Fred Saberhagen

Science-fiction and fantasy writer
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Frederick Thomas Saberhagen, writer: born Chicago, Illinois 18 May 1930; married 1968 Joan Spicci (two sons, one daughter); died Albuquerque, New Mexico 29 June 2007.

Over a long and prolific career, the American science-fiction and fantasy writer Fred Saberhagen generated several good ideas, and published more than one memorable book. But he will always be remembered for one extremely good concept, an idea far more vivid in its raw, original short-story form than after he began to attenuate its impact through what began to seem an unending series – 19 in all – of follow-up volumes.

That idea, first articulated in a 1963 story called "Fortress Ship", was the notion of the Berserkers, interstellar quasi-sentient self-replicating killing machines programmed to eliminate any life-form they encounter anywhere in the universe, millennia after the war they were created to wage had ended in the death of two ancient civilisations. Berserkers are terrifying not only because they are convincingly deadly, and chillingly able to learn from their mistakes, but because they are so profoundly hard-wired to obey their ancient mission that no argument can stay them. Berserkers echo earlier space-opera epics, in which humanity battles implacable foes; but Saberhagen's stories chillingly present the notion that life itself is a virus, and that the Berserkers are antibodies acting on behalf of an invaded universe.

In 1961, this was an idea beautifully designed to resonate with the paranoias of the Cold War, and with a sense that the human race was at the verge of self-termination. Berserker (1967), the first and the most alarming volume, became immediately and justly famous, inspiring so many imitations – from Star Trek episodes to novels of major writers in the field like Gregory Benford and Greg Bear – that Saberhagen eventually copyrighted the term, in an attempt to control the idea.

Because the idea was so rich in its implications, however, this was like trying to stop the tide. What might have seemed a convenient (and highly entertaining) out-sourcing of Cold War fears and guilt about the fatal damage our leaders seemed about to inflict upon the human race, became an intuition no copyright restriction could channel. For many contemporary writers, the human race in the 21st century is itself the Berserker, and indeed some of Saberhagen's last stories, like Berserker's Star (2003), give some hints that he recognised the ramifying potency of his original notion.

Fred Saberhagen grew up in Chicago, where he lived and worked for many years. He served in the US Air Force during the Korean War, from 1951 to 1955; after studying at Wright Junior College in Chicago, he worked as an electronics technician at Motorola from 1958 to 1962, during which period he began to write fiction, publishing his first story, "Volume PAA-PYX", in 1961, several years before beginning to work as an editor for the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1967 to 1973, composing a highly competent entry on science fiction. He left the Britannica in 1973 to become a full-time writer, and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1975.

Though the Berserker series made him famous, he also wrote single fictions, two of the best being The Veils of Azlaroc (1978) and A Century of Progress (1983). But most of his career was devoted to multi-volume sagas, the most interesting of them being perhaps the 10-volume sequence devoted to Dracula; the first volume, The Dracula Tapes (1975), written from the viewpoint of the vampire himself, preceded Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire by a year.

The Berserker and the Dracula sequences succeed through Saberhagen's conceptual ingenuity, a knack of seeing old ideas sideways that never left him, though some of his fantasy sequences thinned dangerously as they proceeded. In the end, he published more than 70 books.

Fred Saberhagen in person was slighter and more delicate than one would imagine from his photographs; he was quiet but funny, shy but warmly collegial, deeply liked by many, disliked by none.

John Clute