Have you heard the news? George R. R. Martin says that there’s going to be a TV adaptation of the Wild Cards universe. As one of those rare, rare people who is actually more into Wild Cards than A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones, I figure that makes this the perfect time to review some of the books from that series. So let’s shuffle the deck and deal out Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin.
Just after World War 2 over New York City, an alien virus transforms human genetics and goes recessive to create super heroes and villains. Most victims die, others experience physical or psychic changes: aces have useful powers, deuces minor maybe entertaining abilities, jokers uglified, disabled, relegated to ghettos.
I always found the first story, “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway! Jetboy’s Last Adventure!” to be a rather odd introduction to the series. The premise of the series being that the release of an alien virus creates an alternate history where super-powered metahumans exist, you’d think that the arrival of Dr. Tachyon and the virus on Earth would mark the divergence point between our universe and the fictional one. But no, even before anyone gets superpowers, superheroes and supervillains already exist, as demonstrated by Jetboy batting Doctor Tod in his death-blimp. Not that there’s anything wrong with establishing the setting that way; it just strikes me as odd, is what I’m saying.
If I had to pick my top three stories from this volume, I would say – in no particular order – “The Sleeper”, “Shell Games”, and “Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan”. “The Sleeper”, of course, is the introductory story of anti-hero Croyd Crenson, one of the most enduring and popular characters in the Wild Cards universe. There’s a reason George R. R. Martin came right out and said that any TV adaptation of Wild Cards would have to include Croyd in one form or another, and it’s apparent even from his very first story. Due to the nature of his Wild Card, Croyd is someone through whom we can see multiple facets of the Wild Card experience: sometimes a handsome and powerful Ace but sometimes a disgusting and weak Joker; sometimes a hero and sometimes a villain; and constantly adapting as he does whatever it takes to survive in a constantly changing world. “Shell Games” is also an introductory story, the first appearance of Tom Tudsbury, the Great and Powerful Turtle. If Croyd embodies the dichotomy of the Wild Card virus, then Turtle is an incarnation of the positive side of the virus: how from the darkest depths of tragedy, hope springs eternal. Whereas Croyd merely wishes to survive, Turtle wishes to become a force for good: to use the power the virus has given him to repair some of the pain and suffering it has inflicted on others. It is the most positive story in the collection, ending on a triumphant note as Turtle manages not only to save Angelface from her abductors but also Tachyon from his despair; showing that the Wild Card has produced heroes as well as monsters. And “Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan”… well, I don’t really read any deeper meaning into it, I just think it’s a really fun romp which is well-written, fun, and entertaining.
Of course, the collection contains some not-so-good stories as well. But, be they good or bad, all of the stories have a pervading problem that stems from the historical setting. On the one hand, it was a good idea to start the Wild Cards series in the past, so we could see how the existence of Jokers and Aces changes certain significant historical events. But, because the series set in the past, it is rife with period-appropriate levels of racism, misogyny, anti-semitism homophobia, and other such assorted unpleasantness. As a result of this, I had a bit of difficulty getting invested in each new character as they were introduced; I was always on-edge, wary that they might suddenly and out of nowhere drop some incredibly offensive remark that would make me cringe at ever having sympathized with them. (I’m looking at you, here, Fortunato).
The other major point I dislike is that the series is so quick to introduce a cure to the Wild Card virus – cures, multiple, even. The release of the Wild Card is supposed to be a world-shattering event, permanently changing the course of history by giving a small number of people superpowers but leaving a much larger number with irreversible hideous deformities. And yet, by “The Sleeper”, Tachyon is already handing out cures for Jokers. Now, it’s one thing to provide medical aid that alleviates a victim’s symptoms, such as resuscitating Demise after he draws the Black Queen; or giving psychological help so that a victim can gain control over an out-of-control power, as with the Projectionist. But he straight-up turns Bentley back from a dog into a human. That really mitigates the impact of the mutations other Jokers suffer; rather than seeing their condition as a devastating and life-ruining ailment, I see it as something that could potentially be fixed. Don’t worry, everyone; the Wild Card is curable, it’s not as big a deal as everyone thought. And while it’s stated that Tachyon’s treatment doesn’t work on everyone, “Comes A Hunter” goes and introduces another cure in the form of Mai, an Ace whose Wild Card power lets her cure the Wild Cards of others. Well gosh, with a woman who can go around reversing the effects of the virus with a touch, it’s a wonder there are any Jokers left at all. That’d put a pretty quick end to the series, wouldn’t it: “And then Mai cured everyone. The end.”
It could have been worse, though. The authors could have taken a female character the power to heal Jokers not by laying hands on them, but by having sex with them. Because then not only could they write lurid descriptions of this woman having twisted kinky Joker sex – you can already picture the slime and tentacles, can’t you? – but they could also make it a storyline about how all the most hideous and deformed Jokers want to chase her down and rape her in order to cure themselves. Doesn’t that sound like the most atrocious idea you’ve ever heard? Yes, it sure is a very good thing that the highly talented and extremely tasteful authors of the Wild Cards series would never stoop to writing anything so vulgar as that. Ha ha ha ha… Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pound my head against a wall until I lose all my memories of a certain story in a certain sequel book which I’m sure will never come up on this blog at all.
Final Rating: 4/5