This article appeared in the October 1991 issue of Starlog
magazine (#171) and is reprinted here exclusively, with express
permission from Starlog.
Starlog's website may be found here.
The page whereback issues and subscriptions can be purchased
may be found here.
You can either see images of the original pages (click thumbnails
for larger image), or read the entire text below.
This old friend of the family, Fred
Saberhagen, keeps creating fantastic worlds.
by T.W. Knowles II
Behind Fred Saberhagen's gentle manner and quiet, unassuming
smile lies the boundless imagination that drew humanity into
desperate conflict with those relentless, deranged instruments
of destruction known as the Berserkers. In the course of a writing
career spanning more than 30 years, Saberhagen has also taken
his readers into the strangely twisted post-holocaust world of
The Empire of the East and his Books of Swords series,
in which magic works and mankind is plagued by demons and demigods
in the heart of nuclear fire; he has traveled time with a futuristic
Indiana Jones in the Pilgrim series and has played devil's advocate
for Vlad Tepes, the infamous Count Dracula, in a series of novels,
including An Old Friend of the Family.
Whether in these popular
series, in his many short stories or in his fine non-series novels,
Saberhagen's work shows a startling
diversity, running the spectrum from hard SF to fantasy to horror.
He refuses to recommend a favorite style even as a reader. "It
depends on whether you prefer robots or vampires or fantasy," he
maintains. "I like all my books when I'm working on them.
I would probably recommend The Dracula Tapes, Empire
of the East and probably the first Berserker - one out of each. The people
who don't like a particular type of fiction probably don't read
it or talk about it that much. It's pretty rare for someone to
come up to a writer and say, 'Gee, I read your book and I didn't
like it.' Usually, if they didn't like it, they won't say anything."
But it was with his tales of ruthless
artificial intelligences known as Berserkers that Saberhagen
established his professional
career. The concept for the Berserkers "just seemed to
pop out of nowhere," he says. "I was writing a more
or less routine space ad-venture story, and I thought I had a
pretty good plot, then I realized I needed some kind of a menace
to be overcome. That's when I decided to use a machine that had
been pro-grammed to destroy all life in the galaxy. Of course,
I can't claim the idea as my original creation, since Theodore
Sturgeon used something similar in a novella called 'There Is
No Defense,' years before the first Berserker. But I've tried
to give it an original handling."
concept behind his Berserker books “just
seemed to pop out of nowhere,” the writer admits.
When Fred Pohl, then editor at Worlds of If,
bought that first Berserker story, he said, "Pretty
good story, but a great idea. Why don't you do more Berserkers?" Since
Saberhagen has now been writing and pub-lishing Berserker stories
for 30 years, PohI must have been right. Saberhagen recently
signed a contract for a new Berserker novel with the working
title Berserker Kill, and recently completed a Berserker
novelette that will be titled either Berserker Works or Berserker
Tricks. [5th Historian's note: this was almost certainly the
collection Berserker Lies, which included the then-new
story "The Machinery of Lies." Interesting to see the alternate
After the first Berserker story appeared in Worlds of If,
Pohl continued to buy and publish them in Galaxy and
Worlds of To-morrow,
other magazines he edited. It was Horace Gold, Pohl's predecessor
at Worlds of If, who bought Saberhagen's first story. "The
one that got sold first wasn't the one that got published first.
I can't remember offhand which one was which. One was called
'The Long Way Home,' and it was about these people who had to
pole their spaceship home from the outer reaches of the solar
system using space anchors. The other was called 'Volume Paa-Pyx,'
a kind of thought-police story. After Fred took over from Horace,
for a little while, people thought I was a pseudonym for Fred
Pohl. I took that as a compliment. When I went to my first SF
convention in 1962 or '63 in Chicago, some people even told me that
I was just a pseudonym for Fred Pohl. I said, 'No, I'm not-here
Though the hard-SF concept of the Berserkers has
sustained his longest-running series, the fantasy/SF mix in the
Books of Swords is by far his most commercially
successful. "The Books
of Swords are set in the same world as Empire of the
says. "Fantasy with an underpinning of technology, the nuclear
explosions becoming demons, that sort of thing. A few of the
characters overlap, the very long-lived individuals like Draffut
one of the evil wizards."
