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Wild Cards, edited by George R.R. Martin


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Wild Cards #1: Wild Cards

 

 

 

An alien species decides to use Earth to test a new bioweapon. An airborne criminal seizes the weapon and tries to use it to blackmail the city of New York. A former WWII flying ace tries to stop him. And, on 15 September 1946, the world is forever changed when the wild card virus is unleashed in the skies over Manhattan.
 

Ninety percent of those infected by the virus die instantly. A further nine percent develop crippling deformities or abnormalities, becoming known as 'jokers'. And one in a hundred of those infected develops a wondrous superpower. They become the 'aces'. As an alternative history of the 20th Century unfolds, the American government first tries to use the aces for their own ends and then, in a paranoid frenzy, turns against them, before they finally win some recognition for themselves. But for the jokers, forced to live in a ghetto in Manhattan, their road to recognition and respect will be much harder.

Wild Cards is the first book in the series of the same name, which of this time of writing spans twenty-one volumes with two more planned. This isn't a series of novels, but collections of stories written by many different authors. George R.R. Martin (of A Song of Ice and Fire fame) and Melinda Snodgrass provide editorial control, ensuring that each volume has its own narrative drive and point beyond just collecting random short stories together. The stories are set in their own milieu, with authors sharing ideas, using each other's characters and building up a consistent, coherent shared world.

The first Wild Cards book opens with a bang, with Howard Waldrop giving us the origin story for the entire setting in 'Thirty Minutes Over Broadway'. This is a terrific slice of fiction, with Waldrop fusing pulp energy with his own idiosyncratic style to give us something weird, resolutely entertaining and rather tragic in its own right. Roger Zelazny - yes, that one, the author of the Amber series and Lord of Light - then provides the origin story for Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, one of the original aces whose powers shift every time he goes to sleep. Crenson's periods of hibernation provide a handy way of fast-forwarding through the immediate aftermath of the crisis, showing how New York, the USA and the world adapt to the arrival of the virus. Walter Jon Williams and Melinda Snodgrass then show us two sides of the same tale through 'Witness' and 'Degradation Rites', the story of the Four Aces and their betrayal by the American government. These opening four stories provide a quadruple-whammy of setting up this alternate history and doing so whilst telling stories that are well-written (superbly so in both Waldrop and Zelazny's cases, though the others are not far behind), finely characterised and as gut-wrenchingly unpredictable as anything in the editor's fantasy stories.

Later stories remain highly readable, though perhaps not quite on a par with this opening salvo. Martin's own 'Shell Games' is, perhaps unexpectedly, the most uplifting story in the book, the story of the bullied boy who becomes a superhero. Michael Cassut's 'Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace' and David Levine's 'Powers', two new additions for the 2010 edition of the book, are both decent, filling in gaps in the history. Lewis Shiner's 'Long Dark Night of Fortunato' introduces one of the setting's less salubrious characters and makes for effective, if uneasy, reading. Victor Milan's 'Transfigurations' shows how the anti-Vietnam rallies of the late 1960s and early 1970s are changed by the presence of the wild card virus (and gives us an ace-on-ace rumble that is particularly impressive). 'Down Deep' by Edward Bryant and Leanne Harper is probably the weirdest story in the collection (which in this collection is saying something), a moody trawl through the underbelly of New York (figurative and literal). It's probably a little bit too weird, with an ending that is risks being unintentionally comical, but is still reasonably effective.

Stephen Leigh's 'Strings' and Carrie Vaughn's 'Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan' (the latter being another new addition in this edition) return to the quality of the opening quartet. The former depicts the jokers' battle for civil rights, resulting in riots and chaos in Jokertown and New York that a shadowy figure is manipulating for his own ends. 'Ghost Girl' is a straight-up adventure with the titular character teaming up with Croyd Crenson to find her missing friend. 'Ghost Girl' could be a novel in its own right, with the battling criminal gangs and dodgy drug-taking rock bands providing a canvas that's almost too big for the story, but Vaughn's method of keeping the story under control and resolving it is most effective. Finally, John J. Miller's 'Comes a Hunter', in which a 'nat' sets out to avenge the death of his friend by going up against some criminal aces, is a superbly-written thriller which examines how 'normal' people can stand up against aces and jokers.

The book as a whole is excellent, with the stories entwining around real history and changing it in a way that is mostly organic and convincing. There are a few issues with plausibility here - most notably the way no-one seems particularly bothered about the proven existence of an alien race that has just tried to poison the entire planet - but for the most part the writers use the premise to tell stories about the changed history of the USA (from McCarthyism to civil rights to Vietnam) in an intelligent, passionate manner.

Wild Cards (*****) introduces the world, setting and many of its memorable characters through a series of well-written, smart stories. There isn't a weak card in the deck, and the best stories (those by Waldrop, Williams, Snodgrass and especially Zelazny) are up there with the best of their original work. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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  • 2 years later...

