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Saberhagen, Fred

Entry updated 7 August 2023. Tagged: Author, Editor.

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(1930-2007) US author and editor, in the latter capacity with the Encyclopedia Britannica 1967-1973, for which he wrote the original entry on sf. He began publishing sf with "Volume PAA-PYX" in Galaxy for February 1961, and was active from that date, soon releasing the first of his many novels, The Golden People (1964 dos; exp 1984), a Space Opera involving Psi Powers. As an sf author, he became known – and remains best remembered – for the Berserker series of stories and novels, the first several of which are the strongest: Berserker (coll of linked stories 1967), which includes the first, roughly told but memorable story in the sequence, "Fortress Ship" (January 1963 If; vt "Without a Thought" in Berserker); Brother Assassin (1969; vt Brother Berserker 1969); Berserker's Planet (1975); Berserker Man (1979), perhaps the best of the lot, and The Ultimate Enemy (coll 1979; vt Berserkers: The Ultimate Enemy 1988). Later volumes, beginning with The Berserker Wars (coll 1981), which repeats some stories from the 1967 collection, and ending with Rogue Berserker (2005), perhaps inevitably weakened the impact of the initial premise. Berserkers are interstellar killing machines, massive AI-controlled Spaceships programmed to eliminate all forms of life from the universe; they sometimes manifest in smaller Robot form. The sequence focused on sophisticated examinations of the Man-Machine conflict so often addressed by sf writers since the first days of space opera, but in Saberhagen's deft modernization of the hoary but useful Alien-monster theme the unrelenting Berserkers seem almost tangibly chill with the unlivingness of the Universe, and soon became a significant Icon of Genre SF, where an underlying theme of the sequence – that humans thrive on challenge, and that the Berserker threat has stimulated progress – tends to be foregrounded.

A second series, the long multi-section Earth's End sequence, begins promisingly. The first subseries – Earth's End: Empire of the East, comprising The Broken Lands (1968), The Black Mountains (1971) and Changeling Earth (1973; vt Ardneh's World 1988), all three assembled, much rev, as Empire of the East (omni 1979) – vigorously exploited another sf/fantasy model: the Ruined Earth in which Technology is banned (or, as here, forgotten or transformed – a significant character is a nuclear fireball caught by Earth's transformation, which has developed sentience as a potent "demon"); Magic is reintroduced as a learnable technique (see Science and Sorcery; Sword and Sorcery); and a vision of science is slowly renascent. Set in the same Universe and using some of the same characters, the later segments of the over-series – Earth's End: Book of Swords, beginning with The First Book of Swords (1983) and ending with The Third Book of Swords (1984); and Earth's End: Book of Lost Swords, beginning with The First Book of Lost Swords: Woundhealer's Story (1986) and ending with The Last Book of Swords: Shieldbreaker's Story (1994) – similarly hovers between its sf backdrop and a fantasy foreground, though with the latter strongly predominant.

Saberhagen's third series of (some) sf interest, the Dracula sequence, beginning with The Dracula Tape (1975) and ending with A Coldness in the Blood (2005), offers a take on the benign Vampire that perhaps pales beside the weightier considerations of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's vast Saint-Germain sequence. In the first volume, which is constructed as an extended refutation of Bram Stoker's 1897 portrait of Count Dracula in Dracula (1897), the eponymous Immortal demonstrates his virtue in the course of a taped interview-with-the-vampire, a plot device that here preceded by some months its use in Interview with the Vampire (1976) by Anne Rice, which became famous; and tells us that vampires (or nosferatus) feed on solar energy, avoiding the Sun for fear of overload. Along the way, Séance for a Vampire (1994; vt The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Séance for a Vampire 2010), a Recursive tale also featuring Sherlock Holmes stands out. In later volumes in the series, set in the present day, Saberhagen's Dracula becomes a kind of Superhero, increasingly well armed with powers and devices. A kind of pendant to the sequence is Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) with James V Hart, a Tie to Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992). A fourth series, the Pilgrim books – Pyramids (1987) and After the Fact (1988) – features the adventures of an immortal time traveller who visits first Ancient Egypt and then Lincoln's USA to interfere with – or preserve – the appropriate time tracks (see Alternate History).

Although most of Saberhagen's energies were devoted to the composition of series, some singletons are of interest, beginning with his first novel, The Golden People (1964 dos; exp 1984), in which Mutants seem to threaten the rest of humanity, though the first fully sustained tale is perhaps the complexly moody The Veils of Azlaroc (1978), which features a version of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). Other titles of interest include Mask of the Sun (1979), an Alternate History tale in which Aztec and Incan civilizations defeat Spain but conflict with each other in a deadly Changewar; Octagon (1981), one of the first of his books in which Virtual-Reality themes begin to dominate, in this case the Computer-run war game Starweb; A Century of Progress (1983), a Hitler Wins tale set, via Time-Travel, in an Alternate History future where the Third Reich rules; The Frankenstein Papers (1986), a tale with Recursive elements which repeats in short compass the same redemptive strategy applied at much greater length to Dracula, in this case presenting the Monster as a genuine Alien; The White Bull (November 1976 Fantastic; exp 1988), in which Daedalus tells his life story (see Inventions; Technology), including the accidental failure of Icarus's wings, and of his relationship with the eponymous Alien, who wishes to breed with humans, the result of this Exogamy being the Minotaur; and The Black Throne (1990), with Roger Zelazny, a fantasy involving Edgar Allan Poe. Game-like textures increasingly dominated Saberhagen's work, as did a growing tendency – reminiscent of Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton Family books – to rewrite figures of popular mythology into heroes whose rationalized backgrounds have a certain family resemblance; the result being a sense that, perhaps rather glibly, his entire oeuvre was threatening to become something of a super-series game. At the heart of Saberhagen's enterprises, however, lay a professionalism and an intelligence which produced book after book that satisfied the anticipations they aroused. [JC]

see also: Automation; Cybernetics; Fermi Paradox; Future War; Games and Sports; Gothic SF; Macrostructures; Wings out of Shadow.

Fred Thomas Saberhagen

born Chicago, Illinois: 18 May 1930

died Albuquerque, New Mexico: 29 June 2007




Earth's End: Empire of the East

Earth's End: Book of Swords

Earth's End: Book of Lost Swords



Book of the Gods

individual titles


works as editor

about the author


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