The A.S.F. Willful Child is the pride and joy of the Terran space fleet. It’s a pity, then, for Earth, and the rest of the universe, that Hadrian Sawback has been named as its Captain. For all of his brilliance in passing tests and getting through the academy — and obtaining a captaincy at the age of 27 — Hadrian Sawback is a rather rough sort, the perfect product of his species and his culture. Too bad the rest of the universe — and, for that matter, the rest of his own government — is not prepared for the consequences of giving Captain Sawback a spaceship of his own. Not prepared by half.
The Willful Child by Steven Erikson, best known for the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, is his first space opera novel, with an explicitly comedic bent and purpose. Talking about Willful Child, then, requires an interrogation of the idea of comedy — in fiction and, particularly, in genre fiction. Comedy is a many-headed hydra of a literary form, with a plethora of styles, modes and varieties. The physical slapstick of a Jackie Chan film, the comedy of manners of Much Ado About Nothing, the absurdity of the “Romans Go Home” skit of Life of Brian. All of these are forms of comedy, but are extremely different formsof comedy. To determine if Willful Child is successful as a comedy, then, requires determining what sort of a comedy it is and if it is a successful exemplar of that sub-type of comedy.
Willful Child opens with a prologue about first contact between humans, who have regressed to a broken post-Industrial age, and aliens. Given the genre savvy of the characters, we get a explicit reference to what the reader should be thinking of — the First Contact between humans and Vulcans in Star Trek: First Contact. Instead of an opening of the age of space then and there, however, we get a stolen spaceship and another technological regress for Earth while the characters in the prologue go off to explore the galaxy before Earth recovers and comes after them.
The novel then leaps a century forward and provides us our contemporary protagonists and situation, starting with the aforementioned Captain Sawbuck. Characters are broadly drawn, with one or two key character traits that get cranked up to absurdity. Characters, alien races and civilizations come with ungainly, sometimes punny names, or names that the author thinks are funny. The Mishmashi Paradox, for instance, is this universe’s answer to the Kobayashi Maru. Plot points and events are all over the map. A rogue computer takes control of the ship, sending it toward the galactic rim. Neutral Zones are violated, causing interplanetary incidents. A monster winds up getting loose and has to be hunted throughout the bowels of the ship. Time cops from the future of the Terra show up to make sure events remain on course. There is plenty of general coarse humor throughout the novel when it is not deliberately engaging in aping.
Willful Child, then, is a close satire, going into outright farce, of Star Trek, and mostly Star Trek: The Original Series. This is not anything new. John Scalzi’s Redshirts is the most notable example of novels mining Star Trek for humor. The metafictional criticisms, however, are somewhat different. Willful Child is genre savvy in the sense of being aware of and using pop culture references. Redshirts, for the most part, highlights absurd situations and facets of his universe and leaves the reader to make the connection. Redshirts is not precisely subtle, but it is positively restrained by comparison to Willful Child.
The problem with Willful Child, though, is that while it is a satire and farce of Star Trek — it hits many of the aspects of the show and attempts to make broad jokes about them — it does so in a clumsy manner without any regard for other literary virtues. Even the broadest comedy and satire has to stand up as a story and a universe of its own to at least a basic level, and Willful Child does not meet that basic level. While the humor in Redshirts, for example, is extremely broad, and there is a metafictional, fourth wall poking at the nature of its universe, there is at least a basic consistency and believability to the Redshirts universe. The universe of Willful Child, by comparison, doesn’t even have the basic worldbuilding integrity that Redshirts has. I could never, ever, believe in the universe of Willful Child. In fact, and perhaps it’s a reader fail on my part, the novel seemed written to discourage readers from doing just that. But without a frame or backdrop for the humor, the humor is ineffectual.
Worse still: for me, a lot of the humor in Willful Child was more than borderline offensive and seemed designed for me to hate the main character. For example, when Captain Sawbuck decides to scan Neptune on his way out of the system, he is told this is a bad idea.
“‘The Purelgannia have seeded Neptune, sir, as a gift to the Terran system. There are now amorphous semigaseous life-forms in the upper atmosphere. Primitive and benign, to be sure, but a deep scan would ignite those beings that are in range’
‘Ignite, you say? Like, Chinese Lanterns?’
‘No, sir. Ignite, as in explosively’
‘Well go ahead with the scan anyway. Why not have some fireworks to send us off?’”
I nearly quit reading the novel, then and there.
And then there is the sexual humor. While Captain Kirk’s skirt chasing ways on ST: TOS are certainly infamous, I did not find Captain Sawbuck, whose sex drive is turned to 11 and clearly modeled on Kirk, to be funny at all.
“‘Admiral Prim is calling you.’
Hadrian rose. ‘About Time. I’ll take it in my office’. He turned to his first officer and studied Sin-Dour for a moment, during which he mentally tore off all of her clothing and flung her down onto the deck. He smiled. ‘You have command’
‘Yes, sir,’ Sin-Dour replied, eyeing him searchingly.”
The less said about Tighe, the female affiliation adjutant whose alcoholism is a plot point, the better.
The latter portion of the novel has a subplot where Captain Sawback and company have to be transformed into women in order to infiltrate a planet without men. One might might think this is done in recompense, to give Hadrian his comeuppance for his treatment of women and as karmic payback. Unfortunately, the jokes about bad hair day and menstrual cramps put paid to that idea. Frankly, it’s more misogynistic humor at work.
Dying is easy. Comedy IS hard, and Willful Child simply fails, as comedy and as a work of fiction. It fails, period. I cannot and do not recommend Willful Child to any readers.