I haven’t read more than a snippet or two from George R.R. Martin (I could not get into A Game of Thrones), so it wasn’t George’s reputation that lured me into picking this up. It was actually Daniel Abraham‘s Wild Card short story in an anniversary anthology from Tor. He created a haunting vision of a New York superhero and her desire for normalcy. Somehow, that lead me to the Wild Card series (no doubt late night sleep-surfing around Goodreads) and the discovery that Roger Zelazny was a contributor. As a huge fan of his short stories, I was sold on giving the series a chance.
First published in 1987, and updated in 2010, Wild Cards I is a shared universe anthology. Modeled on superhero conventions, it contains a variety of short stories with interludes and pseudo news-pieces written by Martin. The timeline is congruent with normal earth timeline until 1946 when an alien virus lands on earth, and an alien from the responsible race in hot pursuit. The virus gets released by an evil villain, and huge numbers of people die on exposure. One in ten exposed are genetically altered, drawing the ‘wild card.’ Using card lore, those with freakish attributes become known as ‘Jokers,’ while those that remain human-like are known as ‘Aces.’ This first volume is largely linear, beginning with the exposure to the virus, response,the alien, government investigations, fear outbreaks, etc.
For me, enjoyment was usually proportional to the writer and the writer’s focus. I found the set-up less interesting, and the post-war politics dull. A lot of the writing is very period, for both the writers and the comic standard; ie. women without agency/highly sexualized. It is also disconcerting at times to have the alternate timeline reference larger-world events, such as a Jimmy Carter apology, Studio 54 or Watergate, etc. The stories that were enjoyable for me focused on the personal and were thoughtful character studies and creative explorations of talent.
Background on the series says that they are edited by Martin and Snodgrass. I wonder if more invasive editing–or perhaps, the modern resources of the web–could have improved the read. I wonder if the event references were meant to help root the stories in the anthology’s timeline, but it didn’t work for me. I think I might have almost preferred a more complication type editing that contextualized the following piece.
The general emotional theme is straight from the Crash Test Dummies:
Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him
Hey Bob, Supe had a straight job
Even though he could have smashed through any bank
In the United States, he had the strength, but he would not
“Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” by Howard Waldrop missed me. It integrated a World War II flying ace, and again, as an indifferent student of history, was a pass. It should appeal to those who are versed in the time period and the mythology of early fighter pilots.
“The Sleeper,” by Roger Zelazny was a great character study through time. Zelazny came up with a great character, one whose attributes change after every time he sleeps. Sometimes he comes up aces, sometimes joker. Fourteen years old when he first discovers his talent, he meets a dog-joker who helps guide him through his talents and making a living.
“Witness” by Walter Jon Williams is the McCarthy period piece. Originally, four main aces–Brain Trust, the Envoy, the Golden Boy and the Black Eagle–were recruited by the government to “issue in a post-war golden age.” Unfortunately, politics intrude. There’s a great deal in here about Bolivian fascists, Communist Reds, various governments worldwide that were anti-democracy. Perhaps part of the story is in the reconfigured history; hard for me to say. It’s a detailed story, done well, and absolutely no interest for me. No doubt, this is a personal reaction, largely because of my age and residence; being over forty and a Wisconsinite, I’ve grown up with the legacy of horrors that was McCarthyism, so it’s not a plot-line that interests.
“Degradation Rites” by Melinda M. Snodgrass is an interesting character piece between Tachyon, the alien, and Blythe, the ‘Brain Trust’ ace. Limited by the convention of the 50s and by Blythe’s enthusiastic adoption of the government plan, Tachyon and Blythe embark on a romance. It gives the most insight into the alien culture that created the virus. Bittersweet.
“Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace” by Michael Cassutt was a late edition to the book, copyright 2010. It’s another character study around the Hollywood scene, a producer and the star of a children’s television show, Captain Cathode. The back-stabbing scene complicated by hidden talents.
“Powers” by David D. Levine was also a late edition. A character study with an ace with a talent for data, but focuses on NATO, Eisenhower and a Russian stand-off that only he can fix. Less interesting because of the cold-war political trappings.
“Shell Games” by George R.R. Martin is another nice character study of an ace who believes in doing good in an era when they’ve been discredited. Jokertown is refuge for the changed. It’s has a nice bromance, a complicated, discredited Tachyon and woman that needs saving. One of the better stories, moving and redemptive.
“The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato” by Lewis Shiner. Um. A Chinese/black pimp discovers tantric sex superpowers and steps up to the plate for the changed. It was well-written. Enough said.
“Transfigurations” by Victor Milan. Set in 1969, it is a time period piece about a researcher that wants to understand hallucinogens and the counterculture. Awkward, and reads strangely like Forrest Gump and his obsession with Jenny. Strangely similar in her predilection for loser boyfriends.
“Down Deep” by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper was interesting. Mob meets subway jokers and a liberal social worker that just wants to ‘help.’ Almost worked, except that the integration of the social worker and her missing roommate seemed ill-fitted. I so badly wanted it to work. The connection of the subway jokers was interesting.
“Strings” by Stephen Leigh was a little intriguing, but lacked the emotional content that would take it to another level for me. Another one of those period-type pieces where the only woman’s role is highly sexualized.
“Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan” was a 2010 addition from Carrie Vaughn. Very likeable, modern UF in feel. A young woman hiding her talent gets talked into a night on the town with a wild girlfriend. Has a guest appearance from a couple of the other characters.
“Comes a Hunter” by John J. Miller was one of the better pieces. The most emotionally complex piece for me. I liked it a great deal but felt the ending needed further completion.
Ultimate rating? Two and a half, three stars, I suppose. It is written well enough but isn’t entirely to my taste. I’ll probably check out subsequent volumes depending on contributors and to see if another decade or two modernizes story underpinnings.
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