Review: Willful Child by Steven Erikson

Willful Child

Steven Erikson’s novel Willful Child is a science fiction spoof and parody.  While the clear target and inspiration is Star Trek the original series, a good analogy for the tone, style and humor of the book is ‘Get Smart! in space’.  It is an over-the-top parody, much in the same vein as Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, and delights in its clever, and sometimes absurd, subversion of science fiction television’s clichés and tropes to hilarious effect.   However, there is also a dark undercurrent of biting social satire running beneath the entire narrative.  The novel is written with Erikson’s customary eye for weaving subtle social commentary into the fabric of the narrative that rewards careful and deep reading.

Some initial words of warning.

Firstly, this is clearly intended to be a spoof, a parody, and a comedy.  As such, enjoyment of this novel will probably come down to whether or not you enjoy this particular brand of humour.  There are plenty of clever jokes, insightful lampooning of SF cliché, Star Trek in-jokes and references, as well as gross out humour and some very dark comedy.  Some (myself included) may indeed laugh out loud while reading this novel, others may be entertained or groan at one of the many ‘bad jokes’, but ultimately not everyone will find it funny. Humour is a deeply personal thing, and one person’s belly-laugh is another person’s acid reflux, and this novel lives and dies on its comedy.

Secondly, this is not a science fiction version of Erikson’s 10 book epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, nor a ‘Bridgeburners in Space’ story.  Anyone expecting this to be a deep, philosophical, science fiction space opera or military SF in the vein of Erikson’s fantasy writing is going to be sorely disappointed.  This is a fun romp through science fiction tropes and clichés with Erikson’s characteristic cutting satire running deep below the surface.

Thirdly, as the book appears brash and brazen, it is all too easy to overlook some of the subtler aspects of Erikson’s social commentary or to potentially misread them.  In part this is one of the potential problem areas of the novel, and conversely one of its most interesting aspects.  While the parodic characteristics are readily accessible on a superficial read, it is the pointed satire that lies hidden and can be unheeded without closer examination and thought.  Long a strength of Erikson’s fantasy writing, in this case some of the intelligent commentary is too subtle and, like Verhoeven’s satire Starship Troopers (1997), it could be destined to be misunderstood.

Weighing in at around 75,000 words, this novel is significantly shorter than the fantasy epic tomes that Erikson is better known for, but this does not prove a detriment in any way as the book feels full and complete, without any sense of being short-changed, even for those accustomed to door-stop fantasies.  The novel soon settles into an episodic narrative focalised on Hadrian as the point of view character, with several self-contained adventures and set pieces.  This episodic structure adds to the story’s mimicry of Star Trek and of SF television shows in general.  In fact, one can easily imagine that Erikson envisaged this as a teaser for television adaptation as the style is not so much cinematic as televisual.  There is a strong emphasis on dialogue, along with clearly visual gags and several references to sound effects.   An over-arching story arc, influenced by Star Trek: the Motion Picture, ties the whole narrative together and the conclusion provides sufficient closure for this to be a stand-alone novel while, at the same time, space is left for further volumes.

The episodic nature also raises some interesting issues about how we read, as this style may be much more appealing to those reading on e-devices and in shorter bursts, rather than the sustained focus one usually requires for Erikson’s more familiar fantasy fare.  Regardless, Willful Child picks up momentum quickly and soon, if you can forgive the obvious cliché, is hurtling warp speed.  While each of the episode closure events provides a little respite, the novel maintains a frenetic pace as the ship, the crew, and the captain, hurtle from one adventure to the next.

Comparisons are likely to be made to John Scalzi’s Redshirts, but the two are actually very different novels.  While they share a common starting point in the use of Star Trek as an inspiration, Scalzi focused on a meta-textual examination of the high death rate of ‘extras’ in the show to provide the kernel of his story, while Erikson has extrapolated several aspects of the show to ludicrous lengths and inverted others in order to create his narrative setting, including, but not limited to, characters, plot elements and iconic stories.  But Erikson goes further and takes aim at several other recognisable clichés of science fictional television, such as: the willingness of alien species to find human space captains attractive, no matter the differences in culture, species, and even physiology.  Advanced technologies that can be easily understood after only a few minutes of cursory examination.  The apparent ineptitude of all the space faring races when it comes to space battle.  And even the blustering admiral who, like the angry police chiefs in detective shows, seems to be a staple of the genre.

