Berserker Q6 - Berserkers

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"All further exploration was delayed, in the very days when the new and inexplicable radio voices were first heard drifting in from beyond your frontiers, the strange soon-to-be-terrible voices that converses only in mathematics."

The main setting conceit of the Berserkers immediately reminded me of the Borg in Star Trek, which I have to believe were at least in part inspired by Berserkers. The Borg are a little different, in that they are effectively a 'race' (in RPG sense) and they have a mission of 'assimilation' rather than 'destruction'. But are these fundamentally different? What's compelling, or not compelling, about either one. Were the berserkers well conceived and drawn? Which one would you use in games, and why? What else would you crib from this novel for games?

Comments

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    Actually I was never reminded of the Borg! They never forget their biological component, whilst clearly regarding it as incomplete, whereas the berserkers were implacably opposed to all life (well... in theory, though they did maintain some specific lives for particular purposes, which I suppose one could argue is parallel to Locutus).

    I think assimilation is different from destruction - the basic Borg assumption is that pretty much every life form they encounter has something of value to include in the collective (the ones that don't have anything to add are, I guess just cannon fodder). So there is a recognition of partial value in others, whereas the berserkers apparently did not (except see above).

    To me that makes the Borg more compelling that the berserkers, and their agenda more comprehensible and dangerously akin to the MO of The Federation - a kind of mirror image of it, if you like.

    See also my comments in another thread about the oddities of the berserker mindset - is it randomly driven or logical? Of course the Borg have their oddities too, not least the whole business of ignoring the presence of intruders on their vessels until they have actually caused damage in some way!

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    Like @RichardAbbott I di not think of the Borg, though it seems obvious once you say it. I think that Saberhagen realised early that the Berserkers as purposeless industrial killing did not provide a sufficient antagonist for plot, and so changed them. I would use the Berserkers in a session, but not as a basis for a campaign - reckless hate is boring.

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    That's an interesting point about 'purposeless killing machines', but consider:

    Sauron - basically a faceless, enemy, but he had a purpose toward domination rather than killing, and used people toward this purpose. Sauron's main face was the black riders who were very scary. This conceit was enough to carry 2 lengthy novels.

    Zombies are effectively mindless killing machines, only quasi-organized but somehow acting like a hivemind. There's not question a lot of mileage has been gotten from them, though like you I generally find them boring and overdone. With zombies, there's an added element in that the protagonists can themselves become zombies.

    There are few enemies more purposeless and faceless than Cthulhu and his ilk. Although they are the looming existential threat, they are even less scrutable the the berserkers. So their cultists are brought in as the actual antagonists on the ground.

    Over the course of these stories, Saberhagen did start to explore different avenues around these machines - the effect of the threat on different kinds of people, but the berserkers themselves were also given a personality of sorts. And they were given minions - both 'slaves' like Goodlife, and willing minions like the Mars cultists.

    re: the Borg, I'm not that sure that assimilation and destruction are very different. Would it matter to you if you were assimilated vs destroyed? You would cease to be in either case. Some might prefer destruction to assimilation, so the assimilation angle gives a choice. But as we saw, the berserkers also gave people a choice - collaboration or destruction. One key difference, I guess, is that it's possible to come back from assimilation. Also, it allows for a discussion of 'good of the grater entity' vs 'personal good', which I think is absent from the destruction question.

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    Your comments @Apocryphal made me consider the crucial difference between existential-threat type adversaries and tangible-and-killable type ones. Existential ones might be a spiritual enemy (Sauron maybe) or a force of nature (weather, glaciers, asteroids etc) and are essentially so big they can't be defeated by means of head-on attacks. Tangible ones might be tough or well-equipped, but there's nothing about their nature that prevents them being defeated.

    Of course you can have both in the same story - Sauron has the Nazgul plus a whole bunch of men and orcs, of varying levels of defeatability.

    There are some good stories where the tangible adversary becomes an ally against the existential one - offhand I recall a UFO episode where one of the aliens teamed up with one of the human pilots so they could try to both survive on the lunar surface.

    Now Saberhagen presents the berserkers as tangible foes who even in the first story can be defeated by comparatively weak human vessels using good tactics. Occasionally they seem like existential ones to individuals stranded in bad positions, but in most of the stories their tangibility and hence vulnerability is exposed at some point.

    Are they tagged as "purposeless killing machines"? We are told several times that they were originally built for a purpose, and that there were safety codes and the like to control them... but both the original purpose and the control codes are lost.

    I think that this is maybe part of the world building back-story that Saberhagen never quite clarified in his own mind, or maybe his thinking evolved during the span of writing the stories.
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    Starting from the thesis that good science fiction is good because it's a reflection of our own times... what do the berserkers represent?

    Are they a people, like the Soviets or Chinese, out to destroy America?

    Are they a massively powerful and self-destructive weapon, like strategic nuclear weapons?

    Are they a social movement, like beatniks or hippies, out to destroy the good, traditional American way of life?

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    I think they are what comes out of industrial war, the Military-Industrial complex that Eisenhower famously warned about.

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    Wasn't there a Star Trek ToS episode where a computer took over a starship and refused to comply with orders?
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    It’s a good question. I’d guess a combo of nuclear threat with the fear of machines/robotics taking over. The idea of putting the fate of humanity into something that could not conceive of God and therefore had no moral guidance. Maybe there’s a latent fear of atheism embedded in there?

    Doctor Who, with its daleks and cybermen and Wotan the supercomputer shared in this, too, no?
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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    I think they are what comes out of industrial war, the Military-Industrial complex that Eisenhower famously warned about.

    I think that could well be true. The parable of a war machine that slipped out of the control of its creators.

