Willful Child by Steven Erickson
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.
So, this is my first Steven Erickson novel. He’s a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the author of the bestselling ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen, a complex and controversial epic fantasy; the kind of series that’s hard to get into at first and incomparable once you’ve finished. When I got the opportunity to read something shorter, I figured it’d be a good barometer.
It’s probably not. Willful Child is a tongue in cheek parody of Star Trek that shines a harsh light on the entire history of the franchise and its fandom. The title is simultaneously the name of the ship and a description of the protagonist Hadrian Allen Sawback, cut from the same cloth as one James Tiberius Kirk. He’s the kind of manly misogynist you’ll hate to love as his unbridled exuberance and unflagging confidence propel his ship into episodic mayhem.
I’ll admit that my affection for Trek has slipped the surly bonds of canon from time to time. Thise fanciful forays were often disappointing because they lacked any real affection for the source material. That isn’t the case here. While skewering the photogenic bridge crew, the breathlessness of the episodic action, and the unfortunate socioeconomic political landscape of a colonial navy, Erickson finds and nurtures the beating heart beneath.
It’s not all fun and games, though. The book, at least the beginning, is almost unbearably sexist. Given the source material, it can’t be avoided. But readers should go in knowing what’s coming. There’s a decent amount of self aware commentary on that as the story progresses, but it never disappears entirely.
Instead, the narrative is clever enough to work the reader into the, well, show, for lack of a better word. Just like the caricatures and melodrama of television often lull us into sympathy, so does Willful Child. That is a pretty neat trick.
This is definitely a book for Trek fans. There’s joy in recognizing the obvious parallels and delight in the subtler ones. It also has something to offer folks who just want a good laugh at the expense of space opera or scifi television generally.
Recommended for Zapp Brannigan, Malcolm Reynolds, and Kathryn Janeway.