Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fred Saberhagen: Earth Descended

Fred Saberhagen's stories cover the known and possibly unknown areas of the spectrum of SF and Fantasy. He has published stories that range from sword-and sorcery to the deadly berserkers, from Dracula and Holmes to stories that play with time to excursions into his versions of some well-known myths and fairy tales. In this collection I found stories that provide examples of his wide variety of published works.

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and the endings of stories.

1. "Young Girl at an Open Half Door"
The title refers to a well-known painting by Rembrandt, which happens to be a favorite of the story's protagonist, Joe Ricci. Ricci has installed the security system for this particular art museum, and recently the system has been registering "false positives": it indicates the presence of intruders who can't be found by the museum security people. Moreover, there are no signs in any of the adjoining rooms to show how the intruders got in or how they left without being discovered. Ricci has been called in to find out what's going wrong with the security system and to do something about it.

Reaction: I'm a bit confused about this story's placement as the first story because collections usually begin with a very strong story and conclude with another. This, by no means, is the strongest story in the collection, and the mystery is not really much of a mystery as this story has been told before by others. This story has a copyright date of 1968, and the plot wasn't new then. Perhaps those who decided the story order elected to go with familiarity to get readers interested.


2. "The Adventure of the Metal Murderer"
Saberhagen blends two of his favorite themes in this story. Initially it appears to be one of his berserker tales, those of his stories that I'm most familiar with. In fact, whenever Saberhagen's name is mentioned, I immediately think of the berserker series, which I think constitute one of the largest portions of his writings.

The berserkers are killing machines, apparently created long ago by a race which was involved in a war. They devised these machines in desperation and turned them loose. They lost the war and the secret of shutting down the machines was lost. Eventually the berserkers began seeking to destroy all life forms and not just the enemies of their creators. Humans have been fighting the berserkers for many centuries now. A similar theme is the core of Greg Benford's mind bending "Galactic Center" series.

In this tale, a berserker has managed to go into earth's past, specifically the late 19th century, and an agent has been sent back after it, hoping to destroy it before it accomplishes its mission.
The agent makes it to late 19th century London and begins the search for the berserker. It was at this point that I suspected what Saberhagen was doing. I won't go any further except to say that the last words of the story are "'Elementary,' the tall man snapped."

Reaction: a lightweight but enjoyable tale.


3. "Earthshade"
This is a shared universe tale. It was originally commissioned for an anthology of short fantasy stories, The Magic May Return, edited by Larry Niven. It is set in Niven's "Warlock" universe, and the basic theme is that magic once was available to anyone long ago. However, surprisingly, magic is not a renewable energy source, for it depends upon the presence of manna to be effective. Demons and humans, not yet familiar with conservationist ethic, eventually use up all of the available manna, and magic is no longer available for the most part. The stories in this collection, I gather from the title, suggest that magic may not have been gone for good.

This story tells of the adventures of Zalazar and his young helper as they discover why magic really disappeared and what must be done to restore magic to earth. Along the way, Zalazar meets a goddess or two, and like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, he also discovers that his helper isn't exactly who he presents himself to be. There's a touch of the Greek myth here also.

It's a classic tale that shows why being too curious at times can be dangerous for one's health and longevity, as Zalazar discovers, naturally when it's too late.

Reaction: Enjoyable. More complex than the first two stories.


4. "The White Bull"

Here's another Saberhagen excursion into Greek mythology. Readers familiar with the various stories about Daedalus and Icarus, Theseus, King Minos, and the Minotaur, won't have any problem figuring out the broad plot line of this story. What makes the story interesting are the changes Saberhagen has made to the details that flesh out the bones of the plot. One is the nature of the Minotaur, who has now become an alien creature whose self-appointed task is that of educating these slow-witted humans.

Reaction: an enjoyable version of an old and familiar tale.


5. "Calendars"

This is a gentle satire poking fun at those who insist on planning out their lives weeks, months, even years, in advance. Obviously, I'm not one of those, even though I do carry my pocket calendar everywhere I go and I have a pop-up calendar program on my computer. However, I do put the pocket calendar aside and I do turn off the computer when I go to sleep.

Briefly, Martin Pandareus has decided to die. He tells his wife of some 90+ years of his decision. She thinks for a moment and then remarks that he decided the same thing some 30 years ago. Martin says he's serious now, that he thinks it's time he moved on and made room for others. So few children are seen nowadays, so he is going to make some room. At this point, his wife says,

" 'Speaking of children,' Iris interrupted. 'I don't mean to interrupt, but speaking of children, I hope you're not planning to have yourself terminated before the nineteenth.'

