Fiction Reviews

Willful Child

(2014) Steven Erikson, Bantam Books, £8.99, pbk, 349pp, ISBN 978-0-857-50244-5


The author is clearly a lover of Star Trek, especially the original series, and the story is redolent with references to it. This is not, however, a Star Trek novel nor a humorous version of one; it is, though, so very clearly inspired by the much-loved adventures of Captain Kirk.

Many of us have sat on our sofas and wondered how Kirk always gets the girl, how he always gets out of the most impossible scrapes, and clearly so has the author. And so he was inspired to write a story of a similar but absurdly even luckier spaceship captain.

At some indeterminate point in the future, Harry Sawback is disturbed by the barking of his robotic dog - something untoward is going on in the giant junkyard that is his business. He finds a couple of aliens, hopelessly lost, and when they return to their fleet they forget to take their spaceship with them. Seeing as to how they left it in his junkyard, Harry reasons that it is now his so he and his son find themselves with a free ride to wherever they want to go.

Move on a century or so and the human race now has its own spaceships and has joined the Affiliation of Civilised Planets. It is the day of the maiden voyage of the Engage-class vessel the Willful Child and also the first day of command for its newly appointed captain, Hadrian Alan Sawback, who had sailed through the Mishmashi Paradox as if it was not there, a training scenario that took even Admiral Prim three years. His crew are mostly completely inexperienced though they include the obligatory aliens such as Printlip, the almost spherical medical doctor from the Belkri race, and Galk, a Verekan combat specialist.

Theirs is to be a simple shake-down mission, a quick trip to the Blarad System to investigate a smuggling operation (illicit copies of sportswear). From the outset, Sawback, who prefers to wear his specially made, easily ripped, polyester shirts rather than his standard-issue uniform, breaks every rule and blasts out of the Solar System on full T-drive irrespective of In-System Protocols. Despite the incompetence of his crew and his own desire to remove the clothing of every female member, it does not take them long to discover the smuggler, a private pleasure craft commanded by a rogue AI (Artificial Intelligence). Declining any help from the security team, the lone Sawback beams across to the vessel and straight into a violent fight with a humanoid computer projection until the AI, identifying itself as Tammy Wynette, jumps from the small craft and straight into the computer of the Willful Child.

From there on things get interesting as Tammy now has control of a whole Engage-class ship and a mission of its own whereas the Captain wants his ship back. After a while it becomes obvious that, at least for the moment, they will have to come to a compromise of sorts and they set off on a roughly similar mission.

We encounter a number of interesting races, each time resulting in another battle as the Captain bravely beams over, often on his own or perhaps accompanied by the ship’s most important but inexperienced officers, and starts more fights. Amazingly he survives it all with only minor injuries. Of course, now that the marines have caught up with him, their assistance and heavy weaponry assures victory in even the most dire-seeming of circumstances. And so they continue their unexpected journey to the Exclusion Zone and whatever awaits them there.

All-in-all this is one of the funniest books I have read in sometime. The story races away at a considerable pace; the Captain rarely has a chance to even sit down and the Nanogel has barely enough time to fix his injuries before he launches himself into the next dangerous situation. He also, just, manages to get the girls, well, some of them, before the next emergency. As it says on the cover: 'Boldly going where they really shouldn’t …' - and that sums it up. Lots of fun - especially if, like me, you loved the adventures James T. Kirk.

Peter Tyers

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