Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review: Willful Child by Steven Erikson

As I begin this review, it’s clear that I need to establish some context – specifically about humor, and more specifically, about my sense of humor. In short, my sense of humor can be terribly inappropriate and offensive. It’s something that I’m constantly aware of, so many may not realize this, but it’s true. Yes I’m a product of the society I come from, but I’m also a product of my own love ‘Meta’. Which basically means that my humor often follows this process: 1) wow, that’s offensive and/or wrong, 2) I am aware that it’s offensive, 3) I’ll amp that up an order of magnitude or three, 4) now it’s funny.

I admit the above not because I’m looking for a discussion about the (de)merits of my sense of humor, but because I need to establish what I can find funny and my love of Meta. This leads me to Willful Child by Steven Erikson (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon), which reeks of inappropriate humor and Meta exploration of society. As a result, I’m essentially predisposed to liking this book, while I can see why a good number of people will not only not like the book, but loathe the approach taken (and with good reason).

Willful Child is branded as a Star Trek parody, which is absolutely correct, while missing the point entirely. Willful Child is absolutely a blatant parody of Star Trek, with a focus on the infamous Captain Kirk. The humor (or offense depending on your point of view) develops through Erikson’s decision of how to define his parody – essentially through the sexist (even misogynistic?), anti-authority, racial/species insensitivity (OK, this is being kind), aspects of Kirk. He does this through Captain Adrian Alan Sawback of the Engage-class starship Willful Child. While the parallels to Captain Kirk are there, the vision I (and likely those younger than me) kept coming up with is that of Captain Mal from Firefly, only in the persona of Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, but I may be unduly influenced by the cover art in this instance.

Let’s just say that Erikson lays it on thick. So thick that it really does become tiresome at times and it’s hard, even for someone with my sense of humor, to not feel disgusted by the choices made. Of course, that’s the point of Erikson’s humor in this book – forgetting for a moment whether or not that is a wise choice to make – we really should look at what Erikson is doing. And Erikson is essentially condemning pretty much the entire American-dominated, patriarchal, Western culture of the past 50+ years. Have I mentioned yet that it would seem that Erikson is one bitterly cynical person with a rather low opinion of humanity?**

Erikson uses his intentionally inappropriate humor in this book to focus on the absurd, horrific consequences of Western Culture. Being a SFF writer, he uses the underlying privilege of classic science fiction and its embodiment in Star Trek, as the vehicle for his condemnation. And the result really is a brilliant piece of work. The humor is over-the-top offensive, which I find funny*, and it is seamlessly woven into a completely paradoxical narrative – one that clearly loves classic science fiction and one that believes that the messages of classic science fiction embody the absolute worst of modern civilization. All the while, he makes the reader actually cheer for Captain Sawback (as they choke back vomit), in spite of him being a complete asshole, sexist pig. That’s a damn fine-line to manage.

And I can’t forget to mention the names – no author does names better. Essays could be written about the symbolic meaning names in this book, even those that aren’t blatantly offensive (I’m looking in your general direction, Security Officer Nipplebaum*).

One could (and probably should) argue that there are other, less offensive, ways to make the points that Erikson makes in this book. Erikson certainly isn’t inventing something new in his condemnation of the privilege of classic science fiction and poison that it injects into civilization. Though I have to admire the balls* that it takes to do it in this way, because the point is a rusty nail punched into the gut by a nihilistic deadpan philosopher** (now I’m laying it on thick), and it’s a point that’s not likely to win many friends.

Wrapping it up, I think that Willful Child won’t truly be a divisive book, since I think that the overwhelming majority of those who read (or begin to read) it won’t like it – whether they bounce off it being a humorous parody, or if they just find the humor disgusting – I simply think that not many will like this book. But I could be wrong, maybe my sense of humor isn’t as rare as it feels, and others will see this book as the brilliantly offensive manifesto (laying it on thick again) that I see it as. I guess I’m just a sucker of for cynicism wrapped in inappropriate humor, and I’m probably the only one hoping for a sequel***.

But I’m aware, so it’s all good.****

*See the first paragraph of this review

**Though, perhaps the in writing this Erikson is just trying spur thought and change?

***Seriously, I would love to see sequels to this, and I'm not-so-secretly hoping this book does find an audience. Does this review help or hurt those chances?

****I added a few minor edits post-publishing.


Unknown said...

I loved this book and I agree with you in almost all respects except in the one where most people won't like it. I think there are a fair number of us out there who agree with some or all of Erikson's views on the current state of western culture and what it is turning us into. Plus it is hilariously funny! Sure the main character is a sexist pig but he's not a hero and I think even most female readers will be able to recognize the brilliance that is SE :-)

mikewoodsarbin said...

It picks up a third of the way in, when the character's buffoonery and Erikson's situational wit come into play a bit more. Beyond Sawback's apparent primary trait, there is a lot of quality satire and brilliant throwaway lines.

The_Wanderer said...

This was a funny book. Sawback reminds me a lot of Zapp Brannigan from Futurama - also a Kirk parody. Erikson definitely slams Western culture, but there are a lot of other random slams too - kittens, Celine Dion, Terry Goodkind's evil chicken battling with Khalan.


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