Book Review: Willful Child

An irreverent send up of Star Trek and other classic sci-fi

For inquiring minds, this is a rewrite and repost of a review I did for the Uncommon Geek a couple years ago. Seeing as I decided to read the book again, I thought it would be nice to revisit this article, and write it properly this time.

“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…”

This is one of taglines on this book’s jacket that drew me toward reading it. That, along with “bravely going where they shouldn’t,” hinted at a tribute to Star Trek with a tongue planted firmly in cheek. This is an action/comedy tribute to Trek, a parody in the vein of Galaxy Quest, but even more ridiculous and overblown in many aspects.

To provide an exhaustively detailed synopsis would, at least to me, spoil the fun of reading this book. For Star Trek fans, especially those who know The Original Series well, there’s not a chapter in Willful Child that does not channel at least one classic episode, or that does not borrow at least one line. And I do mean borrowed in the nicest way; this is because as much as this story is an absurd twist on classic Trek, it still feels like its own entity. I didn’t come away at any point feeling like this was coming close to any sort of plagiarism.

Erikson’s writing style is fast, fluid, and cuts right to the heart of the action in a given scene. For some readers this book might even be too fast; while it clocks in at 350 pages, by no means a short novel, the story moves at such a brisk pace that it might leave some people behind, choking in A.S.F. Willful Child’s T-Drive wake. Erikson doesn’t spend much time on world-building (at least not up front, you learn what you need as you go), and supporting characters only have as much detail as is needed to drive the plot. The story is only as sure of its own rules and technology as it needs to be. If you as a reader are not comfortable diving right into the fray, you may be turned off.

Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback, the protagonist of the story and largely a raucous spoof of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, is the unrelenting driving force in the story. He’s almost exhausting in his exuberance, but for those who can stand his dirty mind, his shenanigans, and his ceaseless desire to throw himself headlong into mortal danger, he is a fun character to follow. What really amazes me about what Erikson did with his star, was take him from a guy that, by our standards, is totally nuts, and make him seem like the smartest hero in the universe by novel’s end. The universe in Willful Child is a bizarre one, that sees humanity devolving socially toward a state of idiocracy. In Erikson’s story, for every step forward we take technologically, we regress that much more in all other aspects. The story’s rampant humor is punctuated with occasional bouts of examining the human condition, and in these moments the author (or at least his characters) might come across to some as having cynical, even nihilistic views of the universe.

If Star Trek is an optimist’s romp through the galaxy, then Willful Child might be seen as its dark mirror, an irreverent, yet jaded, cynical foray into the final frontier. Is that a bad thing? Is it a slap in the face to Star Trek? I don’t think so. I came away from the book feeling much like I do after watching Galaxy Quest; that is, as much as I enjoy making fun of Trek’s cheesy moments and its occasionally embarrassing shortcomings, I still love the show and everything that it represents. I love the old plastic sets, the polyester shirts, the protagonist’s insistence on being at the forefront of every danger his crew discovers, and it’s obvious that Steven Erikson feels the same way.

For fans of science fiction, especially sci-fi humor, I do recommend giving Willful Child a chance. You don’t have to like Star Trek to enjoy it, but it would definitely help you understand the myriad references throughout. Depending on your pace as a reader, you may find that the story moves at such a breakneck speed, yet so much happens, that it almost feels congested. There were a few moments where I felt like Erikson hopped from story thread to story thread┬áso fast he might lose more meticulous readers.

Any misgivings I have are minor. I totally dig Willful Child, and I think any fan of sci-fi, Star Trek, or irreverent adventure should at least give it a chance.

FIN

Disclaimer: Image courtesy of http://www.tor.com.

Story excerpt taken from http://www.tor.com/stories/2014/10/willful-child-excerpt-steven-erikson

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