In the autumn of 1966, when I was twelve years old, my best friend, Stephen Antoniou, told me excitedly: “You have to watch this great new show, Star Trek!”
“When’s it on?” I asked.
“Eight-thirty on Thursdays, for a whole hour!”
“But that cuts into Bewitched at nine!”
I had been a loyal fan of Bewitched for two years. The cornball humor was okay, but I was mostly in love with Elizabeth Montgomery, who inspired the same feelings as those engendered by hasty glimpses of Playboy at the barber shop.
“I’m sorry, Steve. In that case I can’t watch it.”
Such were the practical dilemmas of an era without Hulu, Netflix or Tivo.
And so I didn’t. I never saw one episode of Star Trek during its original airing. It was only some years later, during the first round of syndication, that I caught up with the show, of course loving it instantly and cursing my childish short-sightedness. After getting up to speed with Kirk, Spock and crew, though, I again abandoned the franchise for decades.
I never thereafter watched any of the spinoffs; caught only the first two movies; and reentered Federation space only recently, with the newest reboots. But a month or so back, on a whim, I started streaming those original episodes of TOS, and was taken again with the humble, enthusiastic, colorful, positive vibe of the show. Not only nostalgia tinged my attitude toward the show. There was an undeniable Camelot, can-do spirit in the mythos, a willed optimism in the face of Sixties turbulence and apocalypse that remains immensely appealing, and puts to shame much of our current easy despair.
But naturally, all such upbeat, open-hearted space opera leads with its chin and eventually invites parody. Away back in 1952, Wally Wood had a go at such humor with his “Flesh Garden” story for Mad. Harry Harrison was up next, with Bill, the Galactic Hero in 1965 and Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers in 1973. Galaxy Quest brought the theme to the big screen in 1999, and on the small screen we got Futurama‘s Zapp Brannigan. And of course John Scalzi gave us Redshirts just a couple of years ago.
Now comes Steven Erikson’s rendition of a Star Trek homage-cum-dismantling. Erikson’s version is Monty Python by way of Steve Aylett, a mad, sometimes surreal running amok of pure Id, Libido, Irreverence and Anti-authoritarianism, in the form of Captain Hadrian Alan Sawback, commander of the Affiliation Engage-class starship Willful Child. If you can imagine a season of Red Dwarf scripted by gonzo novelist Philip Palmer, you might have a faint notion of Erikson’s accomplishments here.
(And it is at this point that I should probably mention that this is the very first Erikson book I’ve ever read, motivating me to seek out his famous fantasy series at some future point, the Malazan Book of the Fallen. So I can’t say whether admirers of his fantasy will be discomforted by the tone and style of Willful Child or not.)
After a brief prelude which shows how galactic civilization came to Earth, and which introduces Sawback’s trailer-trash ancestors, we find our hero taking command of his ship on its first mission. A neat introduction to the salient officers finds many analogues to the crew of the Enterprise—an emotionless “Varekan” named Galk, sexy yeomen, et al—and a ship’s doctor more akin to Futurama‘s Zoidberg than Bones McCoy.
Sawback’s first actions are to incinerate some Neptunians on his way out of the solar system. He’s off to investigate an interstellar plot to counterfeit antique sports jerseys. This will bring him into contact with a gender-conflicted “male” artificial intelligence named Tammy Wynette, who promptly seizes control of the Willful Child, and heads the ship into dangerous territory. But Sawback has enough energy to battle wits with Tammy and sex up his female crewmembers during ping pong games. One unpredictable plot development follows another, in grand Robert Sheckley style, with the laughs coming frequently and thickly.
Erikson has lots of fun riffing on famous stories and scenes and motifs from the original Star Trek. I think a certain writer whose initials are HE might recognize the scenario on a planet “that looks just like northern California,” where a large stone portal announces itself as “MASTER OF THE SPATIAL TEMPORAL DYNAMIC.” Of course, it needs help getting replugged into its power source before Sawback and others can leap through it to land—well, I won’t reveal what they encounter. Tammy endows the ship with new beam weapons: one is capable of turning a few square centimenters of ship’s hull into glass; the other rips apart the very fabric of spacetime, imperilling everything around the target. But there’s nothing useful inbetween. There are aliens that outslime Kang and Kodos from the Simpsons. And when a giant egg in the infirmary hatches, out comes—well, not a tribble, but something even more pestiferous.
In addition to providing endless episodes of sheer lunatic mockery, foul-mouthed and utterly non-PC, Erikson actually manages also to offer some clever speculative riffs. Why would the railguns of the Willful Child need to fire any particle bigger than a BB, if it was going fast enough? Rather underwhelming to look at, sure, but plenty destructive.
One of the main enjoyments of this book is the rich language, both in dialogue and description. Erikson’s verbal prowess and ingenuity is displayed on nearly every page. For instance, here’s how the teleporters work.
Hadrian settled into a crouch. “Start the argument.” He said with bared teeth… The Insisteon initiated its argument with the universe. The Refute-Debilitator kicked in. Captain Hadrian is not here. He is over there! And in a flash, Hadrian vanished from the bridge…
The ultimate effect of Erikson’s taking the piss out of all the cliches and reflexive conceits of Star Trek is, surprisingly, not to make us regard the original as stupid and outdated and useless, but rather to convince us that with just a little more uncensored, down-and-dirty gusto—ie, if the shackles of 1966 FCC censorship were removed—the concepts and feelings behind TOS would still be valid metrics for the future.
Or as Galk’s Varekan wisdom has it: “Live long or live short, what real difference does it make in the end anyway?”