by Fred Saberhagen
Tor, 2003, ISBN 0-765-30423-6
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This is the latest Berserker story. I was quite struck by the review snippets comparing the Berserker saga to The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front. I've read those books; this isn't them.
Our intrepid hero, Harry Silver, arrives on Hong's World with a cargo just in time for the mass evacuation caused by a neighboring star going nova. Unable to get paid for his cargo, Harry picks up some passengers who want to go to Maracanda--a young woman looking for her husband, Alan, who has been seduced or kidnapped by dangerous cultists, and two men who want to go there for unstated business reasons.
Now, here is where I run into my first difficulty. Neither the Space Force, nor the Templars, nor anyone else, will take them to Maracanda because that sector is swarming with berserkers. Nevertheless, when we arrive at Maracanda, everyone there is lackadaisical about basic anti-berserker security measures because it's so inconceivable that the berserkers would bother with Maracanda. Oookaaay.
Along the way, the two men attempt to steal the ship, and Harry makes a short detour to drop them on an abandoned research station.
Then we reach Maracanda. As Lily (the young woman) keeps reminding us, Maracanda is not a planet. What is Maracanda? Well. The Maracanda system consists of three bodies: a neutron star, a black hole, and Maracanda--which is massive enough to be a more-or-less equal third body in this three-body system, resulting in a complicated figure-eight orbit of the three bodies around each other, but nevertheless has areas on its surface which have Earth-normal gravity , and where a shirtsleeve atmosphere can be maintained with only moderate application of technology. It even has an Earth-normal day/night cycle, although no one can explain why.
Harry and Lily quickly find themselves involved in all sorts of skulduggery, including being asked by the local Templar general to look for signs of goodlife (humans in league with berserkers) while they're in Tomb Town, the place where the local religious fanatics hang out. Harry knows that the general is a bit of a nut, because berserkers and goodlife are so wildly improbable here in this sector that's very dangerous because it's swarming with berserkers. Consequently, he agrees, but with the certain knowledge that he doesn't need to devote much effort to it, because there's nothing to find. Oookaaay.
After more revelations about the strangeness of Maracanda, and an attempted kidnapping when Harry is mistaken for an astrogeologist named Emil Kloskurb, they reach Tomb Town and look for Lily's husband Alan. Before they find him, they encounter a pair of black-robed fanatics rhapsodizing about the black hole, "...servants of the Black Hole...the Infinite Emptiness."
Now, never having read a berserker story before, I immediately thought, "Goodlife. This is the goodlife General Pike wanted him to look out for." Harry knows better; these are just religious nuts. They have to be, because there's no berserkers and no goodlife around here, in this section of the galaxy that the Space Force and Templars are warning people away from, because of all the berserkers...
But it isn't just the idiot plot that annoyed me. Even the most basic mechanics of storytelling are badly done here. Over and over again, Saberhagen gives us some information, then a page or two later gives us the information again, in language that assumes this is the first time the information has been provided. On page 211, the long-sought Alan appears: "... youngish man in a white shirt, the kind a lot of the cultists favored." That's a short page, the last of the chapter. Then on 212--also a short page, the first of the chapter--we have "...grabbed the full sleeve of the distinctive religious garment Alan was wearing, a kind of long shirt. Harry had noticed that other people in the crowded square were dressed the same way." Please, Mr. Saberhagen, you already told us that Harry had noticed that Alan was wearing the local religious garb. There's no need to repeat it, as new information, on the next page.
Once, I could overlook that, but it happens repeatedly. Why did I mention the name of the astrogeologist, Emil Kloskurb? Because another astrogeologist has already been kidnapped--Emily Kochi. It's lazy and annoying, and even more so because the characters themselves are fairly engaging, and Maracanda, if not embedded in a sloppily-revised idiot plot, has a lot of sense-of-wonder potential.
Eventually, of course, the berserkers show themselves and force Harry to pay attention but Saberhagen remains inattentive the whole way through. If this is the kind of thing you like, you'll probably like it a lot better if you wait for the paperback.