While Scalzi might have gone for the clever smirk, Erikson has gone for the full-on raucous laugh.

The story focuses on the maiden voyage of the A.S.F. Willful Child and her new captain, Hadrian Sawback, as he breaks in the new ship, the misfit crew and the universe itself, to accept his unorthodox style and approach to galactic conflict.  At first glance Hadrian appears to be an exaggerated parody of Captain James Tiberius Kirk and who may be confused with the character of Zapp Brannigan from Futurama, and certainly there are elements of that.  But, with slightly closer examination, it is clear that Hadrian’s character goes deeper than the one-note cartoon parody.   Erikson takes as a premise a boy raised by television.  In particular a single show that he has watched repeatedly, and his hero worship of the central protagonist of which has formed his entire world view and become his sole inspiration and role model.  Hadrian is therefore the most devoted disciple at the altar of Kirk, as much a wilful child as his ship.  He accepts as tenants of faith that you go with your gut, appearances be damned.  The only place for the rule book is out the airlock.  Never back down from a fight.  Believe in yourself and the crew will follow.  All women, alien or human, will want you.  Always do the right thing, no matter your orders.  In fact, orders are suggestions, not necessarily commands.  His guiding principle: What would Kirk do?  To Erikson’s credit he never shies away from the darker aspects that this premise creates in the character of Hadrian.

Before discussing Hadrian in further detail, some mention should be made of other aspects of the book, starting with the crew.  Erikson surrounds Hadrian with a fascinating cast, including an alien doctor, Printlip, who looks like a large ambulatory beach-ball, and is as far away from being able to be nicknamed ‘Bones’ as you can possibly get.  The formidable marine lieutenant Sweepy, who routinely pulls off the impossible and, with her squad of long-suffering marines, saves Hadrian when he gets into trouble.   Lt. Galk, the depressive, fatalistic combat specialist and Lt. DeFrank, an engineer with severe space anxiety, ably demonstrate the eccentric nature of Hadrian’s crew.  The bridge itself is ably run by Hadrian’s second-in-command, First Commander Sin Dour, the only character other than Lt. Sweepy who seems in any way competent.  She has the unenviable task of mediating Hadrian’s style of command and the expectations of the crew.   Her attempts to ensure the smooth operation of the ship by the numbers are constantly frustrated by Hadrian’s insistence to lead from the front and never explain his reasoning.  Hadrian also poses a similar problem for the Chief of Security and Political Officer, Adjutant Lorrin Tighe.

But ultimately the best crew member is the AI, Wynette Tammy.  Hadrian’s relationship with Tammy, at times conspiratorial, at others confrontational, is one of the cornerstones of the novel.  There is a dynamic there that mirrors the relationship between Kirk and Spock.  Tammy’s relentless logic pitted against Hadrian’s more emotional-based will makes them excellent foils for one another.  Indeed, Tammy’s mysterious origins and abilities form the crux of one of the central mysteries and story threads than run through the novel and form a driving force for the narrative.  Erikson’s use of a female name for an ostensibly ‘male’ AI is one of the many little moments in which he plays with clichés within the genre.  In this case, questioning the need to anthropomorphise a genderless, sexless, machine intelligence in order to make human crew more comfortable.  While Erikson does not draw attention to this fact, this thinking underpins many of the subtler commentaries on space opera and science fiction television.

A similar point can be found in Hadrian’s desire for ‘beam weapons’ despite their obvious deficiencies in terms of effectiveness and energy economy being explained to him.  He wants them because they will look cool in a space battle.  The actual armament of the ship, twin rail guns, seems much more feasible and believable weaponry for a spacefaring ship, if less flashy, demonstrates Erikson’s desire to walk the line between SF spectacle and a believable future setting.