Saberhagen was attracted to SF and fan-tasy
when he was a child. "The
first SF story I read-I was eight or nine years old--scared the
living daylights out of me. It had something to do with alien
spores drifting down to Earth and growing up into horren-dous
monsters. I don't remember the author or the title now, but it
had an effect on me. My parents forbade me to bring any more
of that stuff into the house. I think they were really worried!
As I grew older, I began to suspect I could probably do it just
as well as some of the people whose works I had read. It turned
out that I could.
"The first SF story I read scared the
living daylights out of me."
"A few years later, as a teenager, I started reading Analog and
became a more or less conventional reader," he goes
on. "I was never really a fan, like the people who organize
clubs and hold conventions. I never really knew that fans existed
until I had sold a story and started going to conventions. I
spent four years in the U.S. Air Force after finishing high school,
and I went to college for about a year after I got out of the
Air Force, but that was my total of higher education. I worked
as an electronics technician in the Air Force and afterward.
The familiarity with technical jargon and hardware I gained in
that work was an asset for writing SF."
He also found his
nonfiction editing experience of value in his research for his
fic-tion work. "When I got married,
I really needed a steady job, so I went to work as a writer and
editor for Encyclopedia Britannica. That helped develop
my research skills, and I also learned to be concise while still
I wanted to say. I edited and wrote a lot of the short articles
on science and technology that you see in the Micropedia, the volumes
where you start to look things up for using in the modern Britannica.
That may be why the Pilgrim time-travel series was quite a lot
of fun. I like to go back and do historical research on certain
Fred Saberhagen likes giving his readers "a real
story, with a beginning, a middle and an end."
Saberhagen started his writing career later than many other
SF and fantasy writers. "I got serious about writing when
I was almost 30 years old," he says, "about 30 years
ago. Once I got serious about it, I started selling a few stories.
I still collected a great number of rejection slips, and it has
only been about the last 10 years that I've been making a living
at it. Instant fame and fortune!" He laughs. "An overnight
success that was 30 years in the making."
He's now secure
enough in the mastery of his craft not to be overanxious regarding
adverse reviews. "I like to see favorable
reviews, but I can't remember any specific examples that have
bothered me," he shrugs. "You figure that a few people
who read a book are going to like it, and a few others really
can't stand it and won't finish it, and the great majority will
probably be more or less satisfied. If you have many readers
at all, there will be many different opinions."
created by novel collaborations between authors has been known
to break up long-standing friendships, but Saherhagen
relishes the work he has done with his friend and fellow New
Mexico resident Roger Zelazny. "When we did Coils together,
I found out that it's about 50 times easier, even though it's
for half as much money. You split the money for a small fraction
of the work, so it's great. I like Roger personally, but you
wouldn't even have to like the person if you could create a good
working arrangement. The things I find easy to do are the things
he says he sometimes has trouble with, and vice versa."
when working within a collaboration, Saberhagen agrees that
writing as a profession requires self-discipline and a will-ingness
to spend a certain amount of time in solitude. "You have to
just go off and do it," he sighs. "Of course, publishing
is a gregari-ous profession, and you become a part of that, too.
Conventions are fun, you get together with other writers, but
the actual job is something you go off and do by yourself. Fannish
activities can take the place of the desire to write for some people,
perhaps. Other people go to writers' conferences and practice being writers without actually being writers or sending their work off
got serious about writing when I was almost 30 years
Some writers approach a new book with a completed outline, but
Saberhagen allows his stories to grow organically. ''I do a par-tial
outline," he reveals, "but it starts out short and
small, and it keeps growing. I keep revising, adding chapters,
finally de-cide it's time to quit. I never do a formal outline
except at a publisher's request. Even then, nobody seems to pay
much attention to whether the finished book resembles the outline.
