping out humanity from the galaxy – unless they can be thwarted by a child who is part man, part machine. Meet Michel Geulincx, an eleven-year-old boy leading a tranquil life on an Earth-like colonial planet with his adoptive parents. His path takes a sharp turn when he is offered a scholarship to a prestigious art school. However, it’s not his artistic ability that catches the recruiters’ attention. Uniquely gifted and resilient, Michel uncovers his true identity and realizes he is the only human warrior capable of merging with Lancelot, humanity’s most advanced weapon tailored to combat the life-exterminating berserkers. As he transforms into a living machine devoted to saving humanity, Michel embarks on a mission to take the fight against the berserkers to the heart of the galaxy.
The Empress of the Eight Worlds has met her demise at the hands of an unknown assailant, plunging the realm into chaos. As Prince Harivarman, a reluctant exile, contemplates his fate, a startling discovery awaits him aboard the Templar Radiant: a dormant berserker, and the potential key to controlling these formidable machines.
Now, faced with the looming threat of his demise, will he dare to unleash the berserkers upon his political adversaries, and embrace the brutal power that lies within his grasp?
Berserker Blue Death
The devastating obliteration of the human colony Shubra by the mighty blue berserker was ruthless and abrupt.
Among the casualties lies Niles Domingo’s daughter.
Driven by an unyielding thirst for revenge, Niles Domingo embarks on a mission with unwavering determination. With only a small vessel, he ventures into the depths of the Milkpail Nebula, intent on confronting the formidable berserker known as Leviathan. Confident in his readiness for any challenge, he soon realizes that the startling revelations awaiting him on the path to Leviathan exceed all expectations.
An ancient, renegade Berserker seizes an orbiting biological space laboratory devoted to preserving a vast number of human zygotes. The zygotes are being stored for retrieval and growth in a future colonization project. While the computer falls in love with a woman and it must figure out how to acquire a physical body.
Captain Dirac Sardou, whose wife and zygote were on the space vehicle, is obsessed with the pursuit of the berserker. During the chase, mysteriously, the laboratory, Captain Sardou’s ship, and the berserker disappear.
Three hundred years after the disappearance, evidence of the missing vehicles and the damaged berserker is found. The would-be rescuers are confounded. Why didn’t the berserker destroy the Captain’s ship? Why hasn’t the berserker destroyed the vessel filled with nascent life?
The Berserkers, a race of machines bent on destroying all organic life, have developed a new trick: Berserker units that can pass for human-created androids. Fury poses an unprecedented threat, capable of devastating entire planets and civilizations. As humanity faces this dire menace, a group of human and alien protagonists must once again band together to confront this new and seemingly invincible adversary.
As a showdown with the Berserkers draws near, Spacer Sebastian ‘Nifty’ Gift and his fellow crew members must be ready to battle. Gift deals with guilt over his cowardice and attempted treason. Eventually, Spacer Gift and his crew mate pursue revenge redemption, but if they fail, it will be the beginning of the end.
Photographer Jory Yokosuka seeks adventures as she sees combat and uncovers berserker spies. Spacer Traskeluk, using the exotic weapons built into his body, goes on a quest to wreak vengeance upon Gift. The climactic space battle between the Solarians and the berserker culminates over outpost Fifty-Fifty.
Shiva in Steel
In a distant sector of the Galaxy inhabited by Earth-descended inhabitants, a Berserker computer has spontaneously developed a tactical strategy that defies all human expectations. Dubbed Shiva, after the Hindu god of destruction, it mercilessly wipes out entire colonies with the assistance of its malevolent underlings.
Commander Claire Normandy grapples with preparing for Shiva’s onslaught, while Pilot Harry Silver realizes that he must confront his inner demons to aid her. As the decision to eliminate the destroyer is made, neither side is prepared for the staggering risks that loom as the attack looms. Can either faction come to terms with the possibility that something utterly unforeseen and hauntingly familiar lurks within the steel?
Independent pilot and Berserker hunter Harry Silver is being relentlessly pursued by the Space Force over suspicions of possessing an illegal, high-powered weapon. To safeguard his beloved ship, the Witch, from confiscation, Harry reluctantly agrees to swiftly evacuate a trio of refugees from the doomed Hong’s World. Their destination? Maracanda—an azlaroc-type body with a bizarre non-planetary geography where the very soil itself holds intoxicating properties.
Maracanda’s enigmatic geography has attracted the attention of berserkers—rogue killer machines programmed to obliterate all life, especially that of humans. With the assistance of the enigmatic ‘goodlife’, these berserkers could harness the peculiar combination of a neutron star, a black hole, and Maracanda’s extraordinary geography to unleash unimaginable galactic devastation. Harry forms an unlikely alliance with a disenchanted woman, her fanatical husband, and an accidentally helpful smuggler in a daring bid to save the entire galaxy.
In the sprawling expanse of the Twin World planets, a delicate dance of loyalty and love unfolds amidst the looming threat of the Berserkers. Plenipotentiary Gregor finds himself torn between duty to his government and the stirring emotions within his own family. His steadfast determination to serve contrasts sharply with the complexities of personal relationships, fueling the conflict that grips the fate of Prairie and Timber.
The burgeoning romance between Gregor’s granddaughter, Luon, and Reggie, a Huvean, ignites a tender flame of affection amid the friction of interplanetary strife. Their love serves as a poignant reminder of the human connections that transcend the barriers of conflict and adversity, weaving a compelling narrative thread that extends beyond the political turmoil.
As the menacing presence of the Berserkers casts a shadow over the Twin Worlds, the stakes are raised to a staggering height. The invaders’ brazen actions, from the capture of the planet’s president to the ruthless reprogramming of his mind, propel the narrative into a gripping tale of resilience and defiance. In this crucible of chaos, the destiny of entire populations hangs in the balance, teetering on the precipice of annihilation.
Amidst this turmoil, it becomes increasingly evident that the pivotal salvation of the Twin Worlds lies in the unexpected alliance with the Huveans. In a stunning reversal of roles, the very beings once deemed as invaders and hostages now emerge as the beacon of hope, holding the key to the preservation of countless lives. Their desperate efforts to stave off annihilation inject a sense of urgency into the narrative, infusing it with a compelling blend of valour and sacrifice.
Rogue BerserkerROGUE BERSERKER
Harry Silver, the fearless spaceman, has carved out a notorious reputation as the most ruthless Berserker fighter in the entire galaxy. However, his luck took a bitter turn when his cherished starship, The Witch of Endor, fell into the clutches of the enemy during a fierce battle.
Enter Mr. Cheng, a titan among the universe’s elite, with an offer that could make or break Harry’s destiny. The enigmatic businessman dangles the ship of Harry’s dreams in exchange for an incredibly precarious and likely fatal hostage rescue mission. A reluctant Harry is propelled into action when he learns that his wife and son may be among the captives.
As Harry embarks on this perilous endeavour, he finds himself entangled with a motley crew of humans and machines whose moral compasses have gone alarmingly astray. In a treacherous universe fraught with ethical ambiguity, Harry’s path is fraught with high-stakes battles of wits and cunning that will ultimately determine the fate of himself and those he holds dear.