There are times, however, when Erikson’s point is less subtly made as he cannot resist in creating absurd pseudo-scientific terms for many of the gadgets and technologies of the ship and crew.  A personal favourite being the ‘Insisteon’, the Willful Child’s version of the transport beam, which instigates an argument with the universe and insists that you aren’t on the pad, but in fact somewhere else, thus transporting you to that location when the universe finally gives in.  While one could pretend that this is an articulation of quantum entanglement theory or a comment on the nature of the universe as created through observation and collapsing probability waves, Erikson just seemed to like the concept.  This balance of realism and the absurd adds a great deal of enjoyment to the spoof as it produces a fairly believable, if ridiculous, future world.

Returning to Capt. Hadrian.  Part of the attraction of Hadrian is that he is an exaggerated form of the early Kirk, but is trying to implement Kirk’s character in a real world.  In effect, Hadrian keeps trying to put into practice traits drawn from a fictional commander.  Traits that were only successful because they were supported and dependant on the narrative logic of a television show.  As a result, Hadrian is an interesting character study that throws Kirk’s behaviour into stark relief, by calling attention to those facets of Kirk from the show that our memories have softened with time and nostalgia.  Kirk’s ‘devil may care’ attitude, his casual relationship with the chain of command and Starfleet hierarchy, and his absolute confidence in the fact he was doing the right thing, bar those pesky moments of introspection, are horrendous traits to have in a military commander in real life, yet they always work out on the show.  Kirk was a hero, but a fictional one, and Hadrian runs into problems trying to live Kirk’s life in the ‘real world’.  Hadrian’s insistence on his crew doing things his way, without explanation, ferments rebellion and confusion amongst his officers.  Luckily he chose well in his second in command and trusts in Sin Dour’s ability to manage them and run the ship while he is off on away missions having adventures.  His belief that aliens should be fought in honourable combat leads to severe injury on more than one occasion.  Even his desire to wear a uniform based on Kirk’s, using authentic 1960s fabrics, in lieu of more appropriate body armour has similar consequences.  Yet it is clear that his unconventional thinking and willingness to be different makes him a great captain, just like Kirk, as his universe is not used to such free-wheeling, illogical plans of action.

But Erikson seems to be a believer in not making life easy for his readers, as well as being an adherent of the idiom that science fiction is about the contemporary world.  Readers generally ask for characters with complexity and depth, and usually complain about characters that are paragons or flawless heroes, but in this instance Erikson chose one of the most problematic flaws for Hadrian’s character in that Hadrian is sexually aggressive.  While Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan exhibits much the same behaviour, in his case it is forgiven because he is a weak, pathetic excuse for a human being and the viewer holds him in as much contempt as the other characters do.  As a result his character defects are explainable and dismissed as a bumbling joke.  We are equally willing to accept that villains can exhibit any number of disgusting, depraved or abhorrent traits because they are villains and we are meant to dislike them.  When it comes to heroes, however, it seems that we are willing to accept violence, homicidal or sociopathic tendencies, and a casual disregard for property rights or sentient life, as the character flaws as long as they are paired with a ready wit and the ability to quip when killing enemies.  And this brings us to Erikson’s commentary on sexism, misogyny and ‘heroes’.

The sf, fantasy, gaming, and comic industries and fandoms have been rocked time and time again in recent years by sexual assault and harassment scandals.  Many of these were especially shocking because these were not villains or ‘evil’ people committing the deeds, but artists, writers, editors and creators.  Respected people.  Heroes.  Erikson throws this fact in our face from the very beginning.  We can forgive this behaviour in Kirk because it was the Sixties and there is distance between us and the culture from that time period, a similar justification is often trotted out in discussions of the television show Mad Men.  We can forgive it in James Bond because he is a lying, manipulative, abusive user as per his job description as an undercover agent, and again, as a character from a different time, this was how it used to be.  With Hadrian, Erikson makes us confront a very uncomfortable truth, that this is how things continue to be.  Reading a hero who has this character flaw is difficult and more than a little uncomfortable at times.  Beneath the jokes, the laughs and the buffoonery, Hadrian represents a very dark part of our society and culture.  Hadrian could have been a cold blooded killer, a devious or roguish thief, or a dark and brooding commander, and few would have complained, but his frat-boy like desire to get laid makes for a disturbing reality and goes very much to the problems in our fandoms and creative circles.

