Willful Child, by Steven Erickson
Posted November 23, 2016on:
published in 2014
where I got it: purchased new
Are you a fan of the movie Galaxy Quest? Do you enjoy quoting Zapp Brannigan and quoting things he might say? Are you a Star Trek fan who makes fun of the show in good fun and out of love? If you answered Yes to any of those questions, Steven Erickson’s Willful Child is for you.
Like many original Star Trek episode scripts, Willfull Child is not as a whole what I would describe as a good book. The pacing is off, the characters are pretty flat, the dialog is stilted. And all of that is part of the joke. Erikson is playing around with Star Trek tropes, science fiction tropes, humor tropes, and human exploration tropes and having buckets of fun with along the way. Captain Hardrian Sawback is the bastard child of Zapp Brannigan and Eric Cartman, the Terran Space Fleet’s mission is to subjugate or maybe obliterate as many life forms as possible, and the further you get into this book, the more you’ll be laughing. The country music programming joke is still my favorite.
And Yes, this is the same Steven Erickson who is famous for his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. After writing that many heavy fantasy novels, I’d say he more than deserves a humorous palette cleanser of a novel.
The gist of the plot is that a rogue AI name Tammy has taken over Hadrian’s ship, the Willful Child. Tammy demands the ship travel to the furthest edges of known space on a mission to find Tammy’s creators. Along the way, they’ll find redundant and needless sewers on the ship that have been infested with pests, away missions that for no good reason require all the senior staff to land on planets that seem to all look like northern California, Hadrian’s closet that’s full of itchy polyester shirts all with different types of gold trim (shirts that sure seem to get torn up a lot), monologues about going where no one has gone before, redshirts, the ensign closet, and even an episode at a stone arch controlled by the Master of Spacial Temporal Dynamic who can throw people through time, provided the gate is actually plugged into a power source.
Humor that works in fiction is hard. You know why humor works on TV but doesn’t always work in books? Timing. In a sit-com or movie, it’s the timing that makes a joke work. The comedian pausing in between sentences as if thinking about what to say next, giving a beat for you to get it, or someone responding with body language. That shit is hard to pull off in a novel, because the author can’t control how fast the reader is reading, or if the reader pauses at all for that pregnant pause to do it’s job. Well, Erickson pulls it off with gusto. And did I mention chunks of this book are purposely bad? And paced poorly? That is part and parcel of how and why the humor works. Because Tammy or Hadrian, or someone else, will use sleight of hand to rap on the fourth wall while mentioning to their compatriots how the stuff on this new unexplored planet sure looks familiar, or why does the ship have redundant sewers (chompers?), or any one of a million other little taps and nods to Star Trek and everything Trek has touched over the years.
And ladies? Finally , finally PMS makes an appearance in a scifi novel! And some entertainingly fun commentary on the joys of running across a starship or doing an away mission in high heels and a tight skirt.
With all the crap that’s going on in real life right now, everyone needs some humor that is in good fun. Willful Child “makes fun” of Star Trek the same way Galaxy Quest does – by not making fun at all. Willful Child is a love letter to the cheesiness of ST: TOS (and the cheesiness that makes it to TNG and DS9!). And underneath all those cheesy episodes and junky special effects and cardboard sets was the hopefulness that humanity is capable of making it to the stars, we are capable of so much more that we ever thought possible.