Prologue by George R. R. Martin
Martin’s prologue to the Wild Cards series, as well as this instalment in it, sets up the backstory quite efficiently, albeit in a slightly “As you know…” manner; however, since it’s presented as an oral history, that works incredibly well. Indeed, the different voices of the story, and their slightly-overlapping timeframes and deeply-at-odds perspectives are very realistic, and really give a sense of what was going on. Good stuff.
30 Minutes Over Broadway! by Howard Waldrop
Waldrop’s story is brilliant; the title belies the seriousness of it, and yet there is humour there too. Jetboy’s a wonderful character, a kid prodigy well-written and thoughtfully put together who has the benefits and the downsides of his history presented well, especially losing touch with his past; and Dr. Tod is a brilliantly Blofeldian villain, with all that implies about his motives and characterisation. However, the story does excellently address the roots of the Wild Cards universe, as well as being well-written and with a brilliant squib on the comic book industry reminiscent of certain bits of Captain America.
The Sleeper by Roger Zelazny
Zelazny’s Sleeper is fantastic; it takes the idea of the wild card virus and extends it, from a general wild card – where each individual infected is affected differently – to a specific; Croyd Crenson is repeatedly changed, from ace to joker and all variants between. Zelazny plays this neatly, with hibernation between each phase, and Crenson slowly catching on to his best course of action; we also see him leaving his normal humanity behind, especially in contrast to Bentley, who was turned into a joker and cured, never losing the humanity that he had. Indeed, The Sleeper really does go into the effect on one’s humanity of the wild card virus, and combined with a strong plot (albeit also a heavy-handed anti-drugs message!) it creates a really good story introducing us properly to the Wild Cards world.
Witness by Walter Jon Williams
Williams takes on one of the worst American domestic excesses of the Cold War in Witness; his story is about HUAC, and about its effects on those it called – both those who spoke, and those who didn’t. Williams’ core cast – Earl Sanderson, a Paul Robeson-style ace; Jack Braun, all-American farmboy with super strength; David Harstein, the Jewish charisma-exuded; and Archibald Holmes, their non-wild carded handler (à la Charlie of Charlie’s Angels, without the anonymity) – are all very different, and individually and well written; it’s obvious from the off that the story is driven by politics because everything is framed in those terms, and especially in terms of Braun’s (our viewpoint character’s) apathy towards such. The climax of the story is the HUAC hearings, and everything hinges on those; we see everything going upwards, and after HUAC it all falls apart for the cast, and lives are destroyed. It’s a really brilliant, and also damning, piece of work, that won’t let the evil of the communist witch-hunt be forgotten.
Degradation Rites by Melinda M. Snodgrass
Snodgrass’ story is quite the dark one, really; indeed, dark on a level Witness didn’t manage to reach, continuing on from there effectively. Told from the point of view of Dr. Tachyon, it tells of the burgeoning relationship between himself and Blythe van Renssaeler, an ace with the power to absorb minds completely (akin to Rogue, but without draining the original person). Tying into Witness directly, we see the relationship take strength… and then HUAC imposes itself, and things turn very dark; people end up destroyed, and Snodgrass is merciless and relentless in her treatment of the effects of it on both Blythe and Dr. Tachyon. If this is the theme of the book and series, Wild Cards appears to be a very grim and bleak universe.
Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace by Michael Cassutt
Captain Cathode… is another great story about the effect of the wild card virus on individuals; and another really, really dark one. Coming seemingly some time after the HUAC hearings and their fallout, we still have jokers being outcast and aces treated with suspicion, but there’s less Red Scare combined with it, and jokers are more like an underclass than anything else. The characters are up to the usual excellent standard of this mosaic novel, and the ability of Cassutt to make them real people is brilliant. The darkness at the heart of the story is an inevitable one, and less surprising as time goes on (though occasionally there is a false trail laid); but the variety of cards shown is fantastic, contributing to a colourful, effective story.
Powers by David D. Levine
Levine’s telling of the U-2 Incident in 1960, the dying days of Eisenhower’s Presidency, is shot through with accurate history, and reads like a better class of Tom Clancy novel; indeed, we even have an intelligence analyst as hero, a Polish-White Russian ace. The whole story’s combination of real-world and Wild Card history and mythology is brilliantly played, since it really does have some excellent characterisation and the style is pitch-perfect for the content. It’s also the first in this collection not to be dark; it certainly has dark moments, but in the end Levine has constructed something which is really quite happy, and is certainly well written. Wonderful stuff.
