Saturday, March 02, 2013

A Trio of Wild Cards (short stories, mosaic novel)

There was a relatively brief fad in science fiction and fantasy for shared world books. A number of writers would get together, define a setting, and all write stories in the shared settings. These had varying degrees of success, and most are gone and forgotten.

One notable exception is the Wild Cards series, originally led by George R. R. Martin but eventually spread around to a number of other folks. The first volume came out in 1987. Since then they've moved from publisher to publisher, still holding to the same theme and exploring it in mostly interesting ways. Volume 22 is expected shortly.

These books were an attempt to show superpowers and their use in the real world. That's a common trope these days, but at the time it was pretty new. The background they developed for this involved an alien race called the Takisans, a hereditary tyranny by a small group with psychic powers. In looking for a method to extend and improve those powers, they developed a mutagenic virus that became known as the wild card. The virus was too dangerous to turn loose on their home world so they tested it on a lost Takisian colony - us - shortly after World War II. The virus was deployed by spraying it over New York City, but the deployment wound up being relatively small. Nor was it particularly virulent. If you didn't get it in the initial deployment, you probably didn't get it. If you did, your chances weren't good. 90% of those infected died, usually of some horrible deformity caused by the virus. 9% got the deformity but didn't die. 1% survived with some sort of power. The stories were set from shortly before deployment and moved forward to the then-current date.

The first few sets of books were written as triplets. There would be two books of short to mid-length stories written by various people, then a 'mosaic novel' that would tie together the threads introduced in the short pieces. This pattern has been followed for most of the books since then.

I was and am a huge fan of George R. R. Martin, so bought read the  series as the books came out. They were enjoyable, but by volume eight or nine the quality seemed to be falling off and I stopped reading them.

Recently I read a volume of NESFA Press' collection of Roger Zelazny's short works. It included several stories he wrote for the first Wild Card series and were quite enjoyable. A few days later we were heading out on vacation, so I dug out the first three Wild Card books for airplane reading - Wild Cards, Aces High, and Jokers Wild. They're not large books, and by our first night back home I'd finished them.

The verdict? They're airplane reading. The series as a whole is mostly fluff, with a few exceptions here and there. The short stories are uneven, running from the very good (Zelazny, Martin) to the mediocre to the downright bad. The mosaic novel Jokers Wild is better, and does a good job of tying together the threads of the first two books. It provides a satisfying conclusion to the first arc, but unfortunately doesn't make the poor threads any better. The re-read matched my memory of them, and reminded me that the writers I liked best got less involved as the series went on. They were a fine way to pass time in airports and lines, but I've probably got much better things sitting in the to-be-read pile at home. I'll neither be re-reading the rest nor seeking out the ones I don't have.

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