Review: Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015)

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Review: Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015)

Short Version:
A brilliant, mature, dark show that investigates the personal cost of abuse, violence, and notions of justice, and clearly demonstrates the range the superhero genre can encompass, all wrapped up in compelling drama populated by fascinating characters. Well worth watching.

Actual Review:
A TV show about the survivor of an abusive relationship who is a hard-drinking, bitter, and emotionally scarred private eye trying to take down her abuser, seems at odds with much of the public perception of superhero television, and in a number of ways Netflix’s Jessica Jones is as far from a traditional superhero series as you can get, and is all the better for it.

Jessica Jones, a Netflix Original series, is the 13 episode, live action superhero show based on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos Marvel comic series, Alias.  Like its sister show Daredevil, and two planned future shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Jones is set in the same New York as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and occurs after the events of Avengers (2012).  But Jones eschews the grand, epic battle of heroes against countless nameless and disposable minions, and focuses intently, and uncomfortably, on the personal human cost of living, and surviving, in a world of superheroes and villains.  Make no mistake, this is not a children’s show, nor is it a rip-roaring excitement filled adventurous romp with no emotional consequence, this is a powerful show that examines the darkest parts of the superhero genre and the human condition.

 

Jessica Jones and Kilgrave

Krysten Ritter plays Jessica Jones, a hard-bitten, cynical, PTSD-stricken, alcoholic, running a shady one-woman PI firm in a dilapidated office situated in a grubby, and well realised, section of New York city.  Eking out an existence serving subpoenas, photographing cheating spouses in the act, and the occasional missing person’s case, in order to keep a roof over her head and her liquor supply constant, Ritter’s Jones is a far cry from the costumed heroes we are perhaps far more familiar with, yet the strength of her performance is that Jones feels more real, more substantial and more believable than even the grittiest superhero portrayed thus far, even if she has super-strength.  While Jones drops barbed comments and snarky come-backs like a jaded stand-up, Ritter imbues her performance with a vulnerability and fragility that highlights the character’s struggle to hang on and survive as a victim of extreme abuse.  Her very humanity and brokenness give the story its touchstone and allows for the tension, horror, and sense of threat to feel palpable rather than nebulous or cartoony.

Ritter manages to convey the complexity of Jones’ character with consummate ease and makes her portrayal seem both effortless and natural.  On the surface Jones appears crude, cold, callous and pragmatic, distancing herself from the world and those around her.  She is tough as nails and a no nonsense survivor ready to face down any physical threat and isn’t shy of a verbal put down or a judgemental swipe.  But underneath that calculated swaggering exterior Jones is a bundle of contradictory emotions and feelings, including guilt, self-loathing, fear, and extreme pain.  Despite this Ritter manages to convey that in her heart Jones is driven by a need to help and save people, that she is loyal to and protective of those she loves, and that she is a true hero doing the best she can to survive.  It is an impressive feat, and one that allows the audience to feel for Jones, to forgive her mistakes, and to become deeply invested in Jones’ development arc.

The main story is launched by a missing person’s case as Jones is hired to find Hope Shlottman by the worried young woman’s parents, but soon focuses on the re-emergence of a shadowy and abusive figure from Jones’ past, the despicable Kilgrave.  Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a master manipulator with the insidious ability to absolutely control people’s minds and actions, and possibly the most sinister and frightening of any Marvel villain thus far portrayed on screen.  While previous villains have had the ability to blow things up, wreak havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the invasive and disturbing power wielded by Kilgrave is far more intimate, and far more devastating on a personal level.  While other villains destroy buildings and bodies, Kilgrave destroys the mind, the soul and the heart of his victims, leaving them scarred, broken and screaming in his wake.  He calls into question their sanity, inspires paranoia, and rips apart their ability to trust anyone ever again.  He uses people as disposable puppets, and exhibits no compassion, remorse, or even an iota of guilt about his rape of their minds, and their bodies, and his destruction of their lives, even if he lets them live.

As the series delves into Kilgrave’s past with Jones the audience gains new and horrifying insight into what he is, what he did and what he continues to do to Jones.  A result of this is building admiration for Jones’ strength of will and huge amounts of sympathy and empathy for her struggle.  If we were perhaps hesitant at first to forgive her more egregious behaviour, seeing the monster of her past puts it in perspective.  As the extent and horror of Kilgrave’s plans and manipulations become more and more apparent, Jones’ paranoia, fear and trust issues become profoundly understandable and we gain insight into how destructive Kilgrave can be.  The more people he manipulates, the more twisted and sadistic his games, the greater the fear and paranoia of Jones’ character is translated through the screen and we soon start questioning the actions of every character, feeling tension every time someone knocks at the door or approaches Jones.

An amazing strength of the show, the writing, and Tennant’s acting, is that despite Kilgrave’s clear villainy, despite his sheer disgusting, depraved and evil nature, he is made understandable, watchable, and even entertaining at times.  Similar to how Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) was portrayed in Netflix’s Daredevil, the audience is invited to understand Kilgrave, to see his motivations and to get into his head, without ever once excusing his abuse or absolving him of his guilt.   Kilgrave has motivations and reasons that run deeper than the standard villainy for villainy’s sake, and it is refreshing to see comicbook adaptations produce genuinely disturbing villains whose evil is traceable, believable, and recognisably possible.  It is a fine line to walk, and Jones accomplishes it effortlessly.

