If you’re going to parody a TV series, as Steven Erikson did with Star Trek in Willful Child, then you can’t stop at just one book, can you? Think of all those other episodes ripe for the plucking! And so we’re back for more interstellar hijinks with the crew of the Starship Willful Child and their erstwhile leader Captain James T–, er, Captain Hadrian Sawbuck as they face hostile aliens, robots run Amok, Time (see what I did there?) travel, hostility from their own Federation, and perhaps most dangerous of all, rampant consumerism. The laughs come at warp speed, making Wrath of Betty a mostly successful mission, though as I noted in my review of the first book, Willful Child, humor is of course highly subjective, and so the usual your-mileage-may-vary caveat applies triply to this review.
So much happens here so semi-randomly and episodically that I’m going to eschew the usual plot summary. Basically, Sawbuck and the crew move in space, trouble ensues thanks to external forces (hostile aliens, jealous colleagues, corporate-Federation conspirators, strange phenomena) or internal issues (a semi-crazy AI ship’s computer, highly neurotic crew members), said trouble is dealt with, often causing more trouble, and then ship moves a bit further in space or time or dimensions, repeat.
As with the first book, the humor in Wrath of Betty is a wide-ranging grab bag of jokes, including puerile sexual humor (some of which may offend), language play (some of which may induce wincing), visual gags, meta-humor, idiot jokes, reversal of expectations, and others. The tone can vary from gentle fondness as Erikson pokes fun at fans and conventions to viciously biting, mostly with regard to the state of current society. The scope as well varies, ranging from the micro (trivia-contest-like references to specific Star Trek moments) to the macro (that same social criticism). And as noted above, it’s a pretty relentlessly non-stop barrage that comes at you firing with all phaser tubes and photon torpedo bays (or in this case: “Beam weapons! Teyron! Bluron! Antiplasma! Light-Matter! … Quip Beam! … Quantum filament”).
Star Trek fans, or critics for that matter, will get the most out of Wrath of Betty, picking up on all those references to specific episodes or movies. And there’s probably some good fodder here for that continuing debate on the relative merits of the various Trek incarnations (it seems pretty evident to me which versions Erikson prefers and which ones he clearly does not). But that doesn’t mean those unfamiliar with the Trek universe will find little humor here, as Erikson plays as much with the more generalized tropes of the genre (see the weapons list above) as he does with the minutiae of Star Trek. After all, parallel dimensions are hardly exclusive to the Trek series, even if Erikson is obviously playing off of the particular “Mirror Mirror” episode (the reasoning behind that universe is a nice bonus). Meanwhile, the social satire is obviously available to all; one needn’t be either a Star Trek fan or a sci-fi fan to get that Erikson is not taking easy aim at a TV show or at some far-flung-in-time society, but is tearing apart our own flawed world — satirizing consumerism, imperialism, capitalism, and a few other –isms for good measure.
As is constantly stated, humor is tough to pull off, and as with the first book in this series, I had an overall mixed reaction to Wrath of Betty. The pacing was a bit too frenetic for me, the jokes coming too fast and furious, the encounters too seemingly random and episodic, even if there was an organizing larger arc to the novel, and there were times that despite the frantic joking the novel felt like it was lagging. Humor-wise, as with book one, the sexual humor was more miss than hit for me (though less discomfiting this time around), and some jokes felt too easy and/or obvious. That said, I did laugh quite a bit — out loud sometimes, quiet chuckles at other times.
My favorite parts of Wrath of Betty were the scenes involving social criticism (even if that too was a bit heavy at times) and the way in which the Federation here is presented as both part of that social criticism (financial imperialism, a general dumbing down) and part of what I think was some meta-criticism of how the Star Trek universe morphed over time. As much as Sawbuck is an over-the-top send up of Kirk, you can’t help but feel that Erikson is really pulling for this guy despite (or maybe in part because of) his character flaws. I think of Kirk transported not into the “Mirror Mirror” universe but into the later Trek ones, landing on the bridge of the New Generation Enterprise, for instance, and looking around and going “WTF?” And then looking for some beam weapons and some neurotic but competent crew members willing to go out there and fight the good fight (and a few bad ones) to right the universe. Flaws and all, I hope he succeeds.