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Book review

Wild Cards

by George R.R. Martin and others

Wild Cards by George R.R. Martin

This is the first book in the “Wild Cards” franchise, which I’d not come across before, despite it now containing (according to the Wikipedia article) 27 books across four different publishers. It’s a set of short stories by various excellently-credentialled science fiction authors, all set in the Wild Cards alternate history, and edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass.

The set-up to this alternate history is simple: just after World War II, an alien spaceship crashes in the US, and the – very human-like – alien inside demands to meet the President, to mobilise the entire American military to search for another crashed spaceship, which this first alien claims to have been chasing. For inside this other ship is a deadly bioweapon, which if released will have potentially terrible consequences for humans.

And, of course, it does get released: the first of the short stories deals with these events themselves. The bioweapon turns out to be a gas which reacts with human DNA: only 10% of people are affected, and most of them are killed outright. A few, however, have their DNA mutated and acquire either crippling, or superhuman, abilities. Those deformed by the virus become known as Jokers, while those given superhuman abilities are known as Aces.

I was pleasantly surprised by the high overall standard of these stories. Too often I’ve read compilations that were a bit of a curate’s egg – good in parts. These were overall pretty consistently good, with several really hitting home at a very strong level.

The stories are set across the decades from the end of the war to the early 1970s, and contemporary history plays a big role. Initially the Aces are genuine superheros, and we meet a team of four who work at arms-length for the US government to help them with various foreign policy “interventions” in Argentina, China, Cambodia and elsewhere. But all is not always sunny: a couple of the stories dealt with the McCarthy era, where the House Un-American Activities Committee turns its spiteful gaze upon the Aces, and decides they’re not “American” enough, and have possible communist leanings (hey, they worked in China didn’t they?). It’s quite gritty, real-world stuff, and the short story “Witness”, by Walter Jon Williams, was one of my favourite.

I also liked “Transfigurations”, by Victor Milán, which is set in “summer of love”, and wraps around things like the Kent State Shootings, aka the May 4 Massacre, in 1970. These were nicely written stories that did a great job of taking real-life events and using them as a point of leverage for their plot, whilst not diminishing the tremendous impact of the historical events themselves.

Some stories just use the Aces/Joker storyline to come up with interesting characters. “The Sleeper”, by Roger Zelazny, and “Shell Games”, by George R.R. Martin are representative of this, and both showcase great authors doing something a bit different from their normal fare, and doing it very well.

I’ll definitely be looking out for more of these collections in the future. Some of the Aces/Jokers are I’m sure going to make further appearances – the final story, “Comes a Hunter”, by John J Miller, is surely just a teaser for a future visit by The Predator, while the alien visitor himself – Dr Tachyon – is here for the long haul, I’m sure.

The book was first published in 1986, but despite this, it’s aged extremely well. Overall, I’m giving this four stars – very enjoyable.

(Possible trigger warning: some strong sexual content in a couple of the stories. Yes, people had sex even back in the 1980s 🙂 )