Recently, Tor released three new books in the long running shared universe Wild Card series, Inside Straight, Busted Flush and Suicide Kings, collectively known as the Committee Trilogy. A fourth standalone volume, Fort Freak, number twenty-one in the overall series, is expected sometime next year. Tor is the fourth publisher to take on this series and pretty much everything from the previous three publishers is out of print. That means that a lot of the back story of this series is only available second hand, sometimes at very steep prices. Fortunately Tor has now reissued the first Wild Cards novel, originally published in 1987 by Bantam Books, in a trade paperback format.
The original edition was edited by George R.R. Martin and written by a collective of New Mexico writers. Howard Waldrop, Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Lewis Shiner, Victor Milán, Edward Bryant, Leanne C. Harper, Stephen Leigh, John J. Miller and Martin himself contributed to the writing. In the Tor editions tree new sections were added, written by David D. Levine, Michael Cassutt and Carrie Vaughn. I understand Tor also has plans to reissue the second and third books in the series, Aces High and Jokers Wild, but so far I haven't seen any information on them except the original announcement.
Wild Cards I is all about setting up the shared universe. The story opens in 1946, when a human like alien lands in the US claiming he's come to save the earth form a mortal treat, the Wild Card virus. By the time people start to believe him, it is already to late. Despite the best efforts of WWII flying ace Jetboy, the virus is released with devastating consequences. It kills 90 percent of those it infects, leaves 9 percent permanently disfigured and grants 1 percent a wide ranges of unusual powers. The disfigured survivors are referred to as Jokers, while those with useful, sometimes even incredible talents become aces. This volume in the series tries to cover events from the initial release of the virus in 1946 to the 1980s, right before present when the book what initially released.
Having only read the three recently released books of the Committee Trilogy, I was struck by the different approach these books take to the mosaic novel concept. The Committee Trilogy is much more a true novel, with the sections written by different authors interlocking into one story. Wild Cards I is more of a collections of short fiction. Although characters some characters show up in multiple sections of the novel, the stories can pretty much be read independently once you know the concept of the Wild Card. The book seems to aim at giving the reader an overview of how the Wild Card virus influenced the world and setting up a number of story lines that will be continued in subsequent books.
There are some very strong stories among the original entries into this series. I particularly enjoyed Roger Zelazny's entry The Sleeper, featuring an Ace who sleeps for days or weeks at a time and wakes up with different powers every time. It's not always an Ace he draws either but somehow it is never a lethal recurrence of the virus that hits him. Like many of the stories in this collection The Sleeper's life is tragic. Witnessing the release of a Wild Cards virus at a young age, he has to grow up much to quickly. The Sleeper is by no means a perfect Ace. After he looses his father to the virus he provides for his family with criminal activities, starting a life in the underworld of New York City. A rather lonely life as we'll find out later in the book. He does some very wrong things but on the other hand you can't help but feel sorry for him.
A second story I think stood out in the collection is Walter Jon Williams' Witness. It introduces the incredibly strong Ace Golden Boy, whose powers make him ideally suited for the 1950s variety of gunboat diplomacy. Golden Boy's real passion is acting however, so once his diplomatic career takes a nosedive, he heads for Hollywood. A place that is about to receive the attention of one Senator McCarthy. Williams shows us how hopelessly unprepared Golden Boy is for his life in the spotlight and how the strongest man in the world basically breaks under the strain. To make matters worse, Golden Boy does not seem to age. It's enough to make one wonder if he has indeed drawn an Ace. There is no outrunning his past for this man. Another very dark part of the collection about a dark part of US history.
Martin's own contribution, Shell Games, is a bit more upbeat. I had already read this bit, Martin included it in the massive, career-spanning anthology Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. The story introduces the Great and Powerful Turtle, an Ace with very strong telekinetic abilities. Inspired by the comic books he read in his youth, he wants to use his talents for the good of mankind, catching crooks and saving people. In a rather physical way, his friend points out that he is quite vulnerable when concentrating and so they come up with a solution that will make him unreachable for anything short of heavy artillery. His first major challenge comes when Jokertown's leading entrepreneur, a woman by the name of Angelface goes missing. Martin probably approaches the superhero comics that inspired this series closest in this tale. A damsel in distress, an ordinary fellow turning into superhero with great powers, one would almost think the story cliché. Martin also uses his story to give us a look at the dark side of New York's Joker ghetto, a setting important to many of the Wild Cards' stories.
Three new stories were added to entice readers to invest in a book they perhaps already own. For the book, I don't think it was really necessary. Sure, it tries to cover a great span of time in relatively few pages, so there are plenty of gaps to fill, but the general outline of the Wild Cards universe is introduced well enough. The book works just fine without. That being said, I quite enjoyed David D. Levine's addition Powers quite a lot. His anti-hero Ace Frank Majewski, who carefully keeps his ability to stop time for everybody but himself hidden because of McCarthy's antics in Witness, is another strong character in book. His reluctance and fear for his family, deeply rooted in what happened in his native Poland during and right after the war, are some of the ingredients that makes this story work for me. It's very much at odds with the image of some of the more public Aces. This story also an interesting take on the events surrounding the crash and capture of U2 pilot Gary Powers in 1960.
Wild Cards I contains a lot of snapshots from post-WWII history. It is not yet a fully integrated set of stories, but more of a sandbox where each of the contributors do their own thing. The result is a very interesting book and the start of an unusual series, but it also leaves us with a lot of loose ends. It will be interesting to see if Tor goes through with publishing more of the back catalogue of the Wild Cards series, this book certainly whets the appetite for more. As a reader relatively new to the series, I very much liked this opportunity to go back to the origins of the series. Judging from what I have read so far, the series seems to have developed a lot over the years. Wild Cards I was not quite what I expected but it surprised in a good way. If, like me, you have only read some of the later books, this book is really a must read.
Title: Wild Cards I
Author: George R.R. Martin (ed.)
First published: 1987