'Of what? This month?' Automatically he looked for a calendar but could not see one. 'Why?'

'Janet called.' His previous wife. 'I mean, she left a message while we were on vacation. Things have been so hectic I forgot to tell you. Your five-great grandson is making his bar mitzvah on that date, you're to be sure to attend.' "

"The next day in his office on the upper floor of the duplex apartment he consulted his business calendar as soon as he could find the time."

There were important business meetings on the twenty-first and twenty-second. During the following month was the antique furniture auction in Minneapolis, and "he and Iris had gone to a great deal of trouble to plan their vacation so he would be sure to be back in time for that." His lawyer advises him to wait until after the first of the year--"The tax structure . . ."

I think you can see the trend here.

Does he ever commit suicide? Well, his calendar is pretty full, and besides, he had promised his wife that they would have a child (a twenty year commitment). . . and if she became pregnant now, that would interfere with their next vacation trip and . . .

Will he ever manage to find the time? Perhaps Emily Dickinson knew better than he when she wrote--

Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--

Reaction: an entertaining little tale about how important an event becomes once it's entered into a calendar--even more important than life and death, it seems.


6. "Wilderness"

This is one of those tales that confuse readers and the characters because they don't know the full story. Once that is learned, it all becomes quite simple, mostly anyway. And Saberhagen does provide clues throughout, but it's only after the full story is revealed that the significance is known.

A man wandering through a wilderness area comes across a small commune of about ten people. The sun is setting and he asks if he could stay the night for he fears he might get lost in the dark, trying to get back to his car.

They agree, and he then begins to tell them how they should be living their lives, not wasting it out here in the wilderness like this. He can't understand why anyone would not want to live in the city where there's people and noise and all sorts of things going on. He then criticizes their way of farming as being too labor intensive. They should get farming machinery that will help them increase their productivity and begin to make money. He has some money and he will help them develop their farm. He also fears the wilderness and urges them to keep wilderness in a strong cage and control it, and not be controlled by it.

"'Yeah keep a few bits of nature in cages,' he replied at last. 'Keep trees behind big fences, t'show we're strong enough to do so. Otherwise drive the wilderness out, this is our place here, our place.' "

He seems to be just a rude, insensitive individual until he talks about fresh air. It was then that I got a clue as to what his real problem might be.

"He filled his lungs with mountain air and wood-smoke tang. 'That's fine, good air t' breathe. No one knows better'n me how fine that is. But can we trust nature to give us air? If we were smart we'd put all the good air in a big jar, and let out just a little at a time, as it was needed.'"

Rating: this is one story that I had to read several times to fully appreciate the subtlety here. And, he's not really a bad guy.


7. "Patron of the Arts"

Some of Benford's mechs in his "Galactic Center" series were fascinated by art, so much so that one of them, the Mantis, attempts its own horrific version of art. One of the subplots in the novels and a novella involved the Mantis' efforts to understand art for it had no value in its mechanistic view of the universe. In this story, Saberhagen plays with the same theme.

Earth, fearing an invasion by the berserkers, sends off as many of its artistic treasures as possible. Herron, who is considered one of Earth's finest living artists, asks for and gets permission to go along with one of the shipments. Unfortunately the ship is attacked by a berserker and the crew is killed in the ensuing battle. Herron does not fight and therefore his life is spared, temporarily.

The berserker, confused by the cargo, questions Herron about the paintings. Herron's attempts to explain art confuses the berserker even more, and this leads to an erroneous conclusion by the berserker, which actually saves Herron's life.

Reaction: An interesting story about the similarity between the berserker and humanity. I've met many people whose understanding and appreciation of the arts is even less than the berserker's.


8. "To Mark the Year on Azlaroc"

Azlaroc must be one of the strangest planets in the universe, at least in Saberhagen's universe. It's the "veils" that fall roughly once a year that make Azlaroc so unique. This story, published in 1976, became part of a novel, The Veils of Azlaroc, which was published in 1978.

According to Saberhagen, Azlaroc forms a unusual triple system with a pulsar and a black hole for its two companions. And the veils?

