Review: Wild Cards

Wild Cards (Wild Cards, #1)Wild Cards by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With anthologies, I *usually* just present the status updates I made while reading, sometimes with some modifications since there are character limits on the updates. However, Wild Cards is a bit different. Like the Machine of Death anthology that Dan gave me, Wild Cards takes place in a shared universe. However, MoD was very loose in its canon and sometimes the stories even contradicted each other as long as the premise of how the machine worked remained. Wild Cards is more like the comics it is adapting to a novel format – it’s a shared universe with a coherent timeline and characters appear in subequent stories – especially Croyd. So I’ll have a slightly more conventional review followed by my traditional anthology style.

I’m going to start off by expanding on what I wrote when reading the introduction. Reading the intro, I can’t help but notice some parallels both in story and structure to Alan Moore’s Top 10. Both take place after WWII (when we had an explosion in caped heroes i the real world) and both start off with an in-universe article. From there they go in very different directions, just interesting they both start from the same place. Top 10 focuses on a super hero ghetto and Wild Cards takes place in the real world although we are eventualy introduced to the Joker ghetto in NYC.

There was clearly something in the air in the 80s. Miller’s Return of the Dark Knight and Moore’s Watchmen explored a more realistic look at superheroes. Of course, Miller was constrained by working with a known entity. His work ended up being an exploration of how the 40s pulp hero turned 60s camp hero would survive in the 80s with round-the-clock cable news and the threat of nuclear war. Moore was able to put together his own history and so it was a little more realistic which makes it parallel Wild Cards pretty well in themes (even if, as I mentioned above, the origins of Wild Cards matches his other work Top Ten a little better). Into this arena comes Wild Cards which explores the idea of super heroes using literature. (Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky also does a great job at this nearly 3 decades later) The 80s was also the period in which Chris Claremont brought back the X-Men and made it very vibrant. It’s hard to imagine that GRRM et al weren’t inspired by The X-Men as there are a lot of similar themes going on – prejudice and government fear, for example. Other super heroes traditionally haven’t had to deal with that. Given the popularity of Wild Cards, I wonder if it gave back to comics by being at least one of the ideas in the aether when Marvel came up with Civil War (for the comics, not the new movie) as Wild Cards eventually has the SCARE law force those with powers to register with the government. (Although the ramifications of this aren’t expanded upon too much in Wild Cards)

I’m somewhat getting ahead of myself. What’s the plot? Well, an alien virus ends up detonating over Manhattan (and most of the stories take place there). Most people die. But 10% get affected. Of those, 90% become Jokers – they get deformities that go anywhere from looking grotesque to being in a painful existence. The remaining percent end up with super powers. Part of the brilliance of having this start in the 40s is that it was already an age of wonder. There’s a reason that SF really takes off in the 30s and 40s. It also allows the story to go through the decades of America and see how the Wild Cards victims would be treated. I think the series gets it perfect. While X-Men was originally a metaphor for puberty (and is currently somewhat of a metaphor for LGBT community), one thing is shares with Wild Cards is that the abilities are a surprise to the infected and can activate at the worst times and are best kept secret.

Finally, I think that choosing to have the Wild Cards virus take place in a universe that hews closely to ours instead of veering wildly due to the Wild Cards virus (just like comic books) led to some interesting constraints that led to better story telling. Why couldn’t the ACEs just end all war or stop the USSR, etc? I think the answers the book posits are pretty satisfying. Time will tell whether they thought the series would last. Do they end up having an ACE or Joker president after Reagan? Or do they continue to be bound by our world. Also, does being bound to our world and our trends mean that in recent books (maybe the new trilogy coming out of Tor) Jokertown ends up gentrified?

Make sure you read the appendix. While SFF books have to be a bit hand-wavey at some point, it does answer a lot of questions I had on how the virus worked and how it was that they could justify going from the 40s all the way to the 80s based on what we learn throughout the short stories.

