Call them Tyranids, call them Zerg, or call them TIAMAT; they’re an unstoppable all-devouring alien swarm hive-mind, and they’ve shown up in the Wild Cards universe to be your one-shot villain of the book. It time to ante up for Aces High, edited by George R. R. Martin.
It all began in 1946, when the bizarre, gene-altering Wild Cards virus was unleashed in the skies over New York City. A virus that created super-powered Aces and bizarre, disfigured Jokers. Now, thirty years later, the victims face a new nightmare.
Aces High is a rather odd entry in the Wild Cards series; a book that demonstrates uncertainty about what direction the series will ultimately take. It’s been thirty years since the outbreak of the Wild Card virus, so the story is no longer dealing with the immediate ramifications: the mass death of people who drew the Black Queen, the sudden appearance of Aces and Jokers in a world completely unprepared for them, and people adjusting to their sudden transformations. But rather than transitioning into stories about how major historical events play out in this world significantly altered by the Wild Card, it ignores real Earth history in favor of a story about alien invasion.
The Swarm Mother isn’t terribly original or exciting: just your standard all-consuming organic alien hive-mind. Any fan of science fiction has seen it a hundred times before: the Zerg from StarCraft, the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000, the Flood from Halo, the Hive from Tour of the Merrimack… the list goes on. And I can’t say I find its evil plan very compelling: it wants to absorb all life on Earth into itself… so it plans to start a nuclear war that will destroy all life on Earth and render the planet an uninhabitable radioactive cinder? That doesn’t seem to be the most productive course of action.
Well, give the authors this much credit: they seem to have realized that giving Mai the power to heal Jokers with a touch was something of a mistake, narratively speaking, so they take the opportunity to write her out of the series – and in an elegant and respectful manner, no less, rather than being hacked to pieces and stuffed into a fridge. It’s sad that I feel the need to mention that, but given the series’ treatment of a certain other female character who is in fact introduced in this very book… but no, let’s not talk about that now.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that this book is the introduction of James Spector, aka Demise; a character who I like far more than I probably should, given that he’s an unrepentant murderer. However, this isn’t really the place to talk about that, since he doesn’t really do anything notable in this story; his role is only to serve as another of the Astronomer’s lackeys. Likewise, Jay Ackroyd, Popinjay, makes his first appearance; and while he will go on to great things in later books, there’s really not much for him here.
A character who does actually get a full, meaningful story arc is Jube the Walrus. His story forms the backbone of the novel, propping up a narrative that otherwise might have fallen limp. He isn’t actually that relevant to the overall story, since he neither plays a role in the Swarm Mother’s defeat nor ends up using his Shakti Device to contact the Network, but the focus on his small and intensely personal struggle made him very sympathetic and relatable; reading about him determinedly pursuing a last-ditch mission that even he admitted was probably futile was a lot more interesting than the descriptions of Aces slaughtering wave after boring wave of generic Swarm monsters.
Likewise, the brief diversion which Tachyon, Captain Trips, and the Great and Powerful Turtle are abducted by Tach’s cousin Zabb and have to escape is extremely compelling because of how personal the stakes are: Tachyon must break free of his family ties, and aid Turtle in overcoming the psychosomatic failure of his psychic powers caused by the loss of his shell just as Turtle once helped him after Blythe’s death. Indeed, it’s so compelling that it’s possible to forget for a time that it is only a diversion – it does nothing to advance the overall plot of saving the Earth from the Swarm Mother.
And finally, as in the first book, the best thing in the Wild Cards universe is Croyd the Sleeper – in this case, the best-written chapter of the book is “Ashes to Ashes”, where Croyd and Devil John Darlingfoot get into a series of wacky mishaps while trying to steal a corpse. It’s pretty tangential to the main plot, but as you’ve seen that’s pretty standard for all the best parts of this book: the main story arc about the Swarm Mother is the least interesting part, with all the true entertainment lying in the side-plots that the various characters get drawn off into along the way.
Aces High is a book that ultimately works in spite of itself. The Swarm Mother plot which serves as a frame for all the other stories in the book is plodding and unoriginal, but those other stories are entertaining enough that they hold up on their own merits.
Final Rating: 4/5