Wild Cards 1: Expanded Edition edited by George RR Martin (book review)

December 28, 2017 | By | 2 Replies More

With the TV success of ‘Game Of Thrones’, it’s hardly surprising that the studios want something more with George RR Martin’s name attached to it. Not surprisingly, the 1987 started series of books called ‘Wild Cards’ is next on their agenda. What happened was Martin would meet a group of fellow writers for a Friday night get together and they evolved a story framework that they could all work on. Said writers have ownership and copyright to their own stories that got blended into one mosaic, thus bringing together an intricate alternative reality.

It’s hardly surprising that TOR is now doing a reprint of all the books from the start so if you have missed any or want to start from the beginning then where better to start? The first book, aptly called ‘Wild Cards’ also has three new stories all written in 2010. More of that in a while.

For those who need reminding, an alien arrives on Earth in 1946 after crashing another spacecraft of his family and species to warn of a danger and burning out his own engine. Humans and his people are very similar and they needed test subjects to try a new virus on. The Takisians, weren’t prepared to use it on their enemies without seeing the consequences. The alien gets nicknamed Dr. Tachyon because his real name was so hard to say and named after the means of his interstellar drive. Did I say these books were at many levels?

The Wild Cards virus globe gets in the hands of Dr. Tod who sees the release of and the threat to use more to get ransom money. The US President orders a recently recovered from a desert island WW2 flying ace, Robert Tomlin aka Jetboy, to attack Tod’s high-flying dirigible. He succeeds but, in the process, the virus globe is broken and New York is the first city to get struck by the plague. In the jetstream, the virus is spread around the globe and if it doesn’t strike people then it can also remain dormant. This Wild Cards virus has various effects on people, mostly deadly but they also including giving some of them powers, who are called Aces, and deformities who are called Jokers. Deuces tend to be Aces with trivial powers. For the sake of this review I’m capping both Aces and Jokers because they are used as true nouns and Jetboy wasn’t an Ace in that sense of the word.

You must remember, back in 1987, this kind of mosaic series was new. It still is, come to that, as I can’t remember anything like it outside of comicbooks. Much of the first book tells the stories of individual characters in the settings for the 1950s as placed against existing history from our world so we also have the communist trails seen from one of the Aces, Jack Braun aka Golden Boy, when he was cornered by their committee and said something he shouldn’t. For this reality the McCarthy ‘red menace’ focused a lot more on the normal looking Aces with super-powers than other parts of American society but with just as much damning results.

Through Croyd Crenson, another Ace, we see him change body shape and powers between Ace and Joker every time he slept hence he gets the moniker the Sleeper. Trying to stay awake on amphetamines makes him unbalanced but it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him when he has no control of his transformations. He crops up in various new bodies across the books.

For the long term ‘Wild Cards’ readers, let’s have a brief look at the new material.

‘Captain Cathode And The Secret Ace’ by Michael Cassutt is set in Hollywood. German producer and former scientist Karl von Kampen is also a secret Ace, concealing the fact that he has penetrative vision which makes his eyes go red for a while after use and hides behind sunglasses. In Hollywood, that isn’t seen as unusual. He also has the same problems as any producer. Brant Brewer, his star of the ‘Captain Cathode’ cinema series is perpetually late, Brewer’s agent often gives veiled threats and he could lose the advertiser Kellogg’s contract that would pay the bills. There’s also a Medusa murderer in town who kills victims by turning them into stone. Cassult catches the flavour of the 1950s time period and you’re left guessing until the end.

‘Powers’, the title of David D. Devine story, is more to do with Francis Gary Powers and his rescue from the USSR after his spyplane crashed. Don’t forget this is our reality with a twist. You also see the nascent secret organisation SCARE recruit Aces and anymore information means I’ll have to make you forget.

Carrie Vaughn produces a new opening story for one of her characters called ‘Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan’ where nascent Ace Jennifer Maloy is out partying with her friend, Tricia, in Jokertown and loses her to one of the bands and spends the night looking for her, running into trouble herself.

‘Shell Games’ is George RR Martin’s main contribution to the first volume and a sharp reminder that he really needs to do more in the current volumes. Bringing Tachyon back from a nearly 20 year alcoholic haze after being evicted from the USA by the McCarthy regime and the death of an Ace in their custody and the rise of the telekinetic Great and Powerful Turtle are real shining moments.

Not all Aces develop super-powers right away. Two examples here need triggers. For Fortunato, a pimp in all but name, it is Tantric sex. For Mark Meadows, it’s taking illegal drugs but that takes time to develop. Both are at the start of their careers, as indeed many of the folk that are here.

It’s rather weird re-reading because part of my mind triggers on gathering information. Between them, Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper in ‘Down Deep’ probably established the most Aces in a single story. That was until I read Stephen Leigh’s ‘Strings’ with the Jokertown riots. That was until I read ‘Comes A Hunter’ by John J. Miller who also introduces the first Nat – for Natural – Yeoman who’s abilities with a bow and arrow can almost be mistaken for being an Ace.

Something I do remember from the original release was the first three ‘Wild Cards’ were released in short order so all the authors involved had to be aware of each others’ characters and the time-line. In many respects, the three could have been one large book but would have been impractical as a paperback. Hence you get characters mentioned that haven’t appeared yet and you feel yourself being drawn in and eager to see what happens as events start to get up-to-date. Be sure to read the appendixes because they will prepare you for what to come and they get better and better.

GF Willmetts

December 2017

(pub: TOR/Forge. 493 page enlarged paperback. Price: $18.99 (US), $21.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2615-7)

check out websites: www.tor-forge.com, www.georgerrmartin.com and www.wildcardsworld.com

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About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 15 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Comments (2)

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  1. avatar Julian White says:

    This is a ‘for info’ post!

    Here are a few examples of possible mosaic series – mostly in fantasy rather than SF.

    The ‘Thieves’ World’ series dates from 1979 (and was at one point published in the UK by Penguin). Originally a series of anthologies the series grew into a multi-volume world with additional novels. It later spawned both an RPG and a graphic novel version – and a new series of anthologies were launched in 2002.

    The ‘Heroes in Hell’ series is similarly a mix of novels and anthologies of short stories. Launched in 1986 (or possibly 1984… ) with twelve books published up to 1989 the sries was relauched in 2011 with a further six anthologies and three novels published since then (to date).

    ‘Merovingen Nights’ is a series of anthologies stemming from a 1985 novel by CJ Cherryh – seven anthologies published between 1987 1nd 1991.

    The now sadly defunct Big Finish Doctor Who Short Trips anthologies, while usually having a theme and not essentially connected further, beyond featuring the Doctor, do include a number of volumes that have the mosaic structure – most successfully the one entitled ‘Repercussions’ edited and with linking material by Gary Russell.

    You may argue that these are ‘shared world’ series rather than ‘mosaic’ works but I’m not sure that there’s much difference in most cases…

    • avatar UncleGeoff says:

      Hello Julian
      Name any that are actually Science Fiction and there really is only ‘Wild Cards’. With book 3, all the stories were broken into sections and interlaced covering all the activities based on the time lapse between events. Now that’s doing a mosaic. I doubt if any of your examples did that.
      Shared universes are one thing, mosaics are something else.
      Geoff

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