Most people know George R.R. Martin only as the guy who wrote the books on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based. I find that quite a shame. If they started to get a little more acquainted with the other work of this fascinating author, they’d find that GRRM is also the editor of a series of science fiction anthologies that collectively dwarf and put to shame the whole current Marvel operation.

I’m talking about Wild Cards.

In 1946, an alien lands on Earth and desperately tries to warn the US government of a danger from his planet. This danger traveled to Earth on a second spaceship, commanded by the family of the alien. Their intention is to release an artificially designed virus on Earth meant to strengthen their own power, but before exposing themselves to it, they wanted to test it on a similar population. Their relative, in future well known to humanity as “Dr. Tachyon”, felt this to be a not entirely moral plan and tried to get to Earth before them to warn the population. A space battle between the two ships ensued, leading to both ships crashing on Earth. The virus, however, is safely stored for travel, so there is still hope for Tachyon to retrieve the vessel containing it. But the U.S. government is not exactly trusting him and so precious time is lost, which leads to the virus finding its way into the hands of a criminal who intents to blackmail the government, threatening the substance’s release. These developments culminate in a dramatic sky battle high over Manhattan, but all effort even from war heroes like Jetboy is in vain: the virus gets released.

This sets the Wild Card series in motion.

How does the virus work? It infects only a part of the population (about 1/2 percent.), but among these poor souls, nine out of ten die horribly while the survivors … change. Again, nine out of ten of the survivors do NOT change in a good way. They get deformed in horrible ways but survive. The remaining 1 % of the affected, however, get superhuman powers. Because of the randomness of this process, getting the virus and surviving is called drawing the wild card. The unlucky ones are seen as having drawn jokers, hence they are called jokers; the lucky ones, having gained superhuman power, are called aces (having drawn an ace). This is the basic situation, from which the Wild Cards saga sets out.

The stories in the book are in rough chronological order. Additionally, there are a few interludes, written by editor George R.R. Martin, to show how world events develop. The first story is called Thirty Minutes Over Broadway! Jetboy’s Last Adventure! and this is just what it describes. The last story, as far as I can tell, takes place at the end of the Vietnam era. Real history features heavily in this series, which, due to the arrival of the wild card, becomes alternate history. But with all the real players. The jokers join the blacks and other minorities as disenfranchised groups; McCarthy includes aces in his witch hunts; the Soviet Union is hinted as having its own secret ace program etc. etc. For anyone interested in history as well as science fiction and good story telling, Wild Cards I is a feast, and I expect the following volumes not to disappoint either, as we will move closer and closer to the present.

Now, a short overview of the stories featured in this first volume and my personal rating of them. I won’t spoil you with detailed plot descriptions but will try to describe in a sentence what each of them is about.

Rating

Thirty Minutes Over Broadway 8/10

This story describes the heaven-shaking event that started it all. Jetboy, the Army’s prime flyer, gets his final assignment: take down the flying object heading for Manhattan … It’s pretty straightforward and especially the final pages are very stirring. I just found the character of Jetboy a little lacking, especially compared to Croyd in the next one.

The Sleeper 10/10

The story of a kid affected by the virus on his way home from school. Croyd becomes The Sleeper. He doesn’t have the same sleeping rhythm as a normal person anymore; instead, he sleeps for weeks or months at a time, and each time he wakes up, he looks differently and has a different set of abilities.

There aren’t many dramatic things happening in this story, which works fine. Croyd’s change and how it affects his life is dramatic enough. I especially enjoyed the depiction of his family life. Sleeping for such a long time, Croyd misses out on large junks of his siblings’ lives.

Witness 10/10

The story about how the Four Aces, a sort of superhero team in good old comic fashion, come under investigation of the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities lead by Joe McCarthy. One of the more historical pieces. Aces are being questioned, but it they’re just standing in for everyone else who went through this in reality. Very informative. Also enjoyed the interplay between the Four Aces and Tachyon.

Degradation Rites 10/10

A follow-up to the previous one, this one from the perspective of Tachyon and Braintrust, a mind-reading woman, who is part of the Four Aces and becomes Tachyon’s lover. This is the story how HUAC destroyed her, which sends Tach into a downward spiral lasting for years.

Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace 4/10

A story about Hollywood and the aces. A television series about aces and jokers, mysterious deaths, a producer with a secret of his own. For me, this was one of the weakest stories. Perhaps it was a little too concise to be believable; I found the characters’ acts and motivations forced and not entirely believable. Also, the powers featured in this story seemed to me a little too close to the magical realm.

Powers 7/10

Again we get to explore the political and military world of the Cold War. This story features a CIA analyst, who is secretly an ace and has managed to hide this from his superiors, but not from his wife, who on the other hand doesn’t know he’s CIA. This man has the power to freeze time, which will come in handy when the Soviets manage to capture a valuable ace asset of the United States. This story shows us how the US government picked up on the Four Aces concept and made it more into a special CIA kind of thing.

Shell Games 9/10

GRRM’s story contribution to this volume. Shell Games is a conventional superhero story about the origins of the Great and Powerful Turtle, a kind of Ace-Batman. I don’t want to give too much away here, because it’s so fun. It’s typical GRRM, the story, and it furthers the narrative in an important way as it gives the perennial drunk Tachyon has become since Degradation Rites a new purpose.

The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato 4/10

I really don’t like the character of Fortunato and especially his power. I find it too disgusting. Ew. Ew. Ew. Don’t even want to write about it. The story’s short, too, and without much of an ark IMO.

Transfigurations 7/10

Transfigurations explores the hippie and post-hippie scene of the late sixties and early seventies and connects it with the Wild Cards myth. An MIT nerd meets his old high school nemesis (and secret love) who calls herself Sunflower now and wants to bring him to her side while he only wants her and to study the effects of drugs for his scientific work. It ends with a big street battle between the hippies and the pigs and an ace duel. Enjoyable.

Down Deep 7/10

This piece explores the world below New York City. Kind of like in IT, we get to explore the subway and sewer system and what lurks there. I enjoyed mostly the atmosphere and locations; the story itself had many unbelievable moments (again: powers!)  and a few things remain unexplained.

Strings 10/10

Ha! This story will really surprise and shock you! It also seems to set things up for later books. I don’t want to spoil you, so I’ll just say that I really liked it.

Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan 8/10

Another new story. It’s about a girl who loses her friend on a night out in Jokertown and spends the rest of the night trying to find her while also running from thugs who are after a key a girl in a club put into her hands. The difference: She has the ace power of gliding at will through solid objects. Thus: Ghost Girl. Also enjoyable.

Comes a Hunter 7/10

The final story is about a former soldier who left Vietnam disillusioned and now lives illegally in the US. He gets into conflict with a powerful former Vietnamese general who made it big in the drug trade while maintaining his respectable cover with the authorities. He kidnapped the daughter of one of the solder’s former allies and killed her father, which sets the captain on the path of revenge.

The big premise of this story, I think, is a fight between a normal guy and an ace, which is pretty well done.

Read Wild Cards!

All in all, there are stronger and weaker stories in this volume, as is natural for such a project, but the sum really is more than its parts. The great thing about Wild Cards I is that almost each story, except for the new ones that were added to this edition (Powers, Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace, Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan) continues the bigger story ark. Each story picks up one or more of the myriads of plot threads and spins it further, thus creating an overall narrative that looms large. I’ve never seen a collective narrative enterprise like this and am very, very impressed. I wonder how GRRM coordinated all of this. The result seems seamless, even though most of the stories were probably written simultaneously.