The OF Blog: Steven Erikson, Willful Child

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Steven Erikson, Willful Child

"SPACE... it's fucking big.

"These are the voyages of the starship Willful Child.  It's 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 –" 


Hadrian spun in his chair.  "Ah, my first commander, I presume."

The woman standing before him saluted.  "Halley Sin-Dour, sir, reporting for duty."

"Welcome aboard!" (p. 21)

Parodical satires are very tricky to execute, as they depend upon an audience being not just aware of the source material being lampooned, but that the readers will be amenable to seeing something that they perhaps love being presented in a fashion that highlights (and exaggerates for comic effect) that source material's worst faults and excesses.  If not executed well, the parody can come across as stale and rather unfunny, while the satirical elements will be tone-deaf and devoid of any real interest for erstwhile readers.  It is a fine line for a writer to walk and several have failed at this.

Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to review Steven Erikson's take on the original Star Trek TV/movie series, Willful Child.  Although I am these days not much of a SF reader or viewer, when I was a teenager, I did enjoy watching re-runs of the original series (and saw some of Star Trek:  The Next Generation in first-run syndication, but that show always felt a bit "cold" for me and I stopped watching before I finished high school in 1992).  Reflecting back on those re-runs of a show made nearly a quarter-century before I watched them in the mid-to-late 1980s, there were quite a few cringeworthy elements that I failed to recognize when I was younger:  the casual sexism (namely Kirk as having a different love interest nearly every other episode and how many female officers were treated more as objects of Kirk's flirtations than as competent officers), the rather cavalier approach toward other ethnicities/humanoid species, the occasional descent into Cold War parallels and despite creator Gene Roddenberry's claims of promoting a more egalitarian society, storylines that felt a bit too jingoistic at times.  Although these elements in isolation do not weaken fatally the original series' appeal, their existence certainly indicates troublesome areas that could be exploited in a well-constructed satire.

Erikson certainly has the ability to accentuate these shortcomings through comedic exaggerations and subtle shifts in character voice and action.  Although not as prevalent in his main Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series, in his shorter fiction set in that world, Erikson demonstrated a talent for devising witty repartee that skewered certain socio-cultural beliefs without coming across as too crass or unsubtle in its presentation.  However, in Willful Child, while there are numerous moments where I almost chortled reading a fierce parody of current socio-cultural concerns (such as a reference to social media and its effects on mood and perceptions of intelligence and ability to associate well with others), occasionally it felt too thickly laid upon, as though the gags were so funny in the author's mind that he repeats them too much for the liking of some readers such as myself.

Although there is the foundation for a strong narrative story arc in Willful Child, it is sometimes hampered by Erikson's repetitive and almost redundant references to the original Star Trek universe.  While some of this is going to be necessary in order to make clearer the ridiculousness of a character such as James T. Kirk (or Hadrian Alan Sawback here) and the attitudes expressed by such a personage, the gags at times impede the reader enjoying the underlying dialogue between the original source material and the social commentary being made through this satirical parody.  Sometimes less is more and there were times where it felt that if Erikson had dialed back the comedic elements just a bit more, let the story unfold just a bit more on its own before hitting the reader with the inherent contradictions and questionable motivations behind the characters' actions, that not only would the core storyline be more interesting, but that the satirical elements would have had even more bite to them, as the reader would have been sucked into the story just a bit more before being waylaid by the sudden vicious gutpunches of these satirical elements.

This is not to say that Willful Child is a poor, unimaginative work.  As I noted above, there were several moments that made me chuckle a bit because I got the in-joke and thought the "bite" behind those jokes was sharp and occasionally unsettling to consider at length.  However, there were also numerous times where it just felt to be a bit too much, that the jokes lost their effectiveness because they were so commonplace.  Willful Child is a flawed novel, albeit one that contains enough laugh-aloud moments that those who have enjoyed Erikson's other works and who have at least a passing familiarity with the original Star Trek series may find this to be a book well worth reading.

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