Steven Erikson’s WILLFUL CHILD: a response, not a review

Steven Erikson, Willful Child. Tor, 2014. ARC received courtesy of the publisher.

So, Willful Child. It’s a Star Trek parody/homage, which means that it will obviously receive comparisons to the other original series Star Trek homage of recent memory, John Scalzi’s Redshirts. Willful Child is much the stronger novel, however, for while Redshirts was interested primarily in playing with the original text, Willful Child is concerned with interrogating the unacknowledged hypocrisy of its source material.

It is also gleefully, blackly comic, and extremely dubious about human potential for good in the universe.

It works on many levels extremely well, with an episodic narrative that lurches creatively from Captain Hadrian Sawback’s self-created crisis to the next. Sawback combines in one body our hero and our villain: where it comes to the ultimate fate of the human species, it’s revealed, he has something of a saviour complex; but where it comes to his actions he’s LET’S FUCKING BLOW SHIT UP.

Where it fails, however, is in parodying the sexual adventures of Star Trek TOS’s Captain Kirk. Sawback is a monumental sleazebag when it comes to the women under his command, and no one else in the text seems to think this is acceptable behaviour – but there’s a fine line to walk between portraying a thing and apparently endorsing it, and where Willful Child falls down is when Sawback’s own sexual assaults/rapes (once by a female alien, once by a female marine) are played (it seemed to me) primarily for laughs. That undermines the undercutting of the sleaze elsewhere by the reactions of the characters.

Where it also fails is… look, at one point Sawback changes external physical sexual characteristics because PLOT, right? At that point the narrative proceeds to refer to him with female pronouns and do some of the usual stupid sexist shit that SF television body-swapping episodes do, which is not undercut or parodied. Now, this is an ARC, and maybe some of the pronouns will be changed in the final version, but I doubt it – and both of these things combine to make me hideously uncomfortable, because gender is not so much to do with genitalia.

So. There’s that. Some of its choices are like being punched in the face with a brown paper bag filled with shit. On the other hand, most of the bits that do work are hilariously funny, even when some of the humour is cringe-inducing.

A bit of a mixed bag in the final estimation, that’s what I think.