Supporting Characters

Grounding the entire story are the relationships with and around Jones with a host of beautifully flawed characters.  Rachel Taylor plays Jones’ foster/adopted sister Trish Walker, a former child star (with all the drama that entails) and now popular talk-show host, who also happens to be estranged from her manipulative, unscrupulous mother and former manager and agent, Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay).  The dynamic between Jones and Walker is brilliantly realised, and the chemistry between Taylor and Ritter is fantastic to watch on screen as we slowly get deeper and deeper into their relationship and backstory, with all the complications and messiness of sibling love, exacerbated by the introduction of superpowers, child fame and an emotionally abusive parent.

Yet another of the complicated and flawed supporting characters is Jones’ main employer Carrie-Anne Moss’ calculating, cruel, yet polished and brilliant lawyer, Jeri Hogarth.  Easily viewed as villain, (she is a defence attorney after all) Hogarth is morally compromised due to being embroiled in an office affair with her secretary Pam (Susie Abromeit), while lying to her wife Wendy (Robin Weigert), she is willing to take risks at other people’s expense, is ambitious and wants to win at any cost, and yet, she is not all bad.  She takes on a pro-bono case at Jessica’s urging, and despite Jessica’s less than professional attitude, continues to hire her because she gets results.  Like so many of the characters on the show Hogarth has her demons and flaws but we are continually invited to understand her, even appreciate her.  The show is at pains to paint the characters as real people, warts and all.

Jessica’s life is made a little more complicated by bar man and fellow super-powered character, Luke Cage (Mike Colter).  While Cage acts as a love interest for Jones (or at the very least a lust interest), his character and relationship with Jones are deeper, more interesting, and certainly more involved than that.  A minor quibble, and something that rang as a little too neat and trite, is the convenient overlapping of Jones’ and Cage’s backstories and key events.  Despite this, Colter and Ritter have good chemistry on screen, and their halting exploration of a potential relationship, secrets and all, rings true, and seems far more believable and honest than most of the superhero fare out there.

The last two major supporting characters are Jones’ drug addicted neighbour, Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville), and tough cop Will Simpson (Wil Traval).  Providing something of a mirror of each other characters over the course of the show, Malcolm and Will explore the redemptive and destructive aspects of character development over the series, and how people deal with trauma, abuse and the aftermath.  How they each react to their experiences with Kilgrave is telling and provides a brilliant support structure to the main narrative.  (Personally I found both of their arcs a little too rushed with each character changing fairly dramatically over a short space of time, but this may be a side effect of binge watching the show and therefore not having the gap between episodes that would ease the transition.)

The greatest strengths of this show are the attention paid to character and the care with which realised, flawed and broken characters are portrayed on the screen.  No one person is without blemish, and those defects are genuine, deep, heartfelt scars, rather than glib or artificial flaws superficially grafted in an attempt to create slightly rounded characters.  Each of the characters on screen feels like a real person, and when the world portrayed contains super-powers this adds a huge element of believability and authenticity to the endeavour.  There is an honesty and integrity in how they are portrayed that grounds this reality and makes the tension palpable and resonate.  It is through the characters that the horror of the situation, the stakes, and the repercussions of the story find purchase.  Their misplaced guilt, their fear, the conflicting impulses of revulsion and desire, the self-loathing and blame, all these things become powerful hooks imbedded in each character that grab hold of the fictive reality and turn their characters into people.  People you care about.  People you are invested in.

As I said above, the setting is New York city, but rather than the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple Jessica Jones keeps its attention on the back streets, the alleys and the grittier side, much like Daredevil.  Given the detective noir beginnings it is also unsurprising that many of the scenes occur at night, or in seedy, slightly dilapidated surroundings.  The view is of the personal New York, the real New York, the lived in New York, and the people and individuals that create the story.  While there are moments when the bigger landscape swims into view, and some glimpses of famous locations, most of the time the show stays grounded in the characters and the importance of the people.  This is a story all about the individual and most of the locales are in keeping with this.

 

Conclusion

Jessica Jones is a superhero story, but it is one that uses the medium to do something more than recount a tired tale of derring-do or over the top action.  It uses superpowers and this modern mythic form to provide a lens to examine, explore, and understand the ramifications of abuse, to place the focus on how victims survive and the desperate plight that is created after the instigating event, and to illustrate the strength and heroism of survivors of trauma.  It does all this by providing a story set in an exaggerated world where allegory and symbolism take some of the shocking, debilitating horror away from a real world issue so that we can bear to look at it instead of turning our heads away with a sense of overwhelming helplessness.

Jones is great television, compulsive viewing, powerful and meaningful storytelling, and wonderfully demonstrates what a grounded superhero story can do.  Shows like HBO’s The Wire and The Sopranos took unflinching looks at real life issues to produce compelling dramas, and Netfilx’s Jessica Jones joins their ranks, shoulder to shoulder.  This is a show to watch and bodes extremely well for the future of Netflix and for superhero television.

 

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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)