Wild Cards I edited by George R. R. Martin
Posted Winter 2019
This book was a selection by my friend Shawn for our book club, Fermented Fiction. We started this book club last year - basically we get together every month and a half to drink beer and discuss fantasy / sci-fi / speculative fiction. We each choose a book and draw the names out of a hat. We recorded the last meeting and have released it as a podcast (still wrapping my head around the process so it's just on YouTube right now).
Review - 4/5
I didn't select this book, so I came to it fairly blind. I knew that it was a collection of short stories, and I was expecting a bit of a tame load of superhero tales. Something PG-13 like Marvel might release.
Boy, was I wrong.
Essentially, George R. R. Martin created a world and asked other fantasy writers to collaborate on the process. Given that it was originally released in 1989, I was very pleased to see names like Roger Zelazny in the mix (he passed away in 1995, and I have only just discovered his work). All of the stories have a different feel, depending on the author, but the world is the same.
The overarching plot goes like this: around the end of World War 2, a group of aliens that are genetically identical to human beings tries to use Earth as a petri dish to test out a virus. These aliens lived in a relatively messed up society, where the nobility has telepathic powers and they want to enhance those abilities. The virus is meant to be the way to do that, but they need to perfect it. Earth, filled with human beings susceptible to the virus, would be the perfect place to test it out.
The effects of the virus, called the Wild Card virus, are unpredictable. The majority of people infected die. A fraction survive. Of that fraction, nine out of ten experience "bad" mutations, like susceptibility to bruising or turning into an anthropomorphic crocodile. The bad mutations are called "drawing a joker." One out of ten of the survivors "draws an ace," or receive helpful powers like telekinesis or super strength.
Unfortunately for the aliens that want to drop the germ bomb on earth, one of their brethren thinks that mass infection of an unwitting populace with this mostly terrible disease is pretty evil. So he, Dr. Tachyon, tries to stop the release of the virus. He manages to kill his fellow aliens but loses track of the bomb.
As you might imagine, human beings find the unexploded bomb and do the aliens' work for them. Right in the atmosphere above New York City.
The stories focus on aces and jokers throughout the decades. The virus has an enormous impact on society, and human beings act with exactly the same frailty as they had before their exposure. There is mistrust of the aces, they get rounded up in McCarthy-esque hearings meant to strip them of power, the jokers are quarantined in a ghetto called Jokertown. The virus survives dormant or hidden throughout generations, infecting future generations and offering strange powers and deficits.
The cast of characters is cool. The first one we are introduced to is The Sleeper, a boy who goes to sleep for weeks periodically and becomes something different, mostly aces, but every once in a while a joker. There is also the story of The Turtle, a young man with incredible telekinetic powers that uses his abilities for good, non-stop. Or the LSD-soaked story about The Lizard King and Radical. One of the more ridiculous stories is about Fortunato, a pimp ace who uses tantric sex rituals to reabsorb his own semen and grow his third eye. Literally, he wields sexual powers. There is also necrophilia in that story - again, there is nothing PG about this book. A real messed up villain is the Puppetmaster, who can influence people into doing really terrible things. Of course, he would turn out to be a power-hungry politician.
There is a lot of social commentary in here. The Red Scare and McCarthyism, civil rights, Hollywood - a whole bunch of insight on how shitty people can be to one another. This made it more relatable and X-men-esque.
I did enjoy the book, and would recommend it to pretty much anyone. It was much different than what I am used to and that is a good thing. Just don't say I never warned you about Fortunato. ;-)