Berserker's Star

by Fred Saberhagen
Series: Berserker 12
Reviewed date: 2009 Jul 5
Rating: 3
368 pages
cover art

I always love a good berserker story. Berserker's Star is another installment in Saberhagen's story about berserkers, the implacable machines that roam the galaxy seeking to cleanse the universe of the infection called life. The berserkers' programming compels them to destroy all forms of life, down to the smallest microbe. But they are smart: intelligent humans are the chief obstacle to the berserkers, so they concentrate on wiping out humanity.

Berserker's Star stars Harry Silver, the pilot, captain, and owner of Witch of Endor. Harry is not above a little profiteering, so when a desperate woman and two businessmen offer him an obscene amount of money to charter his ship, Silver agrees to take them to the planet Maracanda.

Maracanda turns out not to be a planet. There's not really a name for what it is. Maracanda is part of an azlarocian system; that is, Maracanda is in a complex three-body orbit with a neutron star and a black hole. The three bodies orbit each other in a complex figure eight.

The interplay between the black hole and the neutron star cause the existence of breakdown zones, where the normal rules of physics do not apply. In a breakdown zone, complex machines do not function. E.g., a longbow might work, but anything as complex as a crossbow will simply fail to work.

When Harry arrives on Maracanda, his ship is immediately impounded by the local Space Force commander, who suspects him of having stolen a c-plus cannon. (He has.) So Harry takes the opportunity to travel around Maracanda. He hears rumors that there is a large population of goodlife--people who conspire to help the berserkers--on Maracanda. Why would goodlife be on Maracanda? Why would the berserkers expend precious resources to kill the tiny, useless outpost of humanity on Maracanda?

The answer to that question is what drops Berserker's Star from a four to a three in my rating system. Saberhagen doesn't give us any decent hints about their designs. It's suddenly revealed that the berserkers intend to mine some antimatter from Maracanda and drop it into the neutron star, which will cause a hypernova--a supernova so powerful that it will propagate faster than light through flightspace, destroying hundreds of nearby solar systems before adequate warning can be raised. And that, unfortunately, strikes me as a cheat. The wacky physics around Maracanda make for some interesting puzzles, but they also allow Saberhagen to pull a rabbit out of a bag here.

In the end, Harry Silver manages to intercept the antimatter missile before it can reach the neutron star. He knocks it off course, and it drops harmlessly into the black hole. No muss, no fuss.

Really? That's the best you can give us, Saberhagen? What about a puzzle that we could have a chance of figuring out?

On the other hand, Berserker's Star is a fun read. The breakdown zones put the berserkers at a tactical disadvantage, since they cannot operate in them. The humans can't survive in a breakdown zone forever either, because there is no natural source of food or water on Maracanda. So the battles between berserkers and humans are Maracanda are tricky--the berserkers are stuck without reinforcements because they must rely on goodlife to drag new berserkers through the breakdown zones. The humans are stuck without reinforcements, because there is no way to send help except on foot through the breakdown zones. It's a neat little setup.

OK, one more nitpick: Harry spends most of the book suspecting that his passenger, Lily, is scheming to steal his spaceship or somehow do him wrong. It sure felt like Saberhagen was setting something up, so it was disappointing when that plot thread was resolved by revealing that Harry was just paranoid and Lily really is as innocent and naive as she appears.

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