Carry On Cosmonaut: Willful Child is a poor taste Star Trek parody

Cringeworthy, crude and crass jokes abound in Steven Erikson’s sci-fi debut

Bones, Kirk and Spock prepare to transport in Star Trek

Page File Anyone who’s read Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, a searingly bleak and intricate fantasy series, will be bitterly disappointed with Willful Child (and yes, pedants, that is how he spells it).

Starship Enterprise

Instead of a blistering and fascinating foray into sci-fi, Erikson does a limp, lacklustre job of Star Trek fan fiction, a parody in the style of John Scalzi’s Redshirts or the movie Galaxy Quest, but lacking in much of the basic ingredients for good comedy. We laugh hardest when something is newly funny or outrageous, but the tired old jokes trotted out in Willful Child fail to muster up even a small smile.

It’s possible that this is intended to be a parody of a parody, as Captain Hadrian Sawback strides across the deck of his very own starship, the Willful Child, making seriously off-colour jokes, offering to blow everything up and generally being an uber-masculine oaf – like Captain James T Kirk dialled up by another 90 per cent.

The trouble is that parody is supposed to say something about the thing it’s critiquing in an intelligent and humorous manner. This novel is more like an homage, as the crew come to love and respect him, women fall at his feet and he extricates himself and the ship whole and virtually unscathed from one precariously deadly situation after another.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if Willful Child was very funny. Instead, you get pretty lame wordplay humour:

“I was one of twenty-two survivors, sir.” Hadrian nodded.

“It would have been unusual, don’t you think, had you numbered among the crew members lost.”

“Yes, sir.”

And tired computer humour:

Hadrian held up a finger.

“Here it is,” he said. “Everyone! See this finger? It is the finger of God! Watch it now, as it strikes any key!”

He stabbed down and the finger stabbed home. After a moment, HUB said, “Keyboard malfunction. Strike any other key.”

“Oh fuck!”

Fortunately, the next one worked.

Not every joke falls completely flat, but enough do that the whole set-up starts to feel ridiculous and you begin to wonder just how many pages of the damn thing are left. And it also makes it difficult to see the novel as a parody instead of an endorsement.

Captain Kirk and Dr McCoy from the original Star Trek series

'I think I spot a female alien, Captain.' 'Thanks McCoy'

That’s particularly true when it comes to Sawback’s blatant misogyny and mistreatment of women. This is obviously intended as a send-up of the Kirk, Picard and Riker set of Starfleet officers, always looking to get on intimate terms with the crew and/or any passing aliens. But Erikson also throws in a few sexual assaults that are played for laughs, which actually make for quite uncomfortable reading.

Twice the Captain is assaulted, once by a huge alien and then by his female Marine Lieutenant, and both times he ends up in sickbay. At another point, a female officer who hates Erikson is passed out drunk in his stateroom and when another character, who happens to be the Lieutenant, goes to get her, she is “now mostly naked” and still unconscious. It’s unclear what the implication is supposed to be, but the last time she was seen conscious the Captain was mauling her and his only comment to the Lieutenant is, “I understand that what you discovered in my office might seem, well, a contravention of regulations and, indeed, decorum. But I assure you, it’s only half as bad as you think.”

These episodes are just plain weird. There’s no point being made and they’re not terribly funny, so it just seems totally bizarre. Because this is difficult subject matter to do in comedy, if you want to make jokes about sexual assault, it needs to be really funny and preferably come loaded with some sort of intelligent commentary as well. Just making it a man who gets attacked instead of a woman isn’t anywhere near inventive enough and pretty far from commentary of any kind.

These episodes are so WTF, it’s like watching Bill Bailey get up on stage at the Apollo and go, “Well, take my wife … go on, take her!” while making lewd gestures as if it’s the height of hilarious originality. Whatever Erikson was trying to achieve with this Star Trek parody, he seems to have missed his mark by quite a distance. ®

Martin Amis The Zone of Interest book coverAuthor Steven Erikson
Title Willful Child
Release date 6 November (UK) / 4 November (US)
Publisher Tor/Macmillan
Price £14.99 (Hardback) / £6.99 (Kindle)
More info Publication web site

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