Reviews: Big Hair, Big Guns!

Nobody Loves The Hulk!

Wild Cards — George R. R. Martin
Wild Cards, book 1

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.

 ~oOo~

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.

Wild Cards is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca). If Chapters-Indigo has it, their terrible search engine successfully hid it from me.

1: The Amazon listing does make this clear, but I was insufficiently diligent.

2: 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.

3: 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?

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You Say You Got A Real Solution

Schismatrix — Bruce Sterling

Bruce Sterling’s 1985 hard SF novel Schismatrix is the sole novel set in his Shaper/Mechanist universe, a setting also featured in handful of short pieces1.

The human colonies of the Solar System are divided into two factions: the Shapers, who want to enlist biology in reshaping humanity, and the Mechanists, who rely on technology. The two sides loath each other and are engaged in an increasingly tense cold war. It isn’t clear which camp will shape humanity’s future.

Abelard Lyndsay, born to a high-ranked family in the Mare Serenitatis Circumlunar Corporate Republic, was sent as envoy to the Shaper city-states in the Rings of Saturn. This was during a brief period when the Republic was flirting with a Shaper alliance. Once the lunar aristocrats allied with the Mechanists, Abelard found himself an embarrassing relic of a failed policy.

Already radicalized by the Shapers, Abelard turned to extreme political gestures. Upshot: Abelard’s lover Vera dead, and Abelard an exile from his former home.


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Wounds Are All I’m Made Of

Akira — Katsuhiro Otomo

Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga Akira was serialized in Young Magazine from 1982 to 1990. The first English translation was published by Marvel Comics’ Epic line from 1988 to 19951. The US edition pioneered the use of computer colourization, courtesy Steve Oliff. For many North Americans this was their introduction to manga.

Viktor Haag was kind enough to lend me his Epic collection.


Since I am not sure how the Epic volumes map onto the current version from Dark Horse, I decided to review the entire, 2000+ page work as a whole.

All together now:

 “TETSUOOOO!”


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Like Dragons in the Dead of Night

Voyage From Yesteryear — James P. Hogan


James P. Hogan’s 1982 Voyage from Yesteryear is a standalone science fiction novel.

Faced with seemingly inevitable nuclear war in the near future, the North American Space Development Organization and its Asian partners decided to take the bold step of re-purposing the SP3 interstellar probe. Five years before its 2020 launch, the probe was redesigned to deliver human life to Chiron, the habitable world in the Alpha Centauri system. But there’s a catch.

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I Ran So Far Away

Starfarers — Vonda N. McIntyre
Starfarers, book 1

1989’s Starfarers is the first volume in Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers Quartet.

The near approach of a cosmic string1 offers humanity superluminal access to Tau Ceti. A light-sail spaceship can hitchhike on the string to explore the nearest star system. A consortium of nations builds the Starfarer as a traveling university, one that will send back dividends of new knowledge that will more than pay for its creation.

That is, if it is allowed to do what it is designed to do. Some of its government supporters have other notions of best use.


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The Color Symphony

Champions, 4th Edition — George MacDonald, Steve Peterson, Rob Bell

Hero Games’ Champions wasn’t the first superhero roleplaying game1 or even the first SHRPG I played2. It was, however, the SHRPG I played the most often.

Originally published in 1981, the system was initially developed in a rather haphazard way; rules accreted across several editions of rule books. Efforts to correct this lack of organization began in the mid-1980s. 1989’s 4th Edition Champions, written by George MacDonald, Steve Peterson, and Rob Bell was arguable the culmination of this process. Known as the Big Blue Book, it was a fan favorite that shaped many games that came after it.

How does the rulebook stand up after OH GOD HOW IT IS 30 YEARS ALREADY?



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To Dream the Impossible Dream

Startide Rising — David Brin

1983’s Startide Rising is the second novel set in David Brin’s Uplift universe. It is also a standalone.

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Nobody Calls You Honey When You’re Sitting On a Throne

Shadow Magic — Patricia C. Wrede
Lyra, book 1

Patricia C. Wrede’s 1982 debut novel Shadow Magic was the first novel published in what became her Lyra series. ISFDB lists it as the third Lyra novel, presumably on the basis of internal chronology. But the omnibus on my Kobo lists Shadow Magic as first book in the series. Lyra book order may be a problem like Narnia book order; one can wile away many a pleasant afternoon discussing which is the correct way to order the books and which way is obviously incorrect. (I vote for the correct way, as I am sure you do too.)