I confess that I haven’t read that many shared universe anthologies, but this one is TOP NOTCH. The stories work very well together and tell a nice, coherent whole. Many characters have interesting story arcs told over many stories by different authors. It was neat to see them keep popping up. I want to continue this series to see how themes changed as the years changed and the series matured. I want to see if there was more cross pollination with comics. (Spoiler: one story that was rejected by GRRM for the author being unknown was then taken to Vertigo and became Neil Gaiman’s Sandman)

Before we get to the each story’s commentary, a word about the TV show. It’s coming out soon and that’s the reason I read this. The nice thing about SFF is that it’s still niche enough that it’s rare to get spoiled unless you go looking for spoilers. But once it gets to TV, the masses are talking about it and it becomes harder to avoid spoilers. When I first started the book, i wrote: “I wonder if the TV show remains with the 40s theme (at least for the opener) or just transports the entire thing to modern times. Either way has arguments in favor.” Having finished the book – I have to say that while I’m no Hollywood executive, I think that

1) The series absolutely should start in the 40s – it gives a really neat start to the book AND Hollywood has gotten so good at period pieces (see Mad Men, Stranger Things, etc)

2) I think it would be SO great if they did like the book and had the series be an anthology series. Those are already doing quite well and I think it could be like a modern Twilight Zone. (Neat since GRRM worked on the TZ revival). I think a narrative in this world probably wouldn’t work well on TV. But having characters appearing in loosely connected episodes would be neat. ALSO it helps solve the continuity issue that TV networks hate – you can jump in during syndication a little better if it’s anthology-like. Time will tell.

——– The Stories ————

The first three stories have overlapping timelines.

Jetboy’s Last Flight: Enjoying the noir sensibilities. Almost sounds like a comic book. So Manhattan is where the infection happens.

The Sleeper: I like the idea here of someone who’s changing every time he sleeps. Sometimes Ace and sometimes Joker. Also goes along w/ the Vegas motif.

Witness: I wonder how accurate the Tuskegee Airforce WWII info is. I hope it’s really accurate. Otherwise enjoying the narrative so far. Reminds me a bit of Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian. Links the past to the 60s and mentions that because of what happened to the original four, Aces wear masks now. The HUAC stuff is terrible. Wish we never did that stuff; what a stain on our country.

Dr. Tach and Blythe’s POV at the HUAC

Interlude: integrates McCarthy into the story. Mentions the sleeper. There is a registration act passed.

Capt Cathode: A Hollywood mystery. Introduces the idea of Jokers running the shady parts of town.

Powers: About a CIA agent and ACE who goes to save Gary Powers after his U2 plane is shot out of the sky. Also an introduction to SCARE, the Ace organisation.

Shellgame: GRRM’s story involving what looks like is going to be the first non-government ACE super hero since the post-WWII heroes. Also a look at how Tach is dealing with the consequences of the HUAC hearings.The turtle is a fun hero and Dr Tach makes some progress post-40s.

Fortunato – half black / half Japanese pimp ends up being able to do tantric Magick due to Wild Cards virus

Transfigurations – California during Vietnam demonstrations. A kid is doing research on the counter-culture for dissertation. Also a musician Ace and an Ace from a communist country sad at what the youth were doing.

Interlude: now Aces are the toast of the town. And we learn the spaceship is a living ship.

Deep: a couple people with powers living in the edges of society in 70s NYC. Pretty good setup.

Interlude: in the form of a Hunter S. Thompson gonzo journalism article. Describes Jokertown in the 70s.

Puppetman: An Ace with mind control powers and the Carnage he causes. I *kind of* predicted the twist, but not perfectly. Succubus’ Wild Cards power was sad in a way very different from most of the others.

Interlude: And now we’re caught up to the 80s. How much it strays from reality now will depend on whether they thought it would continue past the 80s.

Ghost girl : very fun story about a girl out with that one friend that goes too far in terms of partyfing. Although if the Wild Cards virus isn’t contagious (according to the previous interlude), how do some teens (or early 20 year olds) have it?

Comes a hunter: A guy wants to get revenge for a betrayal in Nam. Very open ending. Leaves rooms for a continuation.

Appendix: answers questions I had about how young people in the 80s have the virus and how some outside NYC have it.

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Author: Eric Mesa

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