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Entry updated 18 April 2022. Tagged: Theme.


Term introduced by Fred Saberhagen for the implacably life-hating machines of his extensive Berserker series, which began with the short story "Fortress Ship" (January 1963 If; vt "Without a Thought" in Berserker, coll of linked stories 1967). These normally manifest as massive AI-controlled Spaceships with the capability to erase life from entire worlds; they and their minions are also encountered in smaller Robot form. Berserkers soon became a significant icon of Genre SF, a myth whose cumulative force is perhaps more potent than any of Saberhagen's individual stories about them. Among their precursors are the "Mad Mind" of Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp vt 1956), a disembodied, destructive AI which seems intolerant not merely of life but of matter; and the "Invader" spaceship of Theodore Sturgeon's "There Is No Defense" (February 1948 Astounding), which like the berserkers is a relic of long-past interstellar War, a doomsday machine programmed to wipe out organic life.

Sf descendants of Saberhagen's marauders include the hostile machine intelligences of Gregory Benford's Galactic Centre/Ocean sequence, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (fixup 1977); at least one faction of the various machine intelligences in David Brin's "Lungfish" (in The River of Time, coll 1986); the deceptive machines that attack and destroy Earth in Greg Bear's The Forge of God (1987); and the eponymous foes of Alastair Reynolds's Inhibitors sequence, which opens with Revelation Space (2000). The Inhibitors operate in accordance with a very long-term plan which may even be ultimately benevolent; this is also true in a sense of the Destroyer machines in Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969; cut 1972), whose Basilisk transmissions erase any intelligence capable of comprehending them. Some late additions to the Berserker mythos are James Patrick Kelly's "The Wreck of the Godspeed" (in Between Worlds, anth 2004, ed Robert Silverberg); Jack McDevitt's Cauldron (2007), whose galaxy-ravaging "omegas" prove to be, as it were, accidental Berserkers – actualizing the Cliché that violent behaviour is "a cry for help"; Paul McAuley's "Little Lost Robot" (August 2008 Interzone); and Adrian Tchaikovsky's uncaring, planet-reshaping Architects in Shards of Earth (2021).

Fred Saberhagen opened up his Berserker universe for the Shared-World anthology Berserker Base (anth 1985), a Braid whose stories by Poul Anderson, Edward Bryant, Stephen R Donaldson, Larry Niven, Connie Willis and Roger Zelazny are stitched together with multiple Saberhagen contributions. Berserkers also make a licenced appearance among participants' role-playing options in Starweb (1976), an early sf Wargame. [DRL]

see also: Automation; Fermi Paradox; First Contact; Machines; Mass Effect; Rays; Series.

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