Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Itself Surprised

Alternate Title: My love for you is like a truck: Berserker! Or it's a goodlife if you don't weaken.

(I'll say it because no one else will. That's an awesome title, Josh. Two obscure jokes for the price of one.*)

Itself Surprised another "Come play in my sandbox" story not unlike Mana from Heaven, where an author invited some colleagues to write a story in his established series. In this case it was Fred Saberhagen and his Berserker universe. I first encountered it in the Frost and Fire collection as a standalone story, but it's apparently part of a collaborative novel between Zelazny and several other authors.

While I didn't like Mana from Heaven at all, I enjoyed Itself quite a bit. But I was already a fan of the Berserker stories by then, so that may have had an influence.

If you're not familiar with the series for some reason, the Berserkers are self-replicating machines unleashed as a doomsday weapon against the enemies of their creators. Somewhere along the line, their imperatives got generalized as destruction of all organic life. Saberhagen wrote Berserker stories from 1963 right up to 2005. (He died in 2007 and a short story was completed posthumously by Jane Lindskold.)

A series that has gone on for so long has time to cover a lot of territory, so the theme can be very different from book to book. Sometimes they kind of remind me of zombie movies, where the monsters (zombies/berserkers) are an environmental threat and they'll only get you when you are screwed by your fellow humans. Other times the stories read like military sci-fi. Wikipedia characterizes military science fiction as a subset of space opera, but I don't think that's accurate. I like military SF. Another author I like, David Drake, was in the service in Vietnam and he writes in the genre. Wikipedia describes his view as:

David Drake has often written of the horrors and futility of war. He has said, in the afterwords of several of his Hammer's Slammers books (1979 and later), that one of his reasons for writing is to educate those people who have not experienced war, but who might have to make the decision to start or support a war (as policy makers or as voters) about what war is really like, and what the powers and limits of the military as a tool of policy are.
While the science in Zelazny's SF stories is generally plausible, the stories aren't really about the science. I think actually like Saberhagen more for straight up science fiction (though I certainly prefer Zelazny's fantasy). One thing that Saberhagen was very good about getting across was that in space, scale is enormous. Ships are spheres the size of asteroids. a soldier considers a ship 100 kilometers away to be "right on top of him".
He's probably not the very first author to introduce self-replicating robots, but he certainly popularized the concept. I like how the scope of the series expanded and how he had time to expand on the mythology and look at the ramifications of the technology. Faced with infantry battles against machines that could move faster than humans ever could, humans developed "blink triggers" (guns triggered when the controller blinked) and when these proved too slow, they developed "alpha" triggers which allow a user to fire merely by consciously altering their alpha brain waves. We've got hyperspace (called "flightspace" in the argot of the series) technology? Somewhere along the line, some body decides to see if we can weaponize it, which leads to the development of the C-plus Cannon, which fires a slug at faster than lightspeed through flightspace.

I also like how he explored the idea of how constant warfare would warp human society. For instance, many berserkers are shaped like humans in order to operate captured machinery, but influenced human society to the extent that humans no longer build human shaped robots.

Or in explaining how humans could outthink machines that calculated thousands of times faster than any organic brain he says, Berserkers never blundered but sometimes had to make decisions based on inadequate data and sometimes randomized tactics and made decisions that could be as bad as blunders

Okay, I suppose that's really more than enough background information on Berserkers. Here's some commentary on the actual story.

It was said that a berserker could if required assume even a pleasing shape. But there was no such requirement here. Flashing through the billion-starred silence, it was massive and dark and purely functional in design. It was a planet-buster of a machine headed for the world called Corlano to pound its cities to rubble, to eradicate its entire biosphere. It possessed the ability to do this without exceptional difficulty, so that no subtlety, no guile, no reliance on fallible goodlife were required. It had its directive, it had its weapons.

It never wondered why this should be the way of its kind. It never questioned the directive. It never speculated whether it might be, in its own fashion, itself a lifeform, albeit artificial. It was a single-minded killing machine, and if purpose may be considered a virtue it was to this extent virtuous.

I like that little preamble a lot. It's a pretty simple story. Wade Kelman is on a smuggling run when his crew salvages at what first appears to be a damaged berserker while he's asleep. Their cargo happens to be a robotics expert named Dr. Juna Bayel, and she decides that the thing is not exactly a berserker. They're still trying to decide what to do with it when a huge planet smasher that is in fact actually a berserker comes up and demands the thing.

The brain's power unit was an extremely simple affair, seemingly designed to function on any radioactive material placed within its small chamber. This chamber contained only heavy, inert elements now.

I thought that was a neat way to imply a vastly ancient machine without coming out and saying it.
I'm actually not certain if Zelazny was the one who first came up with the concept of the Qwib-qwib or if he borrowed something already established, but according to the Wikipedia entry to which I linked early in this piece, both the concept and the name are part of the official Berserker canon.

The lock began cycling closed and Dorphy was already raising the torch to burn through the welds.

"My vocabulary is still incomplete. What does 'qwibbian' mean in your language?"

The cycling lock struck the cable and severed it as she spoke, so she did not know whether it heard her say the word "berserker."

I always thought that exchange above would make a great scene in a movie.

"I got the story from Qwib-qwib in pieces," she began. "I had to fill in some gaps with conjectures, but they seemed to follow. Ages ago, the Builders apparently fought a war with the Red Race, who proved tougher than they thought. So they hit them with their ultimate weapon—the self-replicating killing machines we call berserkers."

"That seems the standard story," Wade said.

"The Red Race went under," she continued. "They were totally destroyed—but only after a terrific struggle. In the final days of the war they tried all sorts of things, but by then it was a case of too little too late. They were overwhelmed. They actually even tried something I had always wondered about—something no Earth-descended world would now dare to attempt, with ail the restrictions on research along those lines, with all the paranoia…

It's really pretty neat. It reads like both a Berserker story and a Zelazny story. Also, I really love the title. There's a certain poetry in those two words.

*An explanation of the title.

"My love for you is like a truck: Berserker!" is a line from the song Jay's Russian cousin sings in Clerks. "Goodlife" is what the berserkers call collaborators. It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken  is a comic by a friend of Joe Matt's, where he searches for a fictional cartoonist and visits numerous Canadian landmarks. (It's a Good Life is also the title of the cool Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy has godlike powers, which, while a coincidence, adds another layer of geekery to the post.)


  1. Yes, Roger Zelazny was, in fact, the first to create the qwibbian-qwibbian-kel and the idea of something which could destroy Berserkers. I still have the first edition of Berserker Base when it came out in '85. The story was so absolutely unique in the until-then compendium of Saberhagen's Berserker lore that it changed the entire genre in one stroke. The Qwib was the first creation capable of taking out even a planet-busting Berserker. Until then, Man was only capable of defeating Berserkers through a combination of skill, guile, and sheer luck. We still were utterly outclassed by the enemies of life.

    The final paragraph in the story almost put an end to the decades-long saga of the Berserkers:

    "The last qwibbian-qwibbian-kel in the universe departed the battle scene, seeking the raw materials for some fresh repair work. Then, of course, it would need still more, for the replications. Who hath drawn the circuits for the lion?"

    Zelazny drew them.

    1. Thank you! That's very interesting.

      And your comment made me think that you're more of a Berserker fan who read a Zelazny story than a Zelazny fan who read a Berserker story. If that's the case, I'd love to hear anything you'd care to share about your perspective on it.

  2. Been trying to (re) find this story for a looong time! I knew there was a machine built by the Red Race, but evidently I traded in the paperback this was in. Now I am wanting to get pen and paper and draw Qwib Qwib! lol, thank you!