George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards

I was thinking about writing a review of the latest book that I’ve been reading, Wild Cards V: Down and Dirty.  But then I thought that maybe before I do that, that I give an introduction to the series as a whole.  This is because, while HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has turned George RR Martin into a minor celebrity, most people don’t know anything else about him, especially the fact that he’s done more of value than “A Tale of Ice and Fire”, the series that “Game of Thrones” is based on.  And my personal favorite of those things has been his creation of “Wild Cards”, and his leadership (along with Melinda Snodgrass) of the writers of that series.

Back in 1980, when Mr. Martin moved to the Albuquerque area, he discovered  a gaming group that several other writers participated in, and he joined up.  One game that they played which was game-mastered by Martin, was a pencil and paper rpg called “Superworld”.  In this game, the players, would create their own super-powered heroes to have ‘adventures’, moderated by the ‘gm’.  From this game, Martin had the idea to create a literary shared universe, that he and his fellow writers/gamers could play in.  And thus, Wild Cards was born.

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In a literary shared universe, the idea is to invite other writers to collaborate and to split up writing duties, within the framework of an overarching plot, created by Martin.  Some of the players brought their superhero creations (with modifications) to Wild Cards, while other writers who were not part of the gaming group were also invited to participate.

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One of several covers for the first Wild Cards books — it pictures Dr. Tachyon landing on earth for the first time, and his living ship Baby is in the background

The first book, titled simply Wild Cards, was a series of connected short stories, that gave the premise of the series, and introduced many important characters.  The premise is that after the end of World War II, an alien who calls himself “Dr. Tachyon” lands on earth to warn that some people from his homeworld were planning on releasing a dangerous virus on earth, as an experiment.  He’s treated with a great deal of suspicion at first, but eventually people start to believe him.  On a fateful day in 1946, the WWII ace pilot, nicknamed “Jetboy” fights heroically to prevent the release of virus “Takis-A” over the streets of Manhattan… and fails, dying in the process.  Thus, the Wild Cards universe is born.

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A cover from Wild Cards 4 that depicts Chrysalis, a Jokertown information broker.  She has the dirt on everyone, and everything but won’t share it… unless there’s someone who can pay her price.

Takis-A is dubbed the Wild Cards virus because it has a different affect on everyone who is infected with it.  90% of people with it simply die a painful and hideous death. People in the world have a name for that — ‘drawing the Black Queen’.

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Steve Jackson Games created a Wild Cards supplement for their GURPS role playing system.  This cover pictures Dr. Tachyon and one an unknown female, being confronted by Fortunato, one of the most powerful Aces in the Wild Cards universe.  Fortunato is a pimp who gains incredible mental powers.  In a twist, he has to recharge those powers though tantric sex.  (yeah, Wild Cards goes there)  Fortunato is one of my all-time favorite Wild Cards characters.

All of those who survive their infection, end up genetically altered.  Thus the Wild Cards infection can be inherited.   About 90% of those with the virus will become deformed in some way.  The theory is that how one specifically is affected has to do with the psyche of the individual.   But it’s usually to the detriment of the person.  People who are so deformed become known as ‘Jokers’.  Many end up living as outcasts in slums and ghettos, the most famous of which is Jokertown in Manhattan.  Jokers include Chrysalis, who has completely transparent skin — when you look at her, you see all her bones and blood vessels and muscles, and Snotman who…. well you can imagine.

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A cover from one edition of the second Wild Cards novel pictures Jube, a simple newspaper salesman who everyone seems to know.  He may be more than he appears to be

A few rare individuals, those who neither die nor become deformed by the virus, actually gain beneficial abilities, and those people are dubbed Aces.  Some, like Thomas Tudbury, decide to put their abilities to heroic use — he uses his incredibly powerful telekinetic ability to become “The Great and Powerful Turtle”. Others use their abilities for more mundane purposes — Hiram Worchester who gains the ability to control gravity, has a brief stint as a costumed vigilante named fatman, but soon turns his powers as a tool to allow himself to eat as much as he wants, and remain relatively weightless.  He opens up one of the most famous restaurants in New York, “Aces High”, where he enjoys feeding all of the celebrities and Aces who come to New York as well as wealthier tourists who come to star-gaze.  A few turn their talents to crime, such as Jennifer Malloy, aka “Wraith”, who uses her ability to walk through walls, to become a rather successful burglar.

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Dr. Tachyon meets Albert Einstein (from Wild Cards 1)

Wild Cards is an alternate history series, in which super-powered individuals exist.  It originated in the same era that produced “Watchmen”, a graphic novel that posed the question “What if REAL people put on costumes and fought crime”.  The people (and even the aliens) in Wild Cards are real people.  Thomas Tudbury, aka The Turtle, who I mentioned above, is one of the most powerful heroes in the Wild Cards universe.  But he suffers from PTSD after a very specific incident that almost kills him.  Dr. Tachyon falls in love with a married woman.  He also is exiled to France when he refuses to testify and name names to congress, in a scene similar to the historic communist witch hunts of the 1950s, where he spends years on the streets as an alcoholic.  There’s also a robotic hero known as “Modular Man” who’s story is reminiscent of Pinocchio.  But in this case, his creator is a psychotic Wild Card infected idiot savant-like genius who really doesn’t care about anything other than himself.

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A cover from a spanish-language edition of Wild Cards 4: Aces Abroad.  It’s one of my favorite pictures of Peregrine, the winged superhero who becomes a talk show host.

Numerous writers have created characters for and written either short stories or novels or collaborated on the mosaic novels.  Melinda Snodgrass, Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan, Edward Bryant, Michael Cassutt, Stephen Leigh, Leanne C. Harper, Chris Claremont, and others have all contributed to the Wild Cards universe.

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Jet Boy — a key character of the Wild Cards universe.  His tomb is an NYC landmark and spot for annual Wild Card day observances.

I will say that the series as a whole is far from perfect.  Book 4 (“Aces Abroad”), for example, is a lot less fun than any of the books that came before it.  After the first 6 or 7 books, the series got quite dark, so dark that people started to complain.  I will admit that at some point along the way that I lost interest, partly because a lot of my favorite characters were dead, or inactive, and because of a long gap in the publishing so that I had lost the general thread of the story.  Now that the books are being reissued, i plan to read the rest of them.  But it’s hard to outdo some of the excellent books that appeared early in the series (particularly books 1-3 and Book 6, which is my favorite).

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Brennan, aka Yeoman — he’s a bow-wielding non-powered hero with a vendetta.

Anyway, if you like superhero stories, or science fiction, or George R.R. Martin, then I highly recommend the series, at least the early books (1-7 for sure, granted book 4 is a hiccup, but it’s not bad, and it’s well worth continuing to what follows).  Whether you decide to read further than that, is up to you.  But 1 to 7 are must-reads, certainly for all superhero fans.

Keep an eye out for my upcoming review of Book 5, “Down and Dirty”.

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