Shell Games by George R. R. Martin
Martin’s story is brilliant; we’re talking pure 1930s-50s pulps, here. This story could be retitled the Redemption of Dr Tachyon or the Rise of the Superhero, since it’s both those things; we see equally a tactical superhero – the Turtle, a brilliantly thought out idea that really does deserve it’s own full comic series, because it’s just so fun – and Tachyon at his lowest ebb and his recovery from it. It’s a powerful story also in showing how far the wild cards fall in the world, and the Civil Rights parallels are not exactly made subtly, but work effectively for all that. This is a rather nice, and quite uplifting story, and Martin’s obvious homage to the pulps is all the better for its respect for the source the material.
The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato by Lewis Shiner
Shiner’s story is not a terribly good one; it seems, in many ways, to be an excuse to write about occultism and tantric sex (indeed, just eroticism generally), and to treat women as objects, without really hanging it together in a decent frame. After all, Shiner’s use of the wild card virus is so different from anything we’ve seen previously, in a rather ridiculous way; and the whole story is premised on some really rather disturbing ideas about people. That the plot’s quite poor and thin and the characterisations even worse doesn’t help this at all; in the end, it’s occultism and prurience, and nothing more.
Transfigurations by Victor Milán
Milán’s story is a really mixed one. The wild cards seem to come into play really late into the story, and without any real logic – especially that of Grabowski, which seems oddly timed convenient only to the story, and not to the logic of the virus or his life. The characterisation is also quite two dimensional, with Mark Meadows the typical geek who can’t quite be hip, and Grabowski a middlebrow rightwing counter-counter-culture thug motivated by religion and his past; in fact, the extent to which Grabowski’s past isn’t itself coherent and seems to have been left so far behind in his character is itself problematic. The whole plot’s a bit strawman-based, and in the end, this story doesn’t stand up under the weight it tries to take onto itself.
Down Deep by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper
This Vietnam-and-Watergate era story is quite a strange one, a real mix of light and dark. Not without problems – the centrality to one of our narratives of rape, and of the helplessness of a woman to do anything but be a nurturer, is one such – the narrative does work remarkably well as the disparate elements come together. There are strange moments – for instance, the lack of police repercussions for the acts of the Mafia, and the lack of any real motivation for some of our characters to act as they do, especially since at other times they appear to be content to be much more passive as the narrative demands. It is, however, a satisfying story, in the end, and that, really, is what we ask of it.
Strings by Stephen Leigh
Strings is quite a plain story, really; it taps into some American mythology with its own version of the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam movement for that matter, but makes it really quite a dark, damning one, attacking those movements in many ways; it’s also a really quite obvious story, which telegraphs its twists far too early on to really make it at all surprising. Indeed, we’re lacking in curveballs or (terribly) compelling characters, instead using excessive tragedy and poorly-concealed “twists” to try to avoid having such things; it’s a bit of a disappointment, but it does fill in some gaps in Wild Cards history, even if the ending’s very anticlimactic.
Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan by Carrie Vaughn
This is one of the better stories in the rump-end of the collection; Vaughn’s construction of the story has some brilliant twists in it, and a really nice building of tension with later sudden releases. Indeed, the plot does manage to combine two separate storylines really well, what with Jennifer’s search for Tricia, and her adventures with Croyd, running parallel but effectively combined; and the characters are really well-written, with Croyd playing true to type and very well written, and Jennifer a brilliant new character, her ace talent played close to the chest for a while and then revealed in the best possible way. A really great story.
Comes a Hunter by John J. Miller
Miller’s story is possibly the single best story in the collection, in part because it reminds me so much of the genre that Martin’s whole universe is playing off: superheroes. Whilst Shell Games manages to be an homage to the pulp era in general, Miller’s story is an homage to Green Arrow in particular, and a brilliant one at that; a normal man avenging his friends against aces, and leading into a fight against crime, using a bow and arrows, with a false name and mark to boot? This is genius stuff, beautiful homage to the superhero comics which pit ordinary humans against meta- or super-humans; and the way Miller plays it, there’s doubt, right until the last, over who’ll win. Amazing.
Interludes/Epilogue/Appendices by George R. R. Martin & others
These little bits and pieces to tie into the world and give a wider view than the stories can tend to be very good in a functional, and stylistically realistic, way. The problem is that they're not in themselves interesting; as a wider view on the universe, they're great, but some of them are basically impenetrable (Interlude Four especially), others not useful or contributory (Interlude Five, the section in the Appendix entitled "The Science of the Wild Card Virus). Worldbuilding by telling isn't terribly effective, and texts which go too far in the direction of stylistic mimicry become impenetrable, and that's a flaw in a number of these little linking sections.
Martin has put together an almost entirely excellent collection here, a brilliant homage to the superhero genre of comics that rises above it's origin by moving away from it, whilst remaining closely linked with it stylistically and ideologically. The use of the mosaic style and the various different authors writing linked short stories is managed excellently, especially the various characters who move between different stories smoothly and simply. The world's intriguing and the quality of the stories great, so I'll certainly be exploring this universe further!