"The material between the stars, gathered up as this triple system advances through space. What is not sucked into the black hole is sieved through nets of the pulsar's radiation, squeezed by the black hole's hundred billion gravities, shattered and transformed in all its particles as it falls toward Azlaroc through the belts of space that starships must avoid. Once every systemic year conditions are right and a veil falls. What falls is no longer matter that men can work with, any more than they can work in the hart of a black hole."

As best as I can figure, those "covered" by a veil now are confined within their own time continuum, separated from those covered by the previous veil, and unable to leave the planet. The veil also separates them from those who come after that veil has fallen. As the years pass and the veils all, they become harder and harder to see and communicate with by those who come after.

Hagen has come to Azlaroc with Alianna, his most recent companion, ostensibly on a galactic sight-seeing tour. What he doesn't tell her is that over a century ago he had come here with another, Mira. Hagen and Mira had separated briefly after a quarrel. Then the warning went out--a veil was dropping ahead of schedule. He hurried back to the ship and escaped. It was only after they had lifted off the planet that he discovered that Mira had not made it back in time.

He wants to find Mira, so he suggests that he and Alianna separate for a while. He finds Mira and during their reunion, he sees that Alianna has accidentally come across them and when he tries to explain, she has disappeared.

History repeats itself, perhaps, and again the warning goes out about the veil dropping prematurely. He can't find Alianna at the port and wonders if she is searching frantically for him back in town. Hagen, as on his previous visit, decides to leave and save himself, for he has no desire to be trapped on Azlaroc and lose the opportunity to explore the universe. And Alianna--well, she's a good match for Hagen.

Reaction: a interesting story, really more of a vignette than a plotted tale, perhaps because Saberhagen was already working on the novel. The real interest in the story is the planet Azlaroc and its strange relationship to time.


9. "Victory"

Who won the war on the planet Lorenzoni?

Forty-six years ago Condamine initiated a first strike with nuclear missiles. Ungava suffered over 100 million casualties. There was no real retaliation by Ungava, and yet the war goes on. Condamine irregularly dispatches a nuclear missile whenever it sees what appears to be a concentration of population or some new construction taking place. Ungava strikes back with car bombs and other acts of sabotage and hit-and-run raids against Condamine's coastal towns.

Shen-yang is sent by the galactic council to see if he can act as a mediator to end the war. As he travels the main city of Condamine, he wonders at "the stores, full of good things to buy; the theaters and houses of entertainment, varied enough to suit any taste and any credit balance, doing a mass business; and by the people themselves.

The streets were full of folk who obviously enjoyed a wide choice of clothing and personal decoration and of vehicles in which to travel. They were busy, and they looked basically healthy and certainly well-fed. Just a touch glassy-eyed, perhaps--but Shen-yang saw that often enough at home, in the larger cities at any rate."

He finds the government leaders desperate to end the war, for that's what's keeping them out of the galactic council. He is also told, but can't believe, that Ungava still has its missile strike force intact, with over 1000 missiles. Nobody, he feels, could have the restraint to hold off avenging the destruction of their homeland. With the government's aid, he makes contact with Ungava and arranges to be picked up by one of their aircraft in an isolated spot.

Ungava is a mountainous country, and he sees that small isolated valleys are being farmed, but little housing is visible. Aside from the tilled valleys, ruined cities and radioactive lakes are all he sees, for the people live mostly underground. Ungava is now a dictatorship, in which all efforts are directed towards survival and defeat of Condamine. Shen-yang meets the High Leader, and realizes that all around him worship him and see him as the embodiment of Ungava.

Shen-yang asks about the missiles and the High Leader confirms what the Condamine government leaders had told him. The Leader refuses to use them because that would only strengthen the Condamine government, for the survivors would then be as tough and determined to win as are the people of Ungava. He wants peace also and is willing to negotiate with Condamine, but only if the present government is replaced. Shen-yang remarks that only the winner can dictate terms such as that.

A nuclear missile strikes the mountain hideout of the Leader, but they are so deep within that nobody is injured. Apparently, the Condamine government had placed a tracer of some sort on Shen-yang in hopes of killing the High Leader. Upon learning of its failure, Condamine informs the Ungava that it wanted to negotiate a peace and had changed its leadership.

Reaction: Interesting story about a conflict between a society that was almost destroyed but because of that now had a cause to unify the people and a society that was prosperous but lacked that unifying cause. In addition, they had much more to lose by continuing the war than did Ungava.

