"What are these berserkers? I know they're something terrible, but.."
"Well, they're machines." Derron sipped his tea. "Some of them are bigger than spaceships that we or any other Earth-descended men have ever built. Others come in different shapes and sizes, but all of them are deadly. The first of them were constructed ages ago, by some race we've never met, to fight in some war we've never heard of.
"They were programmed to destroy life anywhere they could find it, and they've come only the Holy One knows how far, doing just that."
--Brother Assassin, Fred Saberhagen
First, take a moment to appreciate the solemn awesomeness that is the name "Fred Saberhagen." No other name even comes close. Okay, maybe Frank Stilettocloditz, but that name was made up by me a few seconds ago, so it doesn't count. Mr Fred Saberhagen is a sci-fi/fantasy writer. While I've heard the name before, I've never actually read anything by him. Judging from "Brother Assassin," Saberhagen specializes in the "pulp" section of science fiction, as this book, billed as the second in the Berserker series, is one of the pulpiest sf's I've read in a long time.
The plot is that the Berserkers, a race of alien-made machines, are bent on exterminating all life in the universe, as the quotation above suggests. This book chronicles three of their attempts to destroy the people of Sirgol. The catch is, by the beginning of the book, they've almost already won. The surface of the planet is uninhabitable scorched earth, with the surviving 10% of the population dwelling in caves underground. They can't beat the berserkers, but the berserkers can't get to them. The stalemate is broken when the berserkers realize the unique thing about Sirgol--its composition allows for localized time travel, so the berserkers can defeat by humans by travelling back in time and disrupting their history enough so that by the time the beserkers start their attack on the planet, the people are so technologically behind that they can't muster any defense at all. The story, then, has the berserkers attacking at three key points of history: the invention of the written language, the consolidation of territory by a past king, and the publication of a paper on physical dynamics.
First and foremost, then, what we've got is a time travel book. The presence of time travel creates a few necessary plot points for Saberhagen to clog up. First, he establishes that the very first colonists of the planet accidentally fell back in time in a process that erased their memories--this mechanic begs for presence of a few amnesiac/presumed time-travellers, and thus we have the love-interest, Lucy Gray. Second, if the Time Corps can find the exact moment of intrusion of the beserkers in the time stream--the keyhole, they call it--then they can send their own forces back to prevent the total collapse. Thus, the beserkers can't attack in any point, and need to act subtly if their presence isn't to be detected. Finally, due to some sort of time rule, people from the present can only be sent so far back into the past before they have to use mechanical proxies. Think Avatar, but clumsier.
The third element comes into play in the first and second stories. In the first one, the lead character, Derron Odegard, first saves Lucy Grey in the present, then travels via robo-proxy to the far past to save literacy from the Berserkers. Once there, he enables one of the locals, Matt, to save the day, and takes Matt back to the future with him, to save his life. Sadly for Derron, Lucy is strangely attracted to dynamic verve of this past-dweller. Thus ends part 1. In Part Two, Matt is convinced to take the place of King Ay, a royal ruler that was supposed to consolidate the Sirgoloids before a Berserker ate him. (In fact, due to the entirely plot-constructed time rule above, Matt is the only one who can do it--no one from the present can be present in the far past that long.) Think The Prisoner of Zenda, but with a giant robot. Finally, in Part 3, Derron himself goes back to preserve the life of Vincent Vincento, a Galileo analog who must be convinced to recant his paper, in order to write a more significant one later, rather than be burned at the stake for heresy.
The book gets increasingly more complicated and cerebral with each subsequent adventure. The Part 1 is a reasonably straightforward fight scene. Part 2 introduces a wrinkle in the motivations of the parties involved--the Time Corps are trying to get Matt killed in order to pinpoint where the keyhole is, and the Beserkers are forced to preserve him for the same reason. And Part 3's resolution revolves around Vincento's ego, the Foucault Pendulum, and a false feint, as the Berserkers' real target shifts suddenly. While it's still pretty "us against them," there is a move towards sophistication that's welcome.
The characters, on the other hand, are pretty stock fare. Matt, Derron, and Lucy are all pretty standard sci-fi tropes. Matt is the man from the past who is more in tune with what's "really" going on than his futuristic forebearers; Derron is a detached man from the future who needs to learn to love again; and Lucy is essentially a trophy for the last man standing.
The Beserkers are slightly more interesting, and I like how Saberhagen brings them into the plot's theme. One of the benefits of fiction is that you can create an entirely unambiguous evil onto which all fears of the Other can be projected. The Beserkers have the cold, heartless mechanics of machines, but also the mindless destruction implied by their name. The Time Corps, it's implied, have started to move towards the Beserkers' soulless detachment, as evidenced in their callous treatment of Matt and Derron's general detachment from everything. The emotional climax of the story comes when Derron takes a page from Matt's book and learns to love again (no, really, that's what he learns), and the fight against the Berserkers climaxes at the point where one Berserker has been made so versatile that it becomes susceptible to emotion.
It's perfect solution to the robot problem. Sherry Turkle, in Life on the Screen, argues that machines have replaced animals as the Other than humans compare ourselves to in order to define ourselves. Specifically, we see how our machines that are like us, reject them, define exactly what makes us different, then slowly allow machines to cross over that newly defined line, and start all over again. It's the exact path Saberhagen takes: the Berserker is defined as different because it lacks the capacity to feel, then it gains that ability and rises to the human level.
Two final points: First, given that it's a time travel story intimately connected to a planet's history, I wonder why Saberhagen didn't just make the whole thing Earth to begin with. Why re-invent the wheel (literally) when you already have a perfectly good planet? If it was a new history, I could understand that, but the Sirgolins seem to follow Earth's development pretty closely. The only reason I can think of is that it allows him to fudge some of the details to fit the plot, when he sees fit. Second, the moments of history chosen--the development of the written language, the rise of the medieval leader/conqueror, the triumph of humanist science--creates a very interesting reflection on exactly what ARE the key moments of history. Again, using a different planet allows Saberhagen to hand-wave a claim that these aren't necessarily the important bits of OUR history, but they do present a very humanist/Eurocentric/positivist kind of world view.
Bottom line: there's not a lot of depth to the story, especially character-wise, but there's just enough going on to make it interesting as it progresses. And at 220 pages, it's not like it's asking for a huge portion of your time.