Review of ‘Willful Child’ by Steven Erikson

From the mind that brought us the Malazan Book of the Fallen comes a complete 180 in terms of genre, style, and tone. Willful Child is what you’d call a Tour de Farce on the subject of episodic space operas. While it was certainly jarring to read an Erikson novel that I couldn’t have picked out as his for one thousand dollars, it was an excellent story nevertheless. While the absurdity did occasionally become a little much, the humourous take on the classics of the sci-fi genre was well worth the read.

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 life-forms, to boldly blow the…

And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback – a kind of James T. Kirk crossed with ‘American Dad’ – and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through ‘the infinite vastness of interstellar space’…

The bestselling author of the acclaimed Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence has taken his life-long passion for ‘Star Trek’ and transformed it into a smart, inventive and hugely entertaining spoof on the whole mankind-exploring-space-for-the-good-of-all-species-but-trashing-stuff-with-a-lot-of-hi-tech-kit-along-the-way type over-blown adventure. The result is this smart. inventive, occasionally wildly OTT and often very funny novel that deftly parodies the genre while also paying fond homage to it.

If any of you are fans of episodic science-fiction, you’ve all been here. There’s an unknown planet, a dangerous environment, and the away team is the Captain, Chief of Engineering, Head Science Officer, Head Doctor, and some dude who is almost certainly going to die because there’s no way they can have any of those major characters die just to show that the place is dangerous. Or the way that there are ironclad rules for how humanity is supposed to be interacting with aliens they encounter, and those rules seem to get thrown away even more often than they are followed. It’s the low-grade absurdity of most sci-fi shows that we all notice, but nobody really says anything about because we just want to watch the show.

With the captain, Hadrian Sawbuck, Erikson skillfully captures virtually every absurd foible any terrible starship captain has ever had. We have his tendency for his shirt to get ripped at every opportunity (a classic Captain Kirk maneuver), and his constant almost entirely inept attempts to philander with his female crew (bringing to mind Zapp Brannigan from Futurama). He responds to everything with excessive bravado, stupidity, and an extreme level of decisiveness which is clearly the hallmark of all good officers. It’s very well done, as you spend as much time shaking your head at the obvious stupidity of pretty much every plan he comes up with as you do fondly remembering how you’ve seen that done before, with a lot less irony applied to it.

Of course, the fact that his plans always somehow manage to work, despite their obvious flaws, is just another little shot at the genre. Anybody who has watched any version of Star Trek gets the feeling that none of these ships should be making it past their first few missions, what with the command crew is always jumping into danger, and feeling like it has a universal mandate to stick its nose into virtually everything. They’re rather self-aware about it which is nice, and the lampshading is clear without being painfully obvious. It is really easy when you go for satire to overshoot and end up stupid instead of clever. This is where Erikson’s chops as a writer can shine through the rather abrupt change in tone from Malazan. He walks the line between satirical reference and too-obvious joke with a great deal of poise. Just when you think something is going to go a little too over-the-top, he reins it in and keeps it on path.

I’m torn on the subject of whether I hope this is just the first book in Sawbuck’s continuing adventures, or whether this was just a bit of a mental unwinding from the extreme seriousness of the rest of his body of work. On the one hand, the story was pretty damn funny, and watching Sawbuck maraud around the galaxy at large messing everything up would certainly entertain. But conversely, you can really only carry satire so far before no amount of effort stops it from being too much. For every Airplane, there is a Dumb and Dumberer. It’s just enough ridiculous that I don’t know if even a trilogy would just get tiresome.

This is a very, very far cry from the kind of story that The Malazan Book of the Fallen tells, so much so that at one point early on I had to go double check that yes, this was the same Steven Erikson and not an imposter. It’s very encouraging to know, now that the last Malazan novel is out, that he hasn’t been pigeonholed into either trying for another massive epic or just ceasing writing entirely. It was a jolt, but it was still a perfectly enjoyable book, and the quality is there. If you like a humourous take on a genre that is often silly without realising it, this is a great book. If you deeply loved Malazan and want more of the same though, boy howdy are you in for a shock.

Dan Received An Advanced Copy of This Book From Tor Via Netgalley

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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