Wild Cards I edited by George R. R. Martin

There is a secret history of the world—a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with extraordinary powers. Some were called Aces—those with superhuman mental and physical abilities. Others were termed Jokers—cursed with bizarre mental or physical disabilities. Some turned their talents to the service of humanity. Others used their powers for evil. Wild Cards is their story.

Wild Cards is a collection of short stories by a number of different authors but woven together and edited by none other than George R. R. Martin. Yes, the same George R. R. Martin that created Game of Thrones. You see Wild Cards actually predates Game of Thrones by a good decade and it’s interesting to find some themes in this book that are also present in his later books.

Unlike other collections, the short stories in this book all share the same world, one that is recovering from an aftermath of an alien virus that caused many people to die and others given strange abilities. Some stories also share characters, so it would definitely help if you read them in the order presented in the book so you don’t miss out.

When the alien virus was unleashed in 1946, many people died. Of those lucky few that survived, most of them are transfigured into horrible beings and only a couple came out with something beneficial. Since these abilities are so random, the virus was later known as the Wild Card virus and the lucky ones who were dealt the good hands are known as “Aces”, while the bad ones are “Jokers”.

The short stories deal with the survivors of the alien virus outbreak and how the world has changed now there are Aces and Jokers running around. There are also interludes in the form of newspaper articles that act as a bridge between stories and help fill in the gap of what else is happening and provide the readers with a richer experience.

One thing that you can’t miss while reading this book is how closely these stories followed real world events and politics. Instead of just hunting Communists during the McCarthy era, the G-men are also hunting down Aces and “recruiting” them to their cause. Instead of the race riots, there’re the Joker riots because the Jokers are treated even worse than Coloured people due to their horrendous appearances.

Just like any other collections, there are some great stories and there are some duds but the overall package is impressive and provides a good variation of stories. These stories are very different in terms of style to the other superhero books that I have been reading of late.

The stories that impressed me the most were “The Sleeper by Roger Zelazny”, “Witness by Walter Jon Williams”, “Powers by David D. Levine” and “Shell Games by George R.R. Martin”.

In “The Sleeper”, Croyd Crenson is infected by the alien virus and after every time he sleeps, he would wake up with a new appearance and a new ability. The abilities aren’t always beneficial and the story shows how this kid learns to cope with his ordeal while providing for his family.

“Witness” tells the tale of the Four Aces and how they fell from grace with the American public after they were indicted with links to Communist interests. This is a political story that really captures the mood of mistrust of that era.

“Powers” is just a fantastic story of an Ace who has decided to come out of hiding and help his country to rescue a pilot that has been missing in action ever since he crash landed in the Soviet Union.

In “Shell Games”, a bullied teenager grows up to become The Great and Powerful Turtle to right the wrongs of the world and in the process helps the alien Dr. Tachyon to overcome his depression.

I really enjoyed the alternate US history presented in the stories and it was fascinating to see how the virus was incorporated into real world events. All in all, this collection of stories has piqued my interest in this series and I will definitely be checking out the other books to read more about Aces and Jokers.