Merchant Maurin Atuval has just been invited into the home of his new chum, aristocrat Har of the Noble House of Brenn, when he makes a sudden discovery. He is not the protagonist of this story. Har’s sister Alethia is.

This becomes apparent as soon as Alethia is kidnapped by Lithmern.

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That’s My Plan

In Conquest Born — C. S. Friedman
Azean Empire, book 1

1987’s In Conquest Born is the first volume in C. S. Friedman’s Azean Empire series. It was the author’s debut novel.

The Azean Empire has the misfortune to border territory claimed by Braxi. Braxi lives for war and conquest. If it concludes a peace treaty, that’s a temporary measure; they’re preparing for the next attack. There have been many comprehensive peace treaties between Azea and Braxi, each as short-lived as the one before.

The latest treaty collapses when Vinir and K’Siva, high-born Braxin, birth a son. The Braxana feel strongly that it would be inauspicious to name the child in peacetime. Braxin forces descend on an Azean colony world to celebrate Zatar’s birth.

Zatar grows into an ambitious and talented warlord. This would not bode well for Azea were it not that one well-placed family has also produced a capable child. But there is a slight problem.

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Do You Want To Know A Secret?

Four Hundred Billion Stars — Paul McAuley
Four Hundred Billion Stars, book 1

1988’s Four Hundred Billion Stars was Paul J. McAuley’s debut novel. It was followed by 1989’s Of the Fall (US title: Secret Harmonies), a prequel set some centuries earlier than Four Hundred Billion Stars. In 1991 McAuley published Eternal Light, a direct sequel to this novel.

The invention of the phase graffle re-opened contact between the Earth and its abandoned colonies. A few decades later, the Federation for Co-Prosperity of Worlds stumbled across an alien civilization living on and among the asteroids orbiting the red dwarf BD+20o 2465. The aliens are unrelentingly hostile; they are known as the enemy. Ever since contact was made, the Federation and the enemy have been locked in war.

Astronomer Dorthy Yoshida has no interest in matters military, but her telepathic gift makes her an intelligence asset too precious to the Navy to squander on pure research. The asocial scientist is drafted into the war effort.


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Somewhere Only We Know

Dreamrider — Sandra Miesel

Sandra Miesel’s 1982 Dreamrider is a standalone science fiction novel.

Ria Legarde lives in a world shaped by a great disaster in 1985 and the anti-tech backlash that followed. After years of chaos, Earth was unified under the Federation, an oppressive nanny state that subjects its citizens to peace, happiness, and art by people who aren’t white. Worst of all, the mental health authority PSI has sweeping powers to detect, detain, and treat the unhappy, perplexed, and nonconformist.

Ria is all three, thanks to her bizarre dreams.

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Looking For the Burning Truth

Breaking Strain — Paul Preuss
Arthur C. Clarke's Venus Prime, book 1

Paul Preuss’ 1987’s Breaking Strain is the first volume of six in the Arthur C. Clark’s Venus Prime series.

Taking pity on the amnesiac woman in his care, a guilt-ridden doctor restores her memories. This act costs the doctor his life, but allows the young cyborg, code-named Sparta, to escape the secret medical facility in which she is being held prisoner.

Reinventing herself as Ellen Troy, Sparta joins the Space Board as an investigator. Her cutting-edge education and advanced implants make her an exemplary recruit. First assignment: Port Hesperus, Venus!


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For Beautiful, For Spacious Skies

Black Star Rising — Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl’s 1985 Black Star Rising is a standalone science fiction novel.

The world is divided into two spheres, one dominated by India, one by China, These two powers were the only slightly damaged by an apocalyptic nuclear war that ravaged the United States and the Soviet Union. North America falls under China’s benevolent umbrella. Its aboriginal population is monitored by Chinese supervisors.

Castor is an Anglo farmer with pretensions above his class. Denied entry into university, he is an autodidact, hoovering up knowledge of no relevance to his duties to the Heavenly Grain Rice Collective. Elevation from this humble but necessary role comes courtesy of two unrelated events: a brutal murder and what seems to be a First Contact event.

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Paint It Black

Voice of the Whirlwind — Walter Jon Williams
Hardwired, book 2

1987’s Voice of the Whirlwind is the second volume in Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired series. It can be read as a standalone novel1.

Etienne Steward wakes to discover that he is a clone, the Beta, of the man with whose memories he was imbued. More revelations follow, none good:

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