Who really did win the war?


10. "Birthdays"

Aboard a spaceship whose mission is to spread humanity throughout the galaxy, Bart, almost 14, is awakened and informed of the following by the ship's AI:

"The prime directives under which I operate are very clear. One human parent, adoptive or real, is necessary to the successful maturation of children; images and machines are psychologically inadequate for optimum results. Therefore, after receiving some elementary preparation for the role, you will serve as adoptive parent for the first generation of colonists."

He is brought to the nursery where he finds 24 infants. He is with them for a day and then goes to sleep. One year later, he is reawakened. He is a day older, but the infants are a year older. This pattern remains: he is awakened once a year and interacts with them, and then goes back to sleep. He ages a day and they a year. Eventually they are as old as he is and older. By the time he finally reaches his fourteenth birthday, they are in their 60s.

Every year, he awakens for one day to see them mature and then age. During that day, he learns of their struggles, their loves, their hopes, their failures, and their dreams. Then, on the 69th awakening, he leaves his room and in the corridor finds a new door has been created while the old one has been sealed. Going through the new door, Bart once again hears the Prime Directive from the AI and is now informed that the preparation for his assignment has ended. He will now be awakened at increasingly shorter intervals so he can act as parent for this new group of infants. This generation will be the first generation of colonists when they reach their destination, a planetary system that has a strong possibility of possessing earthlike planets, in about 20 years.

Reaction: one of the strongest stories in the book, as well as being the longest.


11. "Recessional"

"Recessional" is the story that puzzled me at first, and to some extent, still does as I'm not certain that I got the point. Sometimes writers provide all of the main elements and then expect the reader to assemble them properly. I wonder if this is one of them, or if I simply am missing the point.

Well, here are some elements that I've gotten together and I'm curious to see what some of you can make of this.

The title "Recessional" could refer to the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling which he composed on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The poem expresses pride in the British Empire, but also an underlying sadness that the Empire might go the way of all previous empires. I'm not sure what this has to do with the story, but the refrain--"Lest we forget"--is more suggestive. It is now frequently found on tombstones and often used by speakers on occasions in which we are asked to remember and honor the dead. It suggests the elements of death and memory and time.

In the story, we learn of an amazing discovery. The inner layer of the skull is actually some sort of backup memory, especially that part next to the visual cortex. With the right equipment, one can actually see what a dead person saw, probably the last things that deceased saw. The police, naturally, are very interested in this development, especially in murder cases. During the same TV show that this was explained, one of the characters mentioned a short story by Kappling which featured a similar development, only that a camera could be used to photograph the last image which remained on the retina at the person's death. The main character, who is watching the TV show, says to himself that the author is "Kipling," not Kappling, another link here to Kipling.

The main character has no name and is identified only as an SF writer. At the beginning of the story, he is attending an SF convention in Miami Beach. We are told little else about him except that he "was never going to get married again, that much he felt pretty sure about, not even when his status as a widower became finally and fully legal and official, as one of these years it would. Was it two years now or three?" We can guess from this that his wife had disappeared possibly four or five years ago and her body was never found.

The writer then decides to go on an extended driving trip, which ultimately ends up in San Diego. It is during this trip that he encounters a series of strange events, which seemingly follow a pattern.

While in Miami Beach, he hears that an unidentified woman's body was found in the water about one hundred miles south of Miami Beach. Apparently she had been in the water for possibly four or five years. When asked about the possibility of this, experts talked knowingly about deep pockets of cold water that would slow the process of disintegration.

After leaving the convention, he drives to Atlanta, Georgia. On the morning news show, he learns that the body of a young unidentified woman, possibly in her early 20s, was found in a river some 20 miles north of Atlanta. Experts said that the body might have been in the water "for as long as several months."

In Vicksburg, Mississippi, he catches a TV talk show during which he learns about the memory capacity of the inner skull. The host then asks the expert whether this device might help "the police discover, for instance, who this young woman is whose body came down the Mississippi today? They say she might have been in the water for several weeks. Wearing a yellow bikini and--"

He stops at a diner in Shreveport, Louisiana, and takes a booth next to one with two state police officers. One of the officers says to the other, "__she mighta been from any upstream somewheres. The Doc, he says days in the water. White gal. Just a lil ol bathing suit on. No wounds, nothing like that."