There are two instances in the novel that spring to mind as examples of very uneasy reading.  The first, when a young female officer is panicking and Hadrian kisses her unexpectedly.  This has the result of shocking her out of her panic.  It is easy to imagine a similar situation in Star Trek, although it is much more likely that Kirk would have either shaken the young officer very roughly, or simply struck her, something that Kirk did not shy away from.  Because of the comparison drawn between Kirk and Hadrian we are forced to confront the disturbing evaluation of their behaviour.  While neither action is praiseworthy, are they equally bad?  Are we more comfortable with physical violence against women than with a kiss?  Erikson doesn’t offer answers to this, but merely poses the situation and the question.

In the second instance, the adjutant is drinking heavily in the ship’s bar and Hadrian wants to go and meet her with the intention of seducing her.  He asks Tammy how drunk she is, trying to gauge whether she is drunk enough to want to sleep with him, not so drunk that she would be incapable of consenting, and not so sober that she would refuse him outright.  This exchange makes for very uncomfortable reading, not only because of connotations of date rape and predatory dating practices, but because it reflects every day, commonplace behaviour that we deem socially acceptable.  Namely buying alcoholic drinks in a bar for someone we deem attractive.  Hadrian does not want to sleep with Lorrin if she cannot or will not consent, he is not a rapist and has no wish or desire to assault her.  He wants her to willingly sleep with him.  But he also reasons that she is more likely to accept his proposition if she is a bit drunk and less inhibited.  This is a practice that we recognise all too easily, and shades of grey can separate socially acceptable behaviour and predatory practice.  Erikson consciously chose to include both these instances and while he ensures that Hadrian never has the chance to be genuinely predatory, it creates a very disturbing picture that we are all too familiar with from conventions and conferences.  This is a reality we live in.

Despite his lascivious outlook, Hadrian is far from a sexist or misogynist character.  Hadrian is more than willing to have senior female crew members in positions of authority.  His command crew features several female officers, none of whom are glorified space receptionists, a job in this case reserved for two different male officers.  In particular, the space marine contingent is led by the extraordinarily capable Lieutenant Sweepy, who proves more than a match for Hadrian’s advances leading to some great by-play between the two as equals.  Hadrian’s trust in Sin Dour to be the capable officer who can run his ship and protect his crew would also seem to be at odds with characterising him as misogynist or sexist.  Hadrian’s behaviour genuinely goes to valuing the strengths and abilities of the female members of the crew, he never disregards their input due to their sex, or overlooks their advice due to a biological determinant.  He may dismiss their advice because he thinks he is right and already has all the answers, but that is more to do with his Kirk worship.  He just happens to be an obnoxious, socially inept Neanderthal who seems forever in search of a woman willing to sleep with him.

Hadrian emerges as a much more complex character with flaws than a cursory glance would suggest, and Erikson has chosen a difficult path for Hadrian and for himself.  Perhaps this could be even termed a mis-step on Erikson’s part, including subtle and sharp cultural satire in an exuberant, absurdist parody leads to a lot of the subtlety of the commentary being lost in the loud fanfare of the overt humour, and a too-subtle satire can often be confused for a representation of the subject.  A prime example of this is when early in the novel Hadrian reflects on the wisdom of picking his bridge crew based on their photos.  On the one hand it is a slyly delivered criticism of casting practices in SF television but it is also too easily read as affirmation of the misogynist practice of hiring on looks alone.

What is clear is that this aspect of Hadrian’s character will be problematic or worse for a number of readers.  What is also clear is that this is only one aspect of the novel, and a minor if pervasive one.  The vast majority of the novel focuses on humor, on space battles, on adventures and on fun.  The critical satire and the social commentary generally plays second fiddle to the raucous farce that is Willful Child.

If you want to read a fun, silly, entertaining parody of Star Trek, this is the book for you. If you want an exciting space adventure with doses of humour, read this. If you want a politically aware, socially conscious investigation of current society dressed up in SF clothing, Willful Child has that too, but you have to be on the lookout for it.  Willful Child is a wildly inappropriate, roaring and unapologetic indulgence in SF Geekdom.  It is sharp, pointed, funny and very self-aware.  Hopefully a sequel won’t be too far behind.

(Variant of this review was published in NYRSF)

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