Wild Cards #2: Aces High

 

The world has been divided by the wild card virus: the unaffected, the deformed "jokers" and the super-powered "aces". All have their own agendas, some darker than others, but all are threatened by the arrival of the alien Swarm. As Earth comes under concerted attack by the creatures, several of Earth's own alien allies (such as Dr. Tachyon) help lead a defence. But destroying the Swarm Mother may be impossible as a cult of sympathisers leap to her defence...

After the original Wild Cards focused on forty years of alternate history with the jokers and aces facing discrimination, political manipulation and questions over their loyalties, it's a bit of a tonal shift to follow that up with a full-scale alien invasion of Earth. Yet this kind of variety is what has kept the Wild Cards series fun and why it's still going thirty years after its creation. We know aliens exist in the setting - the wild card virus itself came from Takis - so it's fairly logical to see the aces and jokers joining forces to take on the menace.

There are of course complications. Unlike most superhero settings, Wild Cards doesn't hold much truck with big superteams. Aces tend to do their own thing, only joining forces when absolutely necessary. For most of its length, Aces High deals with several prominent aces and jokers (Tachyon, the Turtle, Jube the Walrus, Kid Dinosaur, Modular Man and Fortunato, with a few appearances by Croyd the Sleeper) tackling apparently unrelated issues relating to the Swarm and a Masonic cult before they realise how their individual threads link up, and there is the inevitable big showdown.

The stories that make up the book come from some of the bigger names in 1980s science fiction and fantasy: George R.R. Martin, Pat Cadigan, Walter Jon Williams, Melinda Snodgrass and Roger Zelazny are the big-hitters, but the rest are no slouches either. The stories vary from big, epic war stories as the Swarm invades in force to smaller-scaled tales of back-alley hustlings in Jokertown to things inbetween. They are all excellent, although it sometimes feels like you're only getting snapshots of the action. The Turtle gets a big, interesting storyline and then disappears off-page for a hundred-off page, during which time clearly some other stuff goes down, and suddenly he shows up for the big finale.

This is a recurring issue with these kind of shared worlds, the nagging sense that you are not getting the full story and having to infer that some big story-critical moments have taken place off-page. But it's not too distracting and is made up for the fact that each writer is clearly having immense fun creating and crafting their characters and taking their storylines forwards. The framing stories, "Jube" and "Unto the Sixth Generation", do a good job of keeping the larger over-arcing story on track.

The book builds to a big climax which is satisfying from an action and character perspective. But it's clear that although the aces have won a major victory over the Swarm Mother, they have neglected to account for her human minions. That's going to come back to bite them, quite hard, in the third book in the series.

Aces High (****) is a fine addition to the Wild Cards universe and a compelling follow-up to the original book. It is available now in the UK and USA.
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  • 3 months later...

Wild Cards #3: Jokers Wild

 

The alien Swarm has been driven back into deep space. The band of villainous aces and jokers who tried to summon the Swarm, led by the Astronomer, have been defeated in battle and the victorious aces are taking some time out to enjoy Wild Cards Day 1986, the fortieth anniversary of the arrival of the alien virus on Earth. Unfortunately, the Astronomer hungers for revenge and sets out to murder all of the aces responsible for his defeat.

Jokers Wild is the third novel in the Wild Cards series and follows on directly from the events of Aces High. Having lost the battle in that book, the Astronomer is now out for revenge and begins cutting his way through the ranks of aces in New York City. Jokers Wild is interesting in that the entire book takes place across one day, so it's pretty unrelenting in pace, and also that it's the first "mosaic novel" in the series. Earlier books were collections of short stories which shared some events and characters, but mosaic novels actually intertwine around one another. The book reads as a regular novel, but each chapter is written by a different author and sometimes even sections and paragraphs within each chapter are written by different authors, who handle different characters and subplots.

This is a pretty noticeable phenomenon and for the first half or so of the book I found it seriously distracting, with sometimes jarring shifts in tone, atmosphere and prose style taking place. The somewhat relaxed and even jovial Hiram Worcester storyline (written by George R.R. Martin) and the adventurous Wraith plot (written by John J. Miller) didn't feel like it was really taking place in the same world as the sleazy, sexually explicit Fortunato stuff (written by Lewis Shiner) and the traumatising Roulette/Tachyon material (written by Melinda Snodgrass), despite the storylines all interacting with one another. This, combined with the disparate and wildly disconnected nature of the plots, made the first half of the book very tough going.

Fortunately, things gelled into place in the second half. The storylines start coming together and the way the heroes are working at cross-purposes without realising it becomes is quite cleverly structured. Eventually all of the scattered storylines come together in a massive, explosive and reasonably satisfying finale, even if the willingness of major characters to walk away and leave villains (who've just killed several of their friends) alive rather than either finishing them off or putting them in jail seems a bit implausible.

Still, if Jokers Wild (***½) is an experimental novel in structure and writing style, it is ultimately a successful one but takes quite a long time to get there. Accordingly, this is the weakest of the first three Wild Card books, but still a worthwhile read. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
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