As Star Trek homages/parodies go, Willful Child was a lot of fun. It doesn't come close to approaching the comic genius of a Bauchelain and Korbal Broach tale, but Steven Erikson is clearly a fan, and knows precisely where to best tweak, twist, and torture the original series. Overall, it's a bit edgier and more mature than I expected, especially in regards to Captain Hadrian Sawback's sexual harassment issues, but I think Erikson did a fine job of walking the line between good-natured insult and outright offense.
If you ever thought Captain Kirk was a little too restrained, or a little too hesitant, than you are going to love Captain Sawback. This is a man who crewed his entire ship based on how attractive the women are, who can't speak to a woman without commenting on her appearance or inviting her into bed, and who believes it's just a matter of time before even the most reluctant give in to his charms. Sawback is a man who loves risks and embraces danger, constantly putting himself in harm's way. He knows he shouldn't be leading away parties, but he doesn't give a damn. He wants to get out there, to be at the front, and to charge head-long into the unknown, and to hell with the risks. , His torn-shirts and broken hands are not only a long-running joke, but a badge of honor. He's arrogant and condescending, but saved from being a monster by the fact that he is so oblivious to any offense his behavior might cause.
In terms of story, there is one (rather thin) plotline that drives the whole novel, but really this is a series of episodic adventures that hit on all the classic elements of Trek. We've got first contact, Prime (and Secondary) Directives, time travel, antagonistic aliens, a sort of neutral zone, artificial intelligence, mysterious portals, ill-equipped landing parties, and more. His aliens are one of the best aspects of the novel, pushing their appearance and behavior far beyond the limits of anything that would have made it passed TV censors. Alliances, treaties, intergalactic war, and stunningly stupid double-crosses are all specter that haunt the tale, and the ways in which Erikson turns bullies into cowards is exceptionally funny.
It's all very well done, with just the right sort of pokes and jabs to maximize the humor in each situation. Much of that humor is sophomoric, pun-laden, and slapstick in nature, but you have to give Erikson credit for working so hard to set-up his jokes - there's one in particular that takes 200+ pages to pay off, all in the name of a good chuckle. The one tired old joke that he does stay away from is that of the red shirts in every landing party, but he balances that with his security teams always choosing the worst possible weapon for the situation, giving Sawback yet another chance to play hero.
While it's primarily a Star Trek parody, Erikson does also poke fun at some very 21st century entertainment obsessions as well. Social media and popular music have a key role to play, and I promise you will never look at another cute kitten meme the same way ever again. He even plays with the oft-abused trope of how the future will remember us, with some genuinely funny bits surrounding our obsession with professional athletes. On top of that, he gets in some not very subtle jabs at the production values of J.J. Abrams and the like, with some genuinely funny observations on what space looks like and sound like, and how style so often trumps substance (the bit about the 80s Windows starfield screensaver is a lot funnier than it really should be).
If I had to describe Willful Child, I'd call it a novel that wants to be Galaxy Quest, but which settles for a compromise between Spaceballs and Futurama, as interpreted through some bad-taste Saturday Night Live sketches. If any of that turns you off, then much of this will largely fall flat. If you can appreciate that eclectic mix, however, then give it a read. It's not exactly a compulsive page-turner, but it is a lot of fun, and the kind of book that you'll look forward to diving into again.
Hardcover, 352 pages
Expected publication: November 4th 2014 by Tor Books