There is a secret history of the world—a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with extraordinary powers. Some were called Aces—those with superhuman mental and physical abilities. Others were termed Jokers—cursed with bizarre mental or physical disabilities. Some turned their talents to the service of humanity. Others used their powers for evil. Wild Cards is their story.
Originally published in 1987, Wild Cards I includes powerful tales by Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Howard Waldrop, Lewis Shiner, and George R. R. Martin himself. And this new, expanded edition contains further original tales set at the beginning of the Wild Cards universe, by eminent new writers like Hugo–winner David Levine, noted screenwriter and novelist Michael Cassutt, and New York Times bestseller Carrie Vaughn.
I asked for this book for Christmas because in my searches for novels about superheroes, about 80% of the hits were Wild Cards books. (The series has been running for twenty-four years* and there are a lot of books by now.) I wasn't expecting much. The original cover made the book look cheesy and pulpy. The new cover led me to think the book was about the first few years after the virus. I'd gotten the impression from what I'd heard and read about the book/series that it followed a standard anthology format—everyone picks a time and place and character, and there's no interconnectedness or larger story. I thought it would be a chore to get through.
I was wrong on all counts. This is some of the best-written fiction I've read. It's exciting. It's addictive. It's beautifully paced and interwoven. It captured the feel of every era it dealt with. And yes, that means there are multiple eras here. The first piece is set in 1946. The last is set in 1986. In between are stories dealing with McCarthyism, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the Age of Aquarius (not in that order, obviously). The amount of world-building and thought that went into this book, into tweaking real history so that the repercussions of superheroes come through, good and bad alike, is phenomenal. I tend to be fairly critical of "magic power" stories***, asking about repercussions of powers and power-caused actions and how the powers fit into the greater world. Wild Cards delivers, in spades (and hearts, clubs, and diamonds). It's a very holistic, very well thought-out world.
As for the larger story … there isn't one set out clearly, like there apparently is in later books in the series. There's no real sense of an end goal. Most of the characters never meet each other. Instead, Wild Cards I tells the story of the world. It's about how the world as we know it (or knew it, given that the book first came out in '87) has changed and yet stayed the same. It's about establishing the ideas, the characters, and the issues that will fuel later books. If you want to be cynical, it's about hooking readers.
That's not to say there aren't weaker stories or elements that I didn't enjoy. There was a little too much harping on certain issues in the world, like Joker rights, for my taste. A couple of the stories seemed to have less to do with the themes and world than the rest. There was one story that made me sit back and ask, "Really? Really? You're trying to make me believe that?" Yes, the Joker rights had to be in there. We had to see the push and pull of the politics surrounding them. They're central to so much of the overall story. But I felt that some of the rights-centric stories could have been written a little differently so that the message and point of the stories took a background to the entertainment.
Overall, though, I loved the book. Everything about it is exceptionally well-done, from the world-building to the writing to the characters. Definitely a great read. I highly recommend it.
About the Superheroes
The Wild Cards superhumans get their powers and appearances from genetic mutations. There are hints that personality and mutation might be linked, although it's hard to see how that's true in some of the cases. There also seem to be instances where a sudden need or desire shapes the superpower, and there are hints that are technology-oriented heroes as well—but with a combo of mutation and tech. There's also a cure, but it only works in some cases and has to be tailored to the individual. Most people who contract the wild card virus die.
The Wild Cards 'verse breaks from real world history after the end of WWII. Superheroes had been around for seven years** by that time, meaning that the first generation of kids to be affected by the virus already idolized superheroes. And then a few aces become famous, and comic books come out about them, and soon you've got whole generations of kids looking up to superheroes and aspiring to be them. The Wild Cards 'verse, in other words, is a deconstructive 'verse much like Watchmen, in that people choose the superhero route because it seems cool on paper (or because the government's paying them).
Wild Cards is also deconstructive in the sense that it's not all sunshine and roses for the superhuman mutants. There's a lot of fear of the Other in the book, a lot of class problems, a lot of political maneuvering, a lot of things going wrong. The jokers are by and large described as the sorts of people who would, in a more black and white, pulpy sort of text, become henchmen, minions, and supervillains. In Wild Cards, they're portrayed as people. Neither good nor bad, just people trying to make ends meet and stay out of trouble as much as they can while doing that. The aces are often portrayed the same way (and the ones that aren't, we don't get the POV of).
I like this take on superpowers and superhumans. It's layered, realistic, and compelling. I especially like that you don't just get attractive, perfect superheroes in Wild Cards. You also get twisted, mutated people with superpowers who do heroic things, and you get attractive, perfect superhumans who really aren't all that heroic (or villainous). I think that's what's hooked me most on the series—the shades of grey.
* assuming my math is correct
** assuming my math is correct and Superman was the first superhero, which I think he was
*** don't tell me superpowers aren't magic on some level