    So is "more war" the correct response to that? Is that what Saberhagen is saying? Was that a deliberate statement by him, or were the berserkers just a convenient opponent for some mil-SF fun?

    What would a more thematic response be? Dispersion of people they can never be wiped out? Actions to cut off the berserkers from their supplies, so they "starve" to death? The use of beauty and art as "psychological warfare" to overwhelm the berserkers' simple mechanical minds?

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    @NeilNjae said:
    So is "more war" the correct response to that? Is that what Saberhagen is saying? Was that a deliberate statement by him, or were the berserkers just a convenient opponent for some mil-SF fun?

    I think that at this stage they were an opportunity for what you call some mil-SF fun. Also some game and problem solving stories that have a patina of so-called hard-sf in them. That said, they still betray their American origin by immediately relying on semi-human slaves to battle industrialisation.

    What would a more thematic response be? Dispersion of people they can never be wiped out? Actions to cut off the berserkers from their supplies, so they "starve" to death? The use of beauty and art as "psychological warfare" to overwhelm the berserkers' simple mechanical minds?

    I don't understand what you mean by "more thematic response." As a military strategy, relying on slaves to fight has been a failure for a very long time, and relying on citizens has been a failure at least since 1945. People who used to win love stories about the good old days though.

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:

    What would a more thematic response be? Dispersion of people they can never be wiped out? Actions to cut off the berserkers from their supplies, so they "starve" to death? The use of beauty and art as "psychological warfare" to overwhelm the berserkers' simple mechanical minds?

    I don't understand what you mean by "more thematic response." As a military strategy, relying on slaves to fight has been a failure for a very long time, and relying on citizens has been a failure at least since 1945. People who used to win love stories about the good old days though.

    Knowing full-well I'm reading too much into this... but if Saberhagen is positing, in these stories, that an out-of-control military-industrial complex is an existential threat to all life, what is the correct response? Saberhagen's response, according to these stories, is to develop your own military-industrial complex and fight the opponent. What are other ways to deal with the threat, if you want a response other than "fight fire with fire"?

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    There's always the 1983 film War Games response - "the only way to win is not to play" :)

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    @RichardAbbott said:
    Wasn't there a Star Trek ToS episode where a computer took over a starship and refused to comply with orders?

    Found it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ultimate_Computer

    "The Ultimate Computer" is the twenty-fourth episode of the second season of the American science fiction television series Star Trek. Written by D.C. Fontana (based on a story by Laurence N. Wolfe) and directed by John Meredyth Lucas, it was first broadcast on March 8, 1968.

    In the episode, the crew of the Enterprise race to disable a rogue computer in total control of the ship.

    But the premise for the problem is different - here "[the designer] reveals that he has imprinted human engrams onto M-5's circuits, creating what amounts to a human mind operating at the speed of a computer." So not a soulless killing machine...

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    By coincidence, I've just finished watching Star Trek TOS Series 2 Episode 6, "The Doomsday Machine", about a giant war machine that destroys all in its path. The characters in the programme posit that The Doomsday Machine was a weapon of mutual destruction that destroyed its creators then continued its mission of destruction. Coincidence, perhaps?

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    Doubtful it’s a coincidence.
    To the other question, Saberhagen has The Third Historian say in the intro (which might not have made it into the kindle, but see my pictures in the intro thread) that the only thing that saved everyone was the fact that the humans already had a robust military presence due to their infighting. Whether that means developing a new military response is the solution remains an open question.

    I think, looking at this from a 2022 perspective, hackers and drones would be brought into play. Saberhagen may not have conceived of either as a defence (though drones seem logical, since a Berserker is just a huge drone). But hackers - once the language is learned, that seems to be the answer.
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    @Apocryphal said:
    I think, looking at this from a 2022 perspective, hackers and drones would be brought into play. Saberhagen may not have conceived of either as a defence (though drones seem logical, since a Berserker is just a huge drone). But hackers - once the language is learned, that seems to be the answer.

    That's a really interesting thought - so far as I recall, the humans in these stories had no form of computer assistance (and certainly no AI) which is a curious omission given the time of writing. Much earlier writers like EE Doc Smith wrote about mechanical brains to help do stuff like navigation, by analogy with an aircraft autopilot. But not here, so I assume that it is a deliberate omission. Likewise, as you say there seems to be no concept that the berserkers could be approached in this way, to either neutralise or recruit them - and there seem to be several factions who would quite like to have a "tame" berserker on their side.

    All this reminded me of Ken MacCleod's Cassini Division - I read one of the books in this series years ago (largely because it seemed such a cool name) but never followed it through to the others. But there, the human faction avoided AI because their adversaries could hack and subvert it far too easily, so the risk to the user was far too high. So there was knowledge of the possibilities and dangers of such things, rather than complete absence. Odd comments online about those books suggest they would make a good framework for gaming so I wonder if anyone here has made use of them in this way?

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    I’ve never heard of them. In fact, you often mention SF authors I’ve never heard of, so perhaps they don’t all make it over the pond. Or maybe it’s just the shape of my circles.
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    @Apocryphal said:
    I’ve never heard of them. In fact, you often mention SF authors I’ve never heard of, so perhaps they don’t all make it over the pond. Or maybe it’s just the shape of my circles.

    All part of the fun of the group I guess :)
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_MacLeod
    and
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Star_Fraction#Series

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    I was a fan of Saberhagen as a young man, but avoided the Berserker books. I am no longer a fan of Saberhagen, but I wouldn't read any more Berserker stories.

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    Is that a comment on this book, or Saberhagen generally? Would you read other books by Saberhagen?

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    edited November 14

    It's both. I used to really like Saberhagen, and still own several of his books, but have not had any urge to pick them up for decades now, but I never was drawn to the Berserker series, and that remains true.

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