Birthday Reviews: Saberhagen, Wellman

The birthday boys of the coming week bring us tales of berserkers and balladeers.

Fred Saberhagen (1930-05-18–2007-06-29)

“Starsong” (If, January 1968)

Within a powerfully grotesque framing story about a doctor determining if the brains (some vat-grown, some removed from their bodies) within a liberated berserker base are human or not (and disposing of those that aren’t), is the story of Ordell Callison, the galaxy’s greatest singer, and his new wife, Eury. When playing a mating game of ship tag, one man plays with an unwilling Eury, she flees and, like a wolf running down a sheep separated from the flock, a berserker [1] comes out of hiding and captures her. Ordell learns of this, madly tears out after her, and is also captured. However, his song powerfully affects the cyborg humans that had been under the thrall of the berserkers and he has one chance to escape the base with her.

A great virtue and vice of this story is the fact that it’s a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in science fictional terms. The vice comes from it being an extremely faithful adaptation that provides a rote feeling to the plot along with the discordant “singing SF” element but the virtue is that it is also a naturally powerful plot, is very creatively adapted, and even does some interpretation of the myth. Even more notably, it produces a very unusual and strong flavor which, while still very different, may come closest to some of the weirdness that is Cordwainer Smith. Effective and memorable.

Manly Wade Wellman (1903-05-21-1986-04-05)

“O Ugly Bird!” (F&SF, December 1951)

To borrow from the opening line, “I swear I’m licked before I start, trying to tell you what” this story is like. John’s a traveling musician with a silver-stringed guitar on his way through the mountains to the Bottomless Pool when he meets Mr. Onselm. That unworthy turns out to be a hoodoo man keeping the few folks of the local population under his thumb with the help of an ugly bird – a purely unnatural bird, at that. Onselm is a sight, and the bird is even more so, and things are creepy enough but, when Onselm takes a notion to more thoroughly possess the shopgirl, Winnie, and gathers a small posse to run off the troublesome guitar player who’s also taken a more gentlemanly liking to the girl, things get more urgent and even creepier.

This is a hard story to describe because, on its surface, it’s very simple and very short as well, but Wellman paces things and reveals things and describes things just so, producing a really effective low-key horror combined with a winning perspective conveyed through John’s mountain voice. The one problem with this is that people seem to forget and remember a thing or two when it’s pretty convenient but the tale is a gem, otherwise, and the first of many stories and novels featuring John the Balladeer.


[1] If you’re not familiar with the series, berserkers are machines whose ultimate purpose is to eradicate biological life throughout the galaxy.

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