“There is a secret history of the world—a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with extraordinary powers. Some were called Aces—those with superhuman mental and physical abilities. Others were termed Jokers—cursed with bizarre mental or physical disabilities. Some turned their talents to the service of humanity. Others used their powers for evil. Wild Cards is their story.”
When I became a George RR Martin fan some years ago, I kept hearing Wild Card this and Wild Card that, but couldn’t figure out what the hype was about. When Wild Cards: Inside Straight, the seventeenth installment in the series, came out in 2008, I ran out and grabbed a copy. But I still didn’t see what the big deal was. For instance, I found myself asking the same question that opens Inside Straight: “Who the f—k was Jetboy?”
This wouldn’t do at all. I tried to track down a copy of volume one in the series, only to learn that the book was no longer in print. ‘How can a popular series no longer have volume one?’ I asked, highly disappointed. So when Martin announced on his Not A Blog that the book had been re-released and that the ebook was temporarily on sale, I whooped and hollered, grabbed my Kindle and downloaded a copy. I was in for one wild ride…
Originally published in 1986, the first installment of Wild Cards was a collection of 10 stories and several interludes that followed a timeline from the virus’s release in September 1946, up through the social changes of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, all filtered through the lenses of those who suffered the virus.
With its re-release in 2010, the original stories are joined by 3 new tales that enhance the early progression of the Wild Card virus. Michael Cassutt’s contribution, “Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace,” describes the fear in Hollywood after McCarthy’s Communist trials in the 50s, but with a twist. The HUAC hearings not only targeted suspected Communists, but aces as well. “Powers,” by David D. Levine, goes inside the CIA as a secret ace strives to save a kidnapped spy while trying to remain anonymous. And Carrie Vaughn explores Jokertown and the 80s club scene in “Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan.”
The progression of stories not only touches on well-known historical and social events, but also on phobias. The kind of phobia that comes to dictate how we treat our neighbors who look differently or live differently from what is deemed “normal.” The authors managed to weave this common and dangerous paranoia into the action until it becomes the predominant theme by the end.
Wild Cards I provides my first run-in with a collaborative work on this scale. While reading, I was continuously astounded by how these authors managed to pool characters and information into an elaborate patchwork that forms a dramatic, cohesive whole. Though the book may be most accessible to readers who have some knowledge of the events that marked the last half of the 20th Century, I think the bizarre elements found in these stories will appeal to a new generation of sci-fi fans.
I give Wild Cards I five out of five magic wands:
(I’m also rating this book Mature, due to language and sexual situations)