Wild Cards – Volume 1

Edited By George RR Martin

Authors: George RR Martin, Howard Waldrop, Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Lewis Shiner, Victor Milan, Edward Bryant, Leanne C. Harper, Stephen Leigh, John J. Miller

Published in 1987

Available in paperback from online sources

It’s 1947 and the world is still recovering from WWII. In America an alien craft crash lands, and its occupant demands to be taken to the President as he has grave news. He is an exile from his home world; his race has chosen Earth as the test ground for a deadly virus. A test he objected to. During a battle in orbit he destroyed the ship carrying the bomb but it fell to Earth, he wants to help find it.

The bomb however falls into the hands of criminals, and they plan to extort money from New York. During an aerial battle with the hero known as Jetboy, the criminal’s airship is destroyed and the bomb detonated. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief; the bomb was high up in the stratosphere and too high to do any damage. How wrong they were.

The virus falls on New York, and due to being exploded in the high atmosphere it soon travels round the world. Over the following days, weeks, months and years it wreaks havoc, killing tens of thousands, they are looked on as the lucky ones. Those that survive exposure are altered, mutated; they fall into two types, those known as Jokers and those known as Aces.

The Jokers are horribly deformed, a combination of human, animal and monster. Some die soon after transforming, others linger for years in pain and despair. The Aces are called luckier, in them the virus awakes latent psi powers creating super-powered beings, some can fly, some are near indestructible, some possibly immortal.

The virus gets called the Wild Card Virus, because it’s the luck of the draw which strain you will get.

Before I picked up this book I’d never heard of a mosaic novel before. Mosaic novels are made up of an assortment of stories, by different authors; that tell the same story. Of the dozen or so authors that contributed to the first Wild Card book, all of them created their own characters. Some went for Jokers, others for Aces. They tell the story from the arrival of the alien known as Dr. Tachyon’s craft, on to Jetboy’s heroic battle and then into the after-effects of the virus release.

The diverse styles of writing work well together to tell the story as a whole. Some are dark, some humorous and some down-right weird. The characters created are part fantastical and part superhero. Some even don costumes and fight crime, most have names to match their personal afflictions. But underneath all the stories the world we know, the real history of the 20th Century, shines through as the various Jokers and Aces become involved in events that shaped the world today.

Dr. Tachyon, the enigmatic alien come to save the world, The Sleeper, Croyd Crenson whose peculiar strain of the virus has him changing from Joker to Ace every time he sleeps, Golden Boy and the Four Aces, think The Avengers, The Great and Powerful Turtle, a boy who wants to be a superhero, Fortunato, empowered by Tantric sex, Puppetman, a twisted control freak who uses his power to control others and Gimli the political activist who will fight for Joker rights no matter who gets hurt.

One of the main themes evident throughout is the segregation and persecution of the Jokers. The main ghetto is in New York, directly under where Jetboy died destroying the alien bomb. Known as Jokertown it is a dismal area, the buildings unsafe, the streets dirty; crime rampant. The Jokers are virtual prisoners, unable to work, shunned by those not afflicted by the virus. Their lives are full of hate and pain, making Jokertown the hub of protests for Joker rights and the site of riots and death.

The book also covers the famous House Committee on Un-American Activities and McCarthyism. But here, as well as trying to root out Communists the committee is hunting for Aces and branding them as subversives and a threat to national security. Unlike the Jokers, Aces outwardly look normal, they hide their powers from society for fear of reprisals or imprisonment.

There is some pretty heavy subjects covered in the various stories, the way both Aces and Jokers are treated mirrors what was happening all over America with segregation. As the stories progress – this first book covers from 1947 up to the late 1970s – they incorporate Vietnam, the summer of love, and the struggle for racial equality. There are no punches held, it is graphic in places, but the sex and violence are not gratuitous.

The Wild Card shared universe has spawned 20 books to date, the latest released recently. They re-write the history of the late 20th Century. It is full of fictional and real characters, some world events play out as we known, but some history is re-written because of the involvement of Aces, and in some part Jokers. Edited by George RR Martin, who also contributes a story, this collection of stories is a riveting read, full of colourful characters, action, sex and thought provoking dilemmas.