Near Carlsbad, New Mexico, he drives by a city park and gets a glimpse of a police officer trying to resuscitate a person with brown hair and wearing something yellow.

Reaching San Diego, he goes to his parents' house, which he inherited after their death. That night he hears the "sound of a slow Navy plane . . .One of the search and rescue craft, and it sounded like it was heading out. . . Anyway, they wouldn't be using a plane to look for her, she hadn't gone out in a boat. And if they hadn't started to look for her last night, when she walked out, they wouldn't be starting now.

He paused, trying to clear his thoughts. How could they have started any search last night? He still, up to this minute, hadn't told anyone how she had gone. Not yet . . .

If you can't stand your own life, he had said to her, then I suggest you put an end to it. I have an interesting life of my own that's going to take all my time."

Reaction: initial confusion, followed by several questions. Did his wife commit suicide by walking into the ocean? The various reports of drowned women--what is the connection to his wife?


12. "Where Thy Treasure Is"

Published in 1981, this story might be considered an early cyberpunk tale. Bernard Cunningham has an operation in which a receiving device is implanted in his brain that will allow him to get direct transmissions from the financial computerized network. He will be getting information, therefore, long before his competitors.

The operation is successful, too successful actually. He now feels completely connected to his properties, as if they were part of his body. He feels pain when one of his properties catches fire. He has to sell off the slum buildings he owns for he senses the damage to the building from various insects and rats.

Removing the device is ineffective. It makes no difference for the brain itself had taken over the functions of the device. Cunningham then decides to solve the problem by selling off all of his properties, which will then eliminate his involvement in the financial system. He tells his wife of his decision and insists he had done it all for her and the children. She argues that was nonsense, that he had done it for himself and nobody else.

The ending is ambiguous in that Saberhagen leaves it up to the reader to decide what happened.

"Meeting Shirley's angry, wondering eyes, he felt a touch of new terror. The power of self-extension was still his, in a form he had not thought of until now.

It came to him that there were treasures he had yet dreamed of knowing.

It came to him also that the cage-bars of the ledgers, the prision domains of the magnetic discs, had just this moment eased their strain."

His lawyers call, wanting his permission to sell off everything.

" 'The papers.' Cunningham's voice on the phone was impatient and happy at the same time, that of a man being disturbed while at some joyful occupation. 'Oh, the rest of the giveaway papers, yes, I think you might as well tear those up.' "

Reaction: somewhat confused. All was well until the ending. What had happened to Cunningham? What was the form of the power of self-extension that "he had not thought of until now"?


  1. I have read numerous books by Saberhagen and get confused as he changes his stories as you point out through various myths and fairytales as well as pure Scifi. He is however very proficient and has put out a great deal of material. I do not always like his book covers and sometimes that is what convinces me to purchase a book.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wrighton,

    Thanks for your comments.

    You'll see more examples of the way Saberhagen mixes genres when I finish posting about the rest of the stories in the book.

    Your comment about the book cover reminded me of the following statement found on the inside cover of this book.

    "Copies of a signed and numbered limited edition (100 copies) color print of the cover art of EARTH DESCENDED are available from Sabre Press. For your copy of this photo-quality print, send a check or money order for $16.50 to . . ."

    As this book was published in 1981, I suspect the offer is no longer open.

  3. Fred, although this is a bit off topic, veering away from your posting, I have a question in anticipation of my vacation (which begins today): If I were to begin a reading program that focuses on the best SF, what authors and titles would you recommend? Perhaps my question can provoke you to provide a list of a dozen or more. Perhaps also you would use the question as a catalyst for a posting in which you provide an even longer list. I wait and watch.

  4. R/T,

    Interesting question: it's so interesting that it's interfering with everything else I want to do. Give me a few days to come up with a decent list. Here are four that I know will be on it.

    Ursula Le Guin: _The Left Hand of Darkness_. One I always recommend. I did a brief commentary on it back in March 2010.

    George Stewart: _Earth Abides_. One of the best post-holocaust novels I've ever read.

    Jack Finney: _Time and Again_. The best time travel tale I've ever read. I would say the best ever written, but I haven't read all of them.

    Russell Hoban: _Riddley Walker_. The most unique post-holocaust novel I've ever read. If you love playing with language, you'll love this one.

    I don't know whether you include fantasy, but if you do, then Tolkien's _Lord of the Rings_ is a must.

  5. Thanks, Fred. I'm off to the library!