Novels on super powered people aren’t new. This series predated a good chunk of the latest crop, though, and was a damned good series to boot. Now it’s been re-released, and with a couple of caveats, I’ll recommend it to anyone interested in either super-powers or science fiction, because Wild Cards partakes of both.
This book covers time from 1946 to the 80’s. It’s at the end of the War that Earth gets it’s first extraterrestrial visitor, Prince Tisianne of Ilkazam, or as he quickly becomes known as, Doctor Tachyon. His goal is to prevent his family from the planet Takis from releasing a virus upon humanity-a virus that would change it forever. Things don’t work quite out as planned; the virus kills 90% of those it infects in all kinds of unpleasant ways. 9% are changed horribly, mutated in forms from nightmares-and 1% gain powers above and beyond mortal ken, as they say. The virus comes to be called the Wild Card virus; the dead draw the Black Queen; the mutated draw Jokers. The lucky ones draw Aces.
Wild Cards is an anthology series, which means a number of authors are writing short stories that cover the entire span of time. This also means we get a good look at a bunch of different personalities, from the nobility of the Great and Powerful Turtle (yeah, I know, what’s in a name, but on the other hand, it fits), to the rather despicable acts of Puppetman. The stories cover all over the late 20th century; from post WW2, to the days of the McCarthy hearings, to the hippie movement, to the Presidential primaries of ’76.
Because of the nature of this book, some authors have better stories than others. I found myself particularly fond of “The Sleeper” by Walter Jon Williams, which takes place in the early days of the coming of the virus, and shows how a young boy is changed by the Wild Card into something rather unusual, even for the virus. “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” is more about Robert Tomlin, a jet pilot who was stranded on an island during the last year of World War II, and is written in the tradition of the old serials. And “Shell Games”, by George R. R. Martin and set shortly after the assassination of JFK, shows the beginning of the career of the Great and Powerful Turtle.
Interspersed about the book are small sections showing the impact that the Wild Card has had on history. Between the prologue, which gives a hint of how it all begins, to a discussion on the McCarthy hearings, to Wild Card Chic, we get a fairly good idea of how things are a little different because of the Wild Card-and how some things still remained the same. I rather liked that touch, personally.
This isn’t a books for younger readers; if nothing else, there’s a lot of language that you do not want youngsters using, and a significant number of characters aren’t really the type of people you want to emulate. My other problem with unreservedly recommending this book is the price tag; while I usually don’t remark on it, it’s a pretty steep tag for a book that came out originally in normal paperback form for half the price. If you can find this in a used book store, I’d recommend you pick it up there; from what I can see, you only miss a few illustrations, and really, the stories don’t need them.
(2012 note: pricing has much improved with the latest printing on Amazon.)