Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Covers: Fred Saberhagen's "Berserkers"

As a birthday gift to myself, I recently purchased two original drawings from artist Ian Miller titled Berserker Machine 1 and Berserker Machine 2.

These are really fantastic. Now, I am not absolutely certain, but I strongly suspect that these drawings were created for some sort of publication of Fred Saberhagen's Berserker stories, either as book covers or magazine illustrations. I've only read a handful of these Berserker stories, and it has been many years, but the concept is kind of fascinating in its simplicity and brutality.

The Berserkers first appeared in a series of science fiction stories Saberhagen wrote in the early 1960s and published in various magazines. As initially conceived, Berserkers were self-replicating robotic doomsday weapons that had been created by a race of beings known as the Builders in order to eradicate their rivals, the Red Race. Berserkers could be as massive as an asteroid or as small as a human being. The Builders were victorious against the Red Race, completely wiping them out, but shortly after this the Berserkers turned against the Builders and exterminated them as well. The Berserkers now roam the galaxy, replicating and repairing themselves, on a mission to seek out all organic life and destroy it. Quite a concept, huh?

This morning, my wife and I were discussing the possibilities of extraterrestrial life and the recent theory that more advanced forms of life may actually be machine based, Ian's drawings and the Berserkers came to mind again. I did some searching, curious to see how these doomsday machines had been depicted on the covers of the various anthologies they appeared in. As always, the results were a mixed bag, and the earlier covers are by far the best.

Here is one of the earliest examples I could find, a wonderful Penguin paperback edition from 1970 by Franco Grignani...

Ballantine put out a really nice edition as well, and I'm fairly certain this is a painting by Richard M. Powers...

I couldn't find any specific information about a currently in-print anthology with the title Berserker's Planet but one obviously existed at some point, and one of the editions had this exceptionally beautiful cover by, I think, Jeffrey Catherine Jones.

EDIT: This cover is actually by Peter Alan Jones. Many thanks to Jerry Boucher, also a talented artist, for pointing out my error.

This one though may be the best of them all, other than Miller's drawings. This cover by Jack Gaughan is phenomenal. So wrong, and still so very right...

Brother Assassin was a short novel by Saberhagen about the Berserkers and I quite like this threatening cover with its crazed, hooded evil robot and that incredibly florid blurb under the title...

I thought that cover looked very familiar though and was a bit surprised to see that it had been recycled almost wholesale as the cover to Roger Zelazny's Trumps of Doom in the 1980s. Odd.

Here's where we start getting into the more modern covers, and they are usually either off-puttingly strange or simply bad. This British paperback edition of Berserker Base is just bizarre, and looks more like a fantasy novel than a science fiction...

However it is still significantly better than this dull and predictable effort from none other than Boris Vallejo...

I can't believe I used to like that guy when I was a kid.

Someone at that British publishing house must have really liked that artist, because this is what they unleashed for The Ultimate Enemy. I am kind of smitten with this one for just being so balls-out insane...

I don't want to use these posts to complain too frequently and consistently about modern book covers, so I will close with this. It's a more recent piece that despite being yet another example of fairly predicatable, "house-style" science fiction, is still a very evocative piece. I'm strangely fond of this, in spite of its almost brutally simple symbolism...

I like these Berserker machines. I'd like to see a giant art book collecting Miller's drawings, some of these covers, and all sorts of other visual interpretations of these doomsday weapons. Man, that would be fun to put together. Perhaps another project for the mythical publishing house Gigantic Joe Kuth and I dream of creating some day.


  1. Again, a really fascinating post. I find it interesting to see how many of the covers tried to inject some sort of anthropomorphic element into their figures. Although some of these really are visually a treat to look at, I think I like Miller's versions of the berserkers the best--totally inhuman and completely alien. I am rather fond of the Penguin cover, however, for its strangeness. It would be interesting to see what the cover of the book looks like that those Miller illustrations ended up in.

  2. None of those were the Berserkers cover on the book I read but I liked 'em a lot, too!

  3. Rudy, that is a brilliantly perceptive comment, and I had never really considered these images in quite that way. I am sure some of this anthropomorphism is reflective of a personal bias on my part, particularly since I selected the images for inclusion in this post. Still, it is intriguing to contrast these earlier covers, many of which do indeed focus on some kind of anthropomorphic interpretation of the Berserkers with the later covers which often simply show large fortress-type spaceships.

    That Penguin cover is truly fantastic. Very alien and unsettling. I like the Powers cover as well, although that seems to have very little to do with Berserkers and is mostly just a great painting. But the Miller pieces are by far my favorite. I was immediately drawn to them, even before I knew their titles. Just amazing work.

  4. Mordicai, I think I probably know which edition you read because it's probably the same one I first read. I even remember buying it as a teenager standing around in a Kmart waiting for my dad to buy mulch or something in the mid-1980s. I think at that time Baen or some other publisher re-released a bunch of them as paperbacks with really dull space ship paintings on the covers. You'd think they'd want some kind of cover image that better represented the amazing stories within, but who knows? I can never figure publishers out.

  5. The cover that you note might be by Jeffrey Catherine Jones may possibly be painted by Peter Alan Jones (or 'PAJ', as he used to sign his wok). His signature may have been cropped out. It looks more like his style.

  6. Jerry, thank you, you were absolutely right in attributing that cover to Peter Alan Jones. I have amended the post to credit Peter as well as you for pointing it out. Your site is quite fascinating as well, so I was glad to link to that too.