Top positive review
Wow! It works as a comic book novel, as alternate history, and as an impressive mosaic novel
Reviewed in the United States on April 17, 2018
A year ago, I had no desire whatsoever to delve into a 23-volume shared universe series that has been running since 1987. However, four things changed my mind:
1) I read James Maxey's Whoosh! Bam! Pow! trilogy, which showed me how much fun superhero novels can be.
2) I read some reviews stating the later Wild Cards books (since Tor took over in 2008) were very high quality. Rather than just serving as a launching pad for new writers, now successful established authors like Carrie Vaughan and Charles Stross have become regular contributors to the project.
3) Wild Cards got picked up for a new television series by Universal that promises high production values like Game of Thrones
4) The cover art for the reissues piqued my imagination
The book begins when humans first "drew the wild card" and it traces a 40-year alternate history up to 1986, the original date of publication. It succeeds as a comic book novel. It succeeds as alternate history because each story captures a different era in American history. It succeeds as mosaic novel; the multiple writers add depth but manage to keep a consistent tone and coherent narrative.
"Thirty Minutes Over Broadway"
Howard Waldrop gets things off to a rollicking start with his story of how an alien gene-mutating virus gets unleashed over the skies of New York City in 1946. His hero Jetboy harkens back to a golden age, a blend of Audie Murphy meets The Rocketeer. He lied about his age to join the fight against Hitler, became a hotshot pilot with 500 Nazi kills to his credit, and was immortalized as a larger-than-life comic character idolized by millions of children. His last (ultimately unsuccessful) mission to stop the deranged Dr. Tod from releasing the virus makes him the world's last genetically un-enhanced hero. The beauty of this story is how Waldrop grounds his characters in a real place and time but allows the prose story to stay faithful to its four-color roots. This is Waldrop's only contribution to the Wild Card universe so far.
Roger Zelazny sets a high bar for creative use of mutants right out of the gate. Croyd Crenson aka The Sleeper was a 14-year old boy when he got infected with the virus. Now he goes into hibernation every two weeks and wakes up with a completely different body. Sometimes he is an ace (blessed with superpowers), sometimes he is a joker (deformed in some odd way). He exhibits deep loyalty to friends and family, he abuses drug habitually, he champions the rights and safety of jokers, and he primarily makes his living as a thief. His story is fun, and of course he is perhaps the most versatile character in the series -- he can literally be anyone or anything in any author's story.
I have conflicted feelings towards Walter Jon Williams' Nebula-nominated short story. I enjoyed the arc of Golden Boy, an ace with Superman-like powers whose life is ultimately ruined not by lack of strength, but by his lack of integrity and will. I appreciate how this story went so obviously against type and also how it explored the consequences of black, Jewish, and female superheroes in 1950's America. The alternate history aspects were also intriguing: Aces round up all the Nazi war criminals, prevent the Berlin Wall, save Ghandi from assassination, and overwhelm the North Korean army. Some historical events were too powerful to stop: China still became communist; South America still became infested with fascist dictators.
I took issue with the large role of HUAC in the story. Maybe I am too far removed from the era, but it is hard for me to believe America's anti-Communist hysteria would have existed in a world that had just suffered an alien terrorist attack and saw 9% of the population of New York mutated into hideous jokers. In fact, I think the presence of jokers would probably have had a more profound impact on both the Cold War and the American civil rights movement. Americans, Russians, blacks, and whites would have all found a new breed of person to despise and marginalize.
(George R.R. Martin course-corrects this issue in his interstitial piece "Red Aces, Black Years." He establishes that the initial fears against communism morphed into a fear of aces, which was exploited by Senator Joe McCarthy for political gain.)
"Degradation Rites" by Melinda Snodgrass
This story covers many of the same events as "The Witness" but from the point of view of Dr. Tachyon and The Brain Trust. It goes a long way in establishing Tachyon as a sympathetic and tragic figure.
"Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace" by Michael Cassutt
A Hollywood producer trying to conceal his identity as an ace deals with erratic actors, financial pressures, and a serial killer in 1956. This is new story written for the expanded edition was entertaining, but I wished the crime and noir aspects had been more developed.