"Also, the voice of my narrator is hardly ever me, I think. It's
an actor, or a member of my cast of actors, who seems to step
ward and say, 'This is the story I ware to do.' I suppose most
writers have a stock company of players who appear in various
forms in their different books."
When Saherhagen begins a new book, he consults his cast of actors,
his characters, on the question of point-of-view . "It
varies with the different stories, and I switch from one form
to the other," he observes. "The
Holmes-Drarula File was interesting be-cause I tried to
do Dr. Watson's narration in alternate chapters with Dracula's.
a fairly complicated story, but I didn't find any difficulty
in switching from one to the other. I focused on the character
my mind and let him take over."
as a child, Saberhagen knew he could write alien and monster
stories just as entertaining as the ones he had read.
Saberhagen's latest hook,
A Matter of Taste, is another in his popular series
in which Count Dracula, the Victorian era's fictional personification
of evil, is the protagonist. Since another Dracula novel, A
Question of Time, is slated for publication in late 1991,
it's obvious that Dracula holds a certain fascination for Saherhagen.
Though another great 19th-century figure, Sherlock
Holmes, crossed paths with Dracula in Saherhagen's The Holmes
Dracula File, the sanguinary Count remains at the center
of Saherhagen's focus. Asked whether he would consider doing
a modern Holmes novel without Dracula, he replies, '' I would
probably put Dracula in it somehow. The interplay between them,
most famous characters in Victorian-era fiction, is what interests
me. They're like two halves of one personality. One is logic,
the other is emotion, and that's the reason I want to put themtogether.
And as they're described physically, they are quite a bit alike.
Dracula is somewhat ascetic, despite his emotion.
Holmes and Dracula endure, as does the public's memory of their
authors. No such enduring 20th-century characters spring immediately
to mind." Saherhagen laughs and adds, "I would just
like to he remembered as a writer who lived to he 200 years old.
really hard to guess what people are going to remember 10 years,
50 years, 100 years from now. There were many famous novelists
other than Stoker and Doyle who were big on
the bestseller lists in 1890, but we don't hear their
Although many other modern authors have also been
working with the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Saherhagen
doesn't keep an eye on his competition. "Though I have,
of course, read Stoker's and Conan Doyle's originals,'' he stipulates, "I
try to avoid reading what other modern authors do with them." As
far as being the progenitor of a fad, Saberhagen says. ''I guess
I was maybe out ahead of the parade, somewhere. It was fun to
do. It started when I reread Brain Stoker's original Dracula,
and it struck me that the main character is hardly ever on stage
in that novel. I began to wonder what he was really doing off-stage."
to do a whole story is to wrong the reader."
Dracula novels naturally contain strong elements of dark
fantasy and horror. For Dominion, he drew on the high-fantasy
elements of Arthurian legend to produce a chilling modern tale
of the macabre. Not only was Dominion his darkest hook, but also
the most difficult to write. ''I was never really happy with
that hook,'' he say's with a frown, "I kept tinkering with
it, kept changing things around. I finally felt it was all right,
hot it's not one of my favorites. Not a fun book to write."
a book is or isn't fun to write, the author has a strong definition
of what a reader Should get out of a Saherhagen book. "I
think they should get a real story," he says, "with
a beginning, a middle and an end. You should play fair with 'em.
going to have magic and vampires, you should establish that early'on,
so they know what to expect. I think not to do a whole story
is to wrong the reader. It may be part of a series, but still,
each story in itself should have a satisfying completeness, the
ability to stand on its own.''
And where many authors specialize
in one genre - horror, or dark fantasy, or high fantasy, or SF
- Fred Saherhagen switches easily from one to another. It is
difference in approach, the fresh challenge presented by crossing
from one category to another, that interests him. "That's
why I have three different series going, and now and then, I
do individual short stories that fall outside of them," he
explains. "I wouldn't want to live in the same world all
the time, to work in the same universe, and I shouldn't expect
it of my readers."
T.W. KNOWLES II is a Texas-based freelance writer.
He profiled Elizabeth Ann Scarborough in STARLOG #163.
Back to Fred Saberhagen Page