Willful Child: Erikson’s Star Trek parody

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWillful Child by Steven Erikson science fiction book reviewsWillful Child by Steven Erikson

Let’s start with what needs to be said when reviewing a book like Steven Erikson’s Willful Child, a full-bore parody/homage to Star Trek: The Original Series. One, humor is wholly subjective. I, for instance, have never understood the allure of Adam Sandler. My wife, meanwhile, has never understood why I find Airplane funny (I could go on and on with that list, but one will suffice). So one person’s rib-splitting, laugh-out-loud bit will be another person’s “meh.”  Second, humor is tough. As the line goes, “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” So, that being said, what about the book?

As mentioned, Willful Child takes on the classic Trek series and makes no, ahem, “Bones” about it. After a quick little prologue, this is the opening of Chapter One:  “Space. It’s fucking big. These are the voyages of the starship Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds…” No doubt about which fictional universe we’re in here. As for the parody, that also makes its presence known immediately, as the opening continues: “strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the—“.

From here, we follow the episodic adventures of said starship via the POV of its lusty, impetuous, rules-be-damned Captain Hadrian Sawback as he sleeps around, violates orders and directives, starts and ends interspecies wars, “blows shit up,” deals with a rogue AI, and, well, really, what he does is less important than how he does it, but you get the idea. It’s a rollicking non-stop fun-ride for the most part, with some sharp-edged satire in there as well to keep readers honest. Erikson throws a lot at the reader, some of which hits and some of which does not (here’s that subjective part), which meant the book as a whole left me with mixed feelings.

The direct parody aspects of the Star Trek show — poking fun at its characters, its plots, its writing tropes — I thought were mostly successful. I laughed out loud several times, chuckled quite a bit, smiled a lot (btw — while non Star-Trek fans will certainly find some humor here, they’ll absolutely be missing out on huge chunks). Not satisfied with taking apart the show in broad strokes, Erikson also bores down into the minutiae, as with a reference to the Captain being accused of cheating on his cadet exam — the “Mishmashi Paradox, a three-year problem ever for space-hardened officers.” A nod, of course, to Kirk’s own test, the Kobayashi Maru. Fans of the show will also recognize a certain temporal archway, a card game, and some bitter fight-you-to-the-end last words, among other detailed hits. It’s all great fun and done in a spirit of fondness (I’m pretty sure).
At times, the humor has a welcome edge to it, as when Erikson jabs at the show’s Prime Directive, here delegated the “Secondary Directive” because the Primary Directive in this world is “the opportunity for rapid, unmitigated colonization and exploitation of any and all resource-rich environments…”  In his more serious works, Erikson has always had a sharp eye for our society’s flaws, and I was happy to see he didn’t decide to leave that part of his writerly self behind in this book.

So that’s the good. Hmm, I just realized that in many ways this book is like “The Enemy Within,” the Trek episode where Kirk is split into two halves — “good” Kirk and “bad” Kirk. So where’s the Bad Kirk here?  Well, keeping in mind the whole “Humor is subjective” thing, I found much of the humor a little too juvenile for my taste — names like Turdians, for instance, or Nipplebaum. In that same vein, the sexual humor didn’t just leave me cold, but also at times left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable. It’s a fine line to tiptoe, presenting a character whose sexual attitude is meant to be a parody, meant to be repulsive, and for me at least, Erikson didn’t always navigate that line on the right side. Because the sexual humor permeates the book from start to finish, is entirely embedded and woven throughout, this made for a huge problem.

Certainly, some of this needs to be there; you can’t parody Kirk without also parodying his oversexed nature. But here is where the Good/Bad Kirk analogy breaks down, because in that episode neither could survive alone; they had to re-merge to live. But Willful Child I think would have survived just fine without all the sexual humor. A far lighter touch in style and far more minimal touch in amount would have met the satirical requirements while not threatening to overpower the good aspects of the novel.

As it is, some will probably not be bothered at all. Others will be discomfited to lesser or greater levels. And some will be wholly offended I’m sure. Where you think you might fall on that spectrum is probably a good gauge as to whether or not you’ll enjoy Willful Child. I certainly enjoyed huge portions of the novel. I just wish I could have enjoyed my enjoyment more.

Publication Date: November 4, 2014. From the New York Times Bestselling author Steven Erikson comes a new science fiction novel of devil-may-care, near calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through the infinite vastness of interstellar space. These are the voyages of the starship A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the… And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through ‘the infinite vastness of interstellar space.’ The New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence has taken his lifelong passion for Star Trek and transformed it into a smart, inventive, and hugely entertaining spoof on the whole mankind-exploring-space-for-the-good-of-all-species-but-trashing-stuff-with-a-lot-of-high-tech-gadgets-along-the-way, overblown adventure. The result is an SF novel that deftly parodies the genre while also paying fond homage to it.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. “Hadrian Sawback.”

    We have tile guys here and I started laughing so hard they left their work and just came and peered around the door to my office.

    That said, I think the review is plenty funny, and I don’t know if I’ll rush out to buy this. Willful Child is a cool name for a ship,though.

  2. I couldn’t get into it. I just didn’t like any of the characters. I’m one of those people that absolutely have to like or respect the mains to enjoy the book so this didn’t work for me.

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