"Powers" by David Levine
Frank Majewski is an aging CIA analyst who has never done field work, but his ace power allows him to freeze time for up to 11 minutes, rendering him effectively invisible. When a U2 spy plane is captured by the Soviets in 1960, President Eisenhower authorizes him to sneak into Vladimir Central Prison outside Moscow to rescue pilot Gary Powers. Frank, aka Agent Stopwatch, ages rapidly when he uses his power, so the mission is literally a race against time. I really enjoyed this hesitant, doubt-riddled character, but sadly he appears to be a one-off.
"Shell Games" by George R. R. Martin
When the beautiful but fragile Angelface is kidnapped during a raid at her nightclub in Jokertown, Tachyon must move beyond his grief, recover his sobriety, and rediscover his life purpose. He teams up with the Great and Powerful Turtle, a timid man who can use telekinetic powers but only when he feels safe in his "shell", an armor-plated Volkswagon bug. This story featured some great characters, especially Angelface, but it is windy and slow. The dark, adult-oriented prose loses the frenetic pace and gee-whiz elements of surprise that make comic books characters fun.
"The Long, Dark Night of Fortunado" by Lewis Shiner
Fortunado is a half-black, half-Japanese pimp whose powers include astral projection, slowing down time, and perhaps even telepathy. He can only recharge his abilities through tantric sex, absorbing power from his partners as long as he does not allow his own energy to… ahem, spill out. He can even use his sperm to reanimate the dead. This story is just as sleazy as it sounds, but I cannot deny Fortunado is one of the more entertaining characters in the Wild Cards pantheon so far.
"Transfigurations" by Victor Milan
The prose is a bit clunky at times, but this story features a strong narrative that mixes superheroes, the hippie movement, 60's rock n' roll, and the politics of Vietnam. It introduces three new aces: The Lizard King is a violent anti-Vietnam protestor who sympathizes with Chairman Mao and wants to spark a revolution. Hardhat is a Polish immigrant who suffered under the Soviet regime and believes in traditional American values. Radical just wants to give peace and love a chance. The first two characters do not seem to recur in the series, but Radical and his meek alter-ego Mark Meadows are series regulars.
"Deep Down" by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper
This is a busy story that pushes too far and jumps the shark for me. It involves four characters, all of whom will recur in the series. Sewer Jack is a giant killer crocodile living in the subways of New York City. Bagabond is a homeless lady with the ability to communicate with animals (her own drug use and mental breakdown play as much a factor in her state as the Wild Card virus). CC Ryder is an activist and rape victim who turned into a sentient subway car when she was pushed onto the tracks. Rosemary Muldoon is a nat, the daughter of a mob boss who became a social worker to atone for her family's sins.
"Strings" by Stephen Leigh
In the summer of 1976, the Jokertown ghetto erupts in riots and political protests. The author does an amazing job putting the reader in the thick of the action and making it feel like it a real race riot. He also introduces The Puppeteer, a Democratic senator who wants to be president and who harbors the secret villainous ace power to manipulate people through a weak sort of telepathy. I believe he will become an arch-villain for several arcs in the series.
"Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan" by Carrie Vaughn
In the appendix of the original edition of this book, there was brief mention of a woman who ran naked through solid walls. For the 2010 expanded edition, Carrie Vaughn fleshed out a character from this scant reference and wrote a story about Ghost Girl and The Sleeper. She set her story in 1981 rather than 1946 (the original time reference) and featured a punk rock concert, which added a new glimpse of NYC in the early 1980's. A light-hearted but entertaining story.
"Comes a Hero" by John Jos. Miller
Yeoman is an action-adventure ninja antihero straight out of the 1980's. Although technically he is a nat, he is widely mistaken for an ace due to his special forces military training and his mastery of kyudo (zen archery). In fact, in this origin tale he successfully outduels an ace with the power of teleportation. Yeoman is chasing a shadowy Vietnamese crime lord who once betrayed him. Yeoman makes a tenuous alliance with Chrysalis, a once-beautiful women whom the virus cursed with completely transparent skin. Both are recurring series characters.