Wild Cards I, it does not contain any new material. Wild Cards I is in essence a collection of short stories set in a shared world, making it relatively easy to include new material. Aces High is a more ambitious work in a way. It features a strong overarching story. Although the individual contributions of the authors are still clearly recognizable, Aces High blends them to a greater extend. It reads much more like a regular novel than the first book in the series.
The appearance of the Wild Card virus in the wake of world war II has proven beyond a doubt that extraterrestrial life exists. One member of a sentient alien race, Dr. Tachyon, has become a well known figure in New York society but his species is far from the only ones to inhabit the galaxy. In the 1980s, one of the most feared races in the universe makes an appearance. The semi-sentient swarm has been known to strip planets bare on sentient life and it intends to do so with Earth. In the mean time, a group of Aces with phenomenal powers is hatching a plot to gain control over the planet. And here too, alien technology appears to be part of the plan.
It's quite a shift in focus from the exploration of Wild Card powers and the integration of Wild Cards victims in American society seen in the first volume to threatening the alien invasion in the second. All of it is very much in the style of the comics that inspired the series in the first place, but does take some getting used to. The malicious nature of the swarm is ever present in this novel, in true comic style, these aliens are a nightmare come true. The authors play on the fear of insects many people harbour and enlarge it to create, among other things, a number classic comic style fighting scenes. That is not to say the authors stick to the comic clichés entirely. They can't resist twisting it a bit here and there.
Martin himself has a big influence on the final shape of the novel. He edited the whole, wrote a piece on the Great and Powerful Turtle, who is suffering from a mid-life crisis and a serious case of a broken heart, and wrote the connecting interludes on Jube, the newspaper selling alien passing as a Joker. It's quite obvious that a lot more editing has going into this volume than if the first one. The stories in Wild Cards I can, with a little background on the premise of the world, be read independently, in this novel too much of the context would be lost. It gives the authors in the first volume much more room to have their own voice and style shine though. This novel is edited to a smooth whole. Depending on your preferences, that can be either a good or a bad thing. Personally, I don't think the series would have survived as long as it has without introducing this kind of structure to the mosaic.
Some of the Aces and Jokers appearing in the first volume show up again. Besides the aforementioned Great and Powerful Turtle, one of the more notable Jokers is the Sleeper, originally a character created by Roger Zelazny. The Sleeper is one of the characters I enjoyed most in the first volume but despite Zelazny returning to him, he feels a bit more bland this time around. His contribution is a fun read but it doesn't include the tragedy of his condition in the way that the first story on this character does. I guess he is one characters who did not benefit for the new approach.
Melinda M. Snodgrass has no problems taking us back to the Dr. Tachyon of the first volume. A character even more tragic than the Sleeper but also very flamboyant in his way. Dr. Tachyon is pivotal in the eventual resolution of the plot and I think he is one of the more interesting characters in the novel. Another character that worked very well for me is Fortunado. Lewis Shiner's introduction to the story is a very dark and foreboding piece of writing, introducing us to the mysterious masonic lodge and the red pennies motive that will play an important part in the rest of the novel. A wonderful bit of writing.
I guess this volume signals change for the reader. It exchanges some variety and distinctness found in the first volume for a more solid story arc in the second. I don't think the series would have lasted twenty-five years and produced twenty-one volumes (I understand there is a twenty-second in the works continuing the Fort Freak story line). It also shifts the focus a bit from the Aces and Jokers to the various alien races that inhabit the Wild cards universe. Maybe doing both at once is a bit too much of a good thing but who can resits a dose of horrific extraterrestrials, superheroes who are both tragic and heroic (and never end up with the girl) and some fine over the top fighting scenes to keep the adrenaline going? Aces High is both massively entertaining and a solid foundation for the rest of the series. I can't wait for the reissue of the third volume: Jokers Wild.
Title: Aces High
Author: George R.R. Martin (editor)
First published: 1987