kw: book reviews, science fiction, fantasy, retrospectives
I wish I'd known that Fred Saberhagen was about much more than Berserkers and the odd alternate history. From time to time I've read one of his Berserker series books, but I am seldom in the mood for these robots that emphatically do not obey Asimov's three laws. And I am usually quite averse to alternative histories. I am of too practical a frame of mind: If it didn't happen that way, it probably couldn't. I don't willingly suspend disbelief in such cases. But there are a lot of ways to be "alternative".
Fred Saberhagen, who died in 2007, is honored in the volume Of Berserkers, Swords & Vampires: A Saberhagen Retrospective, collected and introduced by his wife Joan, who knows his work best. The book's six sections show well the breadth of his imagination. Though there are but thirteen stories and excerpts in the book, a comprehensive review is beyond me. I'll simply discuss my favorites.
My favorite by far is "Volume PAA-PYX", a moving story of power and the lust for power. This is where the word "Possemania" was coined. It is too bad the word never made it into general circulation. Perhaps the world's possemaniacs are behind that…
I believe it was Lord Acton who wrote, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." I say it thus: "The very thought that you have the right to decide for another creates evil in you." In the story, society has developed a way to divert the energies of those who most lust for power, and to cure some proportion of them. The problem is, following Acton, that the affliction is universal. "Who watches the watchers?" But it presents a touching ideal.
Saberhagen was a master of remaking a classic character his own, whether the Minotaur or Dracula. In "White Bull", the Minotaur is an interstellar educator, Theseus an unwilling student, and the Labyrinth an academy. What unwilling student does not fear being eaten alive by professors? And Daedalus shows up also, perhaps the most unwilling, though with no murder in mind. In "Box Number Fifty" the Count is seen as a decent sort. He is even rather caring to some youngsters who find themselves depending on him, when he's not out sucking someone dry.
Finally, in one of the most recent Berserker stories, "The Bad Machines", we are confronted with the choice of two evils, one cloaked as "helpers". I used to play on the latter archetype by showing up to do a consult wearing all white, including a white hat with a big yellow star. I'd say, "Greetings! I am from Star Consultants, and I am here to help you!!" After a bit of nervous laughter on my victims' part, I'd doff the hat, roll up my sleeves, and ask what they really needed; certainly not an arrogant know-it-all! When the real demons look more like angels, how are we to decide?
This just tastes the breadth of the author's reimagining old stories, older myths, and archetypes, to make us think new thoughts about them. Truly the mark of a master storyteller.