Fred Saberhagen's Berserker Short Story "Smasher"

Reference: "Smashers", first appeared in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Aug 1978, also in Mr. Saberhagen's short story collection ULTIMATE ENEMY (now part of BERSERKERS" THE BEGINNING, Baen Books), and was in A VERY SMALL ARRAY.

The popular literature and movies are replete with references to killer sharks, gigantic man-eating squids, and even deadly schools of ferocious, unstoppable piranhas. Although mantis shrimps are, weight for weight, more than a match for any of these much-maligned creatures, the print and film media have so far resisted the temptation to roll out significant numbers of fiction or movies featuring stomatopods.

Mr. Saberhagen's story "Smasher" is a welcome respite from the usual portrayal in science fiction of arthropods and arthropod-like aliens as pests and implacable competitors of mankind. His Berserker series of short stories and novels, which depict the continuing onslaught against humanity of galaxy-spanning doomsday machines, are one of the most respected and longer-lasting sagas in the realm of science-fiction.

This particular short story focuses on the plight of two couples in an otherwise uninhabited, mostly ocean world, who are besieged by numerous plate-sized machines after the crash of a wayward berserker spacecraft. One husband and wife team are the nominal caretakers of the planet, which is slowly being made more earth-like through the addition of marine species into the ocean ecology. Most of the action takes place in and around the main terran base, with the untiring, deadly machines pursuing their human prey across the ponds, bays, tidal pools, and lagoons that hold the multitudes of earth sea life before their release into the alien world.

A notable scene occurs when the fleeing humans cross a shark-infested pond, and can only stare in horror as one of the tool-wielding machines effortlessly cuts its way through the stomach of a shark that had swallowed it whole. It seems that even one of the fiercest creatures on earth is no match for the small army of berserkers!

The human beings head into another pond, a relatively shallow area that seemingly holds no living thing, then barricade themselves in a local control center. They use an underwater videocamera to watch as nearly three dozen of the relentless machines start to cross the narrow barrier.

The most exciting and dramatic part of the story then unfolds when the seemingly invincible berserkers are ambushed by a wave of large stomatopod smashers, whose raptorial appendages deliver repeated blows that prove devastating to the ceramic alloy armor of the crab-like machines. The KRAKKK sound of mantis blows echoes through the underwater microphones, and the camera shows a mantis as it drags one of the machines into its crevice, where it then proceeds to batter the hapless alien into small jagged pieces in its search for soft meat.

The story is very well-written, and the pace of the chase is kept appropriately tight and fast. Although the binomial name of one of the smashers (Odontodactylus scyllarus) is seemingly misspelled, the author shows that he has done his homework by interspersing small tidbits about stomatopod biology and behavior between the action-filled scenes. I would highly recommend this story to anyone interested in stomatopods. You can probably borrow a copy of the out-of-print collection "Ultimate Enemy" from your local public library, or you can buy one of the newer collections mentioned above.

Thank you to Bruce Brazaitis and Ray Girvan for pointing out and helping me find the story. Thank you also to Fred and Joan Saberhagen for providing additional info on the story.

Web Site Author: A. Sunjian
Site Created February 3, 1998
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