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Book News

Review: No one wants to solve the mystery here

'Shiva in Steel'
by Fred Saberhagen

Tor Books, $23.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

(CNN) -- The competition between Man and Machine has been a common theme of literature since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Author Fred Saberhagen has given Machine a major edge. His machines are relentlessly bent on no less a mission than the extermination of all life. They have no thought of self-preservation, no mercy for their prey, and they take no prisoners. They are berserkers, and they intend to rule the galaxy.

"Shiva in Steel" is his latest chronicle of the centuries-old war between the forces of life and the machines of death. It is populated with grimly determined people who may be weary of the conflict, but are in no mood to surrender. This is especially true now that the enemy has deployed a new weapon. Code-named Shiva, after the Hindu deity of destruction, it is a quantum advance in artificial intelligence. It seems to understand how humans think and can anticipate whatever military tactics its adversaries decide to throw at it.

Harry Silver is a smuggler, forced to seek refuge at a modest-looking Space Force base when the berserkers smash through the planetary system where he had been plying his trade. He arrives just in time to be dragooned into an attempt to ambush Shiva and blunt the berserker advancement. The base is not quite what it appears to be. Then again, neither is Silver. He has his own reasons for being there.

The operation to take out Shiva -- already an iffy proposition at best -- is dealt a crushing blow when the task force assigned to it is attacked en route to the base. Its commanding officer refuses to accept defeat, and immediately hatches an even more risky plot to complete the mission.

Marut's improvisation -- you might call it brilliant, you might call it crazy -- called for humans to get themselves into the berserker base and out of sight, taking control of the enemy installation from inside before Shiva and its no-doubt-formidable escort showed up.

The humans are saved from this course of folly, in a sense, by the arrival of Shiva at their obscure outpost. The berserker is, after all, smart enough to figure out what humans are up to. And that's the problem with this novel.

Shiva is just too smart. Saberhagen has created an implacable enemy. It can't be outgunned. It can't be outsmarted. It can't be defeated. All the humans can hope for is to delay eventual defeat. Hardly a rallying cry. It is only through a far too convenient set of circumstances involving a comic opera Emperor of the Universe that some of the humans "live to fight another day." The resolution of the immediate problem does not offer any hope that the forces of life can ever prevail over the hordes of the death machines.

The berserkers are an impressive literary creation. They make the Borg look humanitarian by comparison. One blurb on the jacket of "Shiva in Steel" raises them to the metaphoric level of "the dark side of human nature." Saberhagen chooses to keep them on the periphery of this particular story. The exception is in the climactic battle scene where all we see of the foe is a few battered remnants kept in a trophy room at the human base. Whatever it is that drives them in their quest to exterminate all forms of life remains a mystery. Moreover, it's a mystery that no one in this novel seems interested in solving.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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