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Bewildering Stories

Fred Saberhagen, Rogue Berserker

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Rogue Berserker
Author: Fred Saberhagen
Publisher: Baen, 2005
Hardcover: $22.00
Length: 281 pages
ISBN: 0-7434-9873-9

Years ago when I was green out of college and untarnished by Life I worked for Boeing. My job, which was supporting the computerized brains of various robotic systems used to deliver screws and widgets and the like to a bored human picker, took me out on the factory floor on a regular basis. Boeing shop buildings are enormous beyond belief. They were strange and mysterious worlds to me at the time. There I could see giant ovens along the wall, jockeys riding multi-story machines of unimaginable purposes, and there surrounded by their own little fences to keep tender human flesh safe from the blazing tips were the robot welders.

I still remember my intense fascination with my first robot welder. The thing was like a giant skeletal arm whose elbow flexed and moved with an inhuman smoothness. So what if I, a computer programmer by trade, had a better idea than most of what was actually controlling its eerily efficient and utterly alien movements. The thing moved of itself, and for someone who was a child pretending to be a grownup still, that was fascination enough.

Somehow Fred Saberhagen manages to impart that eerie sense of the machine’s danger and fascination in his Berserker series more than any other writer has. Lay down your laurels, Hal. I do not believe there is another villain as chilling in the entire genre as Saberhagen’s life-phobic machines. Sauron’s showy eye and Dracula’s sublimated death-as-sex just can’t compare. This is an enemy of cunning and implacable purpose, clever enough to exploit our own weaknesses and temptations against us. It is the zealot of zealots, the ultimate Mad One, the demon servant gone utterly out of control.

In Rogue Berserker, Harry Silver, a veteran of too many Berserker encounters and earner of the dubious distinction of Super Badlife, receives an offer he prefers to refuse. It looks like a berserker has kidnapped a rich man’s family. The rich man wants Harry’s help, but though Harry sympathizes, he doesn’t feel the man’s pain to the extent of risking his life. He’s got a wife and child of his own to look after. But in no time at all, that same wife and child disappear just as Winston Chang’s did.

Now Harry has no choice but to go after the metallic monsters. Only is there a human motivation behind the Berserker’s uncharacteristic actions? What do a shape-shifting machine, a nutty inventor, and an old comrade with a grudge have to do with the abduction of Harry’s family? Before it’s over, more than one human will have found himself with an unexpected metallic ally.

This is a worthy book in the series. My only complaint is that the protagonist goes through much of the story in a sort of emotional shock, and the cotton-wool feeling lingers too long for the reader, too. We don’t kick in with our own sweaty involvement until Harry does, too. The ending’s enough of a roller-coaster whirl to make up for it, but Harry’s a little too detached for real visceral reader involvement for too long. But it’s a minor flaw in a well-done book.

Saberhagen’s a prolific writer. The Berserker series includes several previous works and another coming up soon; he has an excellent modern Dracula series too, as well as various others dealing with Greek Gods, magic Swords, and a time-traveling, thieving Pilgrim. He’s a competent writer in all of them, and one of the few in whom I can see actual improvement in writing abilities and style in an on-going basis (compare his early The Golden People, with its villain’s wince-inducing dialog, with later works). His works verge on horror in many cases; in fact, I still flinch from a few remembered scenes in the Books of Swords and Pilgrim series.

But there aren’t all that many writers doing action-adventure with a science fiction, fantasy, or horror edge as well as Saberhagen. He’s an old-timer of the genre now, I suppose, but one of the greats, too. Now that we’ve lost Andre Norton and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Frank Herbert and many other giants, I appreciate him all the more.

So, Mr. Saberhagen, when are you going to deliver us another Dracula book, please ? We Love Ya!

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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