Reflections on ‘Wild Cards’

Originally posted September 29 2008

I’m rereading the  Wild Cards series, a shared world anthology edited by George RR Martin.  Inspired by a superhero roleplaying campaign that was gamemastered by Martin, and included Roger Zelazny, Melinda M Snodgrass, Lewis Shiner and Walter Jon Williams, amongst other luminaries who would become writers in their own right.  Wild Cards is set in an alternative history of our own world, where a virus is released that gives some people superpowers (known as ‘Aces’), and turns others into monsters (‘Jokers’).  Others are transformed into non-viable forms and die – often in agony – which is called ‘Drawing the Black Queen’.

Once again I came across the short story ‘Witness’, by Walter Jon Williams.  Which is probably my favourite of all the stories in the first book, and possibly my favourite of all the ones I have read (the first 6 I think), but it is so brutal it is always difficult on a reread.  It is one of the few first person narrations in the series, and while Jack Braun’s (Golden Boy’s) story is fiction, it is also so close to reality that it hurts.

The Four Aces were the first public superhero group, and although referred to by nicknames, the public knew their true identities.  They were naieve and carefree in many ways, but that just sets them up for the fall.  The sense of joy and innocence at the start that gives way to the despair of the House Committee on Un-American Activities sequence is really hard to read.  Worth the effort, and wonderfully written, but really hard.  One can read it and think ‘oh this is just fiction’, but the point is that it DID happen in our world too, and the Four Aces are just subbed in for other real people whose lives were destroyed over nothing.

In the reprint versions of the books I have, Martin talks about how their characters and original writing was set in the early 80s.  They wanted Howard Waldrop to write a story, but he didn’t want to write about fantastical powers, so he contributed the wonderful Jetboy in the story ‘Thirty Minutes over Broadway’.  That then left a 40 or so year gap between the spread of the Wild Cards virus and the time period of their roleplaying characters, who would be second or even third generation Aces by then.  And the result was the Four Aces (including Golden Boy).  While it was not part of the original concept that Martin and his cowriters had, the content produced for this 40 year gap was not just filler.  It created a rich tapestry of layering and history which added a sense of depth to the world which just starting the series in the 1980s would not have done.  HUAC was part of that, as was the peace movement of the 60s and so on.  And it also provides an explanation of why modern day Aces are disguised and use nicknames in public.

Wild Cards is a wonderful series.  I like some characters better than others, but that is entirely subjective.  Personally, I could do with a lot less of Bagabond and more of Croyd the Sleeper or The Great and Powerful Turtle.  The books are written in sets of 3 – the first two books of each set are made up of short stories, and the third of each set is what Martin calls a ‘mosaic’ novel, where each writer contributes events with their characters which are then woven into an intricate novel.  I feel that the short stories work better than the mosaic novels, but again that is a matter of personal preference.

But still . . .  poor Golden Boy  🙁

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