Review – Wild Cards edited by George RR Martin

The Wild Cards series began in 1986 and new installments of the shared world novels have appeared sporadically over the last 25 years. Shepherded by George RR Martin, the initial concept was similar to The X-Men but self-consciously more sexual in tone. In 1946, an alien bomb detonates in New York city, killing many and infecting others with psychic powers, physical deformities, or both. Wild Cards (aka Wild Cards I) details events that take place between the initial disaster and the early ’80s as the country adapts to living alongside the victims of the wild card virus, who conveniently stand in for every clichéd threat to the American way from communists to hippies.

After an overlapping selection of stories detailing the formation and dissolution of America’s first superhero squad, the book trudges through the decades as each author introduces new characters with new talents. The 2010 edition contains three new stories, and two of them stand out among the book’s highlights. Both “Powers” and “Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace” take place during the Red Scare, the only time period when the metaphor of mutants as unduly hunted is realistically justified. The later stories, which focus predominantly on the mutated jokers, are considerably broader thematically, as the jokers stand in for Civil Rights activists and AIDS victims. The closer the timeline gets to the decade of the book’s publication, the stories get lazier, assuming that history would pretty much progress as it has, but with mutants versus the Man.

Though stories like “Down Deep”, in which an alligator man teams up with a ghost subway car to fight the mafia[1], and pastiche essays attributed to Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe bloat the latter half of the collection, Wild Cards is worth checking out if only for Roger Zelazny’s “The Sleeper”. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of the bomb’s detonation, “The Sleeper” focuses on Croyd Crenson, a boy whose affliction alters in his sleep. Every time he exhausts himself, Croyd needs to prepare for what he might change into when he wakes, and for how long he might sleep. “The Sleeper” feels like a classic, the only story in the book where the author takes the premise in a personal direction[2]. It sets a standard in the first 100 pages that the others can’t meet and places the bar extremely high for the Wild Cards series as a whole.

[1] Not as fun as it sounds.

[2] Assuming that none of the authors is secretly a geisha-hoarding pimp who gains super powers through tantric sex practices or a disavowed POW who hunts criminals with a bow and arrow.


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