Steven Erikson is the author of the hugely popular series ‘The Malazan Book of the Fallen’. Willful Child could not be more different from his sweeping fantasy saga, however, which is why I chose to read it. I wanted to see what he’d do with some science fiction, particularly as the blurb promises he’ll be turning it inside out and examining the guts – in a loving and humourous manner.
Captain Hadrian Sawback is an idiot, yet somehow he has command of the ASF starship Willful Child. His crew seem as baffled as perhaps the reader is. Sawback selected the female members of his crew based on their looks and other obvious assets. He seems surprised when they prove to be good at their jobs, which is just as well as the Willful Child is going to take them to some very dark and hairy places.
Their mission is to explore space and chapter one begins with Sawback recording a journal entry:
“SPACE… it’s fucking big.”
He continues to riff Star Trek:
“These are the voyages of the starship 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…”
You’ll note the wry twist, which is basically the premise and plot of this book.
Erikson quickly amps up the volume. Captain Sawback manages to insult every member of his bridge crew before they leave the solar system and then wittingly commits genocide by ordering a scan of Neptune – which ignites a cloud of life-forms seeded in the upper atmosphere. Whoops! Narrowly avoiding prosecution, they hop into T space, leaving their contingent of marines behind. Not to worry, marines know how to improvise.
Sawback encourages his crew to light up a moon because a system is too dark, then watches as his crew passes out from an unscheduled test of the inertial dampeners – against unscheduled g-forces. He briefly loses control of his ship to a doppelganger hologram and then loses control of his ship permanently to a rogue AI. Several ground missions and uniform changes later, he’s declared war against two or five separate species, broken his hand a dozen times and propositioned every female aboard his ship. Oh, and the marines caught up with them just in time to save the day.
Then we get to the killer chicken.
Erikson obviously had a lot of fun writing this book, but I couldn’t tell if he was paying homage to a show – or a genre – he loved, or if he was poking fun at it. Was he laughing with me, or at me? Both, likely, but he might have been more amused than I was. I did appreciate the humour, but his jokes felt tired. He’s not the first to make them and his delivery didn’t offer a particularly new twist.
I disliked Sawback. I kept reading in the hope that he’d get his comeuppance, that Erikson would turn around and slap the silly bastard down, good and proper. Drag some sort of corny moral out of somewhere and make it all worthwhile. There is a moral to the story and it’s a pretty good one, but Sawback never endeared himself to me. Ever. I didn’t find him funny – though I did chuckle when he re-inflated his alien doctor by blowing air through its ass hole. What can I say, sometimes I’m twelve.
I did admire the fact that Erikson managed to include a plot and bring it full circle. It tries to be deep and meaningful. Sawback rides over the top of it and in that, I appreciated the author’s humour. Introducing anything too serious at the end of the book would have been like taking the wheels off the bus.
While I’m not particularly interested in Captain Hadrian Sawback’s continuing mission, I would recommend this book for fans of Steven Erikson. If you like the Malazan sequence, then you’re likely to get a giggle out of Willful Child. The alternate cover, pictured right, is worth a laugh and also serves as fair warning. Sawback is about as petulant and petty as all that. He was probably a willful child.
Written for SFCrowsnest