Wild Cards 1 edited by George R.R. Martin
I have explained in the past that I am not a massive fan of short story collections but there is an exception to every rule. In my opinion, The Wild Cards novels are the best ongoing series of short stories available today. When I heard that Tor Books was re-releasing the first novel I felt compelled to immediately start re-reading my old copy.
How best to describe the concept of Wild Cards? The quick answer would be – imagine an alternative Earth where an alien virus has been released and as a result super-powered humans exist openly in society. That description doesn’t do the novels justice, as the Wild Cards cannon is so much more than that.
At the end of World War II, as the world enters the atomic age, an alien virus is released over the streets of Manhattan. Everyone is in the area is affected by the virus and will suffer one of three seemingly random possible outcomes – known as wild cards. Firstly, there is the ‘Black Queen’ a painful and unpleasant death. Another possibility is becoming a ‘Joker’ meaning that the victim is mutated and disfigured. The final possibility is to pull an ‘Ace’ – to receive a random superhuman ability.
In Wild Cards 1 edited by George R.R. Martin, the reader experiences the re-writing of American, and world history, covering the forty years from nineteen forty six onwards. The individual tales cover everything from the first release of the virus to the Macarthy witch hunts, the free love movement in the sixties and Vietnam to American politics in the eighties. This isn’t just men and women with super powers and tights – this is an examination of American social history and how times have changed. An excellent example of this is the plight of the Jokers and how their story mirrors the changes in racial equality in the US.
This first novel is all about setting up the history of the Wild Cards universe and the characters that inhabit it. For me, there are a number of standout stories.
The Sleeper by Roger Zelazny – The reader is introduced to Croyd Crenson an unfortunate fourteen year old boy who is one of the first victims of the virus. Each time he falls asleep he changes. Sometimes a Joker, sometimes an Ace. He is forced to grow up quickly to deal with his condition and is drawn to crime in order to pay for his strange lifestyle. The great thing about this character is that he can be, and often is, completely different every time he appears. In later novels it’s fun to try and spot references to Croyd and his latest incarnation.
Shell Games by George R.R. Martin – In a nod toward the social akwardness that Peter Parker exhibits when he is not Spiderman the author tells the story of The Great and Powerful Turtle and his alter-ego Thomas Tudbury. The Turtle is a powerful telekinetic who can only function when hidden inside the shell of his custom made armoured VW Beetle. He is written as a character that is crippled by shyness. It’s a different take on the traditional super hero origin as the reader get the chance to explore the mental effect of choosing to be a hero.
The Long Dark Night of Fortunato by Lewis Shiner - Fortunato is a pimp that receives an ‘Ace’ in the form of powerful sorcery. He isn’t the most likeable of characters, he is a creature of his time, but his grim determination in tracking down a killer makes for a gripping read.
Transfigurations by Victor Milan – In the sixties Dr Mark Meadows discovers that using various combinations of drugs allows him to change into any one of five aces including the delightfully hippie Cap’n’ Trips.
This kind of masterful storytelling is what sets Wild Cards high above the norm. As the novel covers a period of forty years, the reader gets to learn the ramifications of the Wild Card virus on more than one generation. Each of the characters get an opportunity to be fully realised and are as fleshed out as any you would read for Marvel or DC comics.
It has always been a constant disappointment to me the Wild Cards series has not received the recognition it deserves. I have a firm belief that there is an audience out there but it is still the case that too many readers have, as yet, not discovered this gem. For example, one of the driving forces behind the series is George R.R. Martin and although I have never read the Game of Thrones novels, they are loved by many and I have heard nothing but good things about them. I think the Wild Cards novels deserve the same amount of love. If HBO are successful with their live adaptation of Game of Thrones and require more well written material they need look no further than Wild Cards. I believe it has the potential to far more successful than Heroes ever was.
If this short intro has whetted your appetite for more there are currently twenty Wild Cards novels available with a twenty first scheduled to be released soon. I cannot recommend them enough. There is something for everyone and they are always guaranteed to raise a smile.
Wild Cards I is re-released today.