Initial Thoughts on Saberhagen’s Brother Assassin

Yesterday I received a stack of books and booze from my wife for my birthday. I was a little ashamed, because I’ve already got such a large collection of unread ones and I keep adding more to my wish list. She has complained to me more than once that I’m hard to shop for because all I want are books. And I thought it made things easier!

I’ve got to get back to reading before I am buried in unexplored texts.

Last night I put a good dent into Brother Assassin.

First off, if you’re not familiar with Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker, I highly recommend checking it out if you can find it. When I was first reading it, I wrote:

This is a collection of short stories about Man’s war against a fleet (?) of semi-autonomous, intelligent, world-sized machines that fly around in space trying to exterminate all life. These machines, known as berserkers, are clever, cruel, and unpredictable, and seem to have been unleashed upon the universe by a race of militant conquerors. And humans are the only space-faring race with the nads to put up a fight. Great stuff. So far the stories remind me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation stories, with more action. Each one features a human or humans pitted up against the dreaded berserkers. So far the humans always prevail in some way – by outwitting the machines, defeating them by sheer determination, or perhaps being strategically spared only to kindle a resolve to FIGHT.

That’s pretty much the gist of it – self-replicating mini-Death Stars flying around trying to wipe out all life. As the stories progress, we see more forms of berserker machines and tactics as they evolve.

Brother Assassin is a little bit of a departure so far. Whereas Berserker jumps around, giving us various perspectives on the war as it progresses, this story focuses on one unique world where probability-time acts strangely. Here (and only here, so far as anyone knows), time travel is possible. And the berserkers are trying to exploit that fact.

So far Saberhagen does a nice job blending scifi and fantasy elements (“furniture” as my friend Gitabushi has called it). A modern scientist poses as a wizard in order to drug a bunch of seafaring raiders (basically Vikings) before sending them back to their time to play their part.

Then, too, we have this molecule-thin-edged sword. Very cool.

Time travel is hard to do well. It’s easy to get a tangled up in the mechanics of it and trip on your own convoluted story. Some of the best time-travel tales don’t go very far in explaining it or get too heady about how it works. See the first two Terminator flicks (also about killer machines, incidentally). One thing I’m appreciating about Brother Assassin is that time travel stuff happens in the story, but it isn’t itself the story. The physics of it aren’t fully explained, and indeed it’s noted that the people messing around with probability-time just barely know how to navigate it – forget understanding exactly how it works.

Saberhagen’s very subtle and brief approach to religion and spirituality also impresses. Catholicism doesn’t really have any dogma about the salvation of intelligent nonhuman or extraterrestrial species, but there’s a school of thought that as Christ through his death saved mankind, He would likely save other fallen creations in some other (though perhaps similar?) ways. Indeed, Narnia pursues this kind of “what-if” thread.

Here we get a very quick hint that this planet had its own visitation by Christ, and that He suffered a similar fate and founded a similar Church.

On spirituality in general, this makes me wonder if maybe Saberhagen was feeling the same malaise about modern secularism that is commonly-voiced by people of faith today.

I sort of had trouble reading this because I wanted to snap pictures every couple minutes!

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m enjoying this one very much so far.


  1. Lewis also posits the idea that only Man has fallen and so is the only race in need of Redemption. His Space Trilogy goes on that track with “Earth” being quarantined to keep the rest of the cosmos safe while the Great Controversy is hashed out.

    I read a bunch of the Berserker novels in highschool and remember loving them. I read Berserker just a couple of years ago and it didn’t work for me one bit. Glad for the foundation it gave me but also very glad I don’t have to get that foundation now 😀

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. The Scifi Totally-Not-Galileo - Bushi SF/F

Leave a Reply