1987’s Wild Cards is the first volume in George R. R. Martin’s ongoing superhero shared-universe project of the same name.
Here’s a bird’s‑eye view of the anthology (i.e. the table of contents).
- “Prologue (Wild Cards I)” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin
- Thirty Minutes Over Broadway! • novelette by Howard Waldrop
- The Sleeper • novelette by Roger Zelazny
- Witness • novelette by Walter Jon Williams
- Degradation Rites • novelette by Melinda M. Snodgrass
- “Interlude One” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin
- Shell Games • novelette by George R. R. Martin
- “Interlude Two” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin
- “The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato” • short story by Lewis Shiner
- Transfigurations • novelette by Victor Milán
- “Interlude Three” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin
- Down Deep • novelette by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper
- “Interlude Four” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin
- Strings • novelette by Stephen Leigh
- “Interlude Five” • short fiction by George R. R. Martin
- Comes a Hunter • novelette by John J. Miller
- “Epilogue: Third Generation” • short fiction by Lewis Shiner
- “The Science of the Wild Card Virus: Excerpts from the Literature” • short fiction by Victor Milán
For the most part, the interludes are pretend non-fiction pieces intended to flesh out the worldbuilding.
The planet Takis and 1940s Earth are both inhabited by humans. Why this is so, the Takisians do not know, but it does mean that backwater Earth is an ideal test site for a biological weapon. The man Earth will come to call Doctor Tachyon does his best to prevent the delivery of the weapon to Earth; he fails. Others, including war hero Jetboy, do their best to prevent the detonation of the device; they fail as well.
Those inhabitants of New York who don’t reach shelter in time are exposed to the Wild Cards virus. Ninety percent of the people who contract it die horribly. Of the ones who survive, ninety percent are horribly transformed. These are the Jokers. This is an era that values conformity; any sort of physical imperfection or unusual appearance is enough to turn someone into a pariah. Shunned, Jokers congregate in their own slums.
That leaves the final ten percent of survivors. These lucky few are transformed in ways society finds acceptable: good-looking, super-powered, they can become celebrities. Some even try their hands at being heroes. These last are repaid for their good deeds in the usual fashion: they’re often ignored, sometimes punished, infrequently rewarded.
Shared universe anthologies were a popular format in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Examples include Thieves World, Heroes in Hell, Liavek, Wild Cards, and Man-Kzin Wars, and many many others. I’m reviewing Wild Cards because it was competently done and it’s still on-going.
Well, actually … I was thinking of doing the Liavek series and even purchased an ebook. Alas, I discovered that my new ebook does not include all of the original stories1.
Whereas the current edition of Wild Cards has more stories than appeared originally. I’m reviewing the1987 edition, not the expanded edition.
Revisiting this series after thirty-three years.…
As I recall, the Wild Cards project grew out of Martin and chums’ fondness for the roleplaying game Superworld . Gaming was taking time away from writing, as astounding as that may sound in an era when no author ever allows themself such distractions. Wild Cards was not just an attempt to jump on the shared universe bandwagon; it was an attempt to monetize time otherwise wasted on mere enjoyment.
It turned out that Martin’s fellow gamers were pretty good writers. Can one generalize? Is the sort of imagination you need to be a good RPG player also the kind of talent you need to write compelling stories? I would argue that it’s not surprising that the skills exercised when creating RPG campaigns and characters can be applied to prose writing2.
It may be significant that the specific game Martin and company played (and that inspired their setting) was Superworld . Chaosium’s Superworld used a point-based design in which the total number of points available was equal to the sum of the characteristics the player randomly rolled. This meant that there was considerable variation in the power level available to characters. As well, because this was a BRP/Runequest-derived system, even tough characters could be … fragile. Regular folk can be squashed or dismembered with ease. It’s a nasty world out there.
Rather than explaining superhero origins with a lot of disparate incidents (lab accidents, rescue rockets, etc.) this world explains them all with one event, the release of the virus. The variable effects of the virus allow for the creation of pretty much any kind of character the players and writers could imagine.
Thanks to the lookist bigotry of the society, it’s easy to forgive characters who live on the wrong side of the law3. They needn’t be bad … but all too often they are. Some of the most memorable characters in this series are also the least likeable. Super-pimp Fortunato is a champ at grooming women for prostitution. The prodigiously powerful Great and Powerful Turtle spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself.
The series is often violent. Martin is fond of using rape as a plot-engine. The series is often not fun to read. It gets tedious. But there are exceptions. When I first read these stories, I found a number of them impressive (Sleeper , Witness , Shell Games in particular). Rereading established that yes, they were memorable, and yes, they were still quite good.
The Wild Cards shared universe has survived for three decades (while competitors died) and at least three changes of publisher, all thanks to its discerning editors. They picked talented writers and good stories. Too bad about the violence and rape.
- The Amazon listing does make this clear, but I was insufficiently diligent.
- This sort of cross-over must be pretty common. Members of my own gaming group, which the mediocrity principle suggests is unlikely to be exceptional, have garnered five spots on Hugo finalist lists, not to mention nomination for the Nebula, Locus, Sunburst, Campbell, and the Tiptree awards. Members have also served as jurors for awards like the Tiptree and the Diverse Writers Award.
- The fact that Marvel’s Magneto thought “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” was a good name for a superhero collective suggests that those mutants could have done with Don Draper and Peggy Olson’s help. Perhaps a concerted campaign against ableist and lookist prejudice? Of course, successful campaigns would erase one of the appeals of the superhero genre: identifying with protagonists who are unappreciated, who may hide behind an everyday identity, but who are still worthy of love and admiration. Who hasn’t felt like that?