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Wild Cards 1 by George R.R. Martin
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765326157
Date: 23 November 2010 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

Was it really 25 years ago? Hard to believe, but it's true--the Wild Cards series was born in 1985. Masterminded by George R.R. Martin, what began as a group of authors playing a game transformed into the longest-lived shared world in print.

To celebrate, Tor Books is re-releasing Wild Cards, the original anthology. This is not just any old re-release, however; the new edition is upgraded with three all-new stories.

The year is 1946. Robert "Jetboy" Tomlin, world-famous ace, is at loose ends following the end of World War II and his rescue from being stranded on a desert island. In "Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!" by Howard Waldrop, readers can thrill to the birth of a strange new world, as Nazi mad scientist Dr. Tod threatens Manhattan with a germ bomb unlike anything known to man.

You see, the wild card virus is an extraterrestrial mutagen. Nine in ten humans infected by the virus die; nine in ten survivors are physically transformed, some in minor ways and others dramatically--they are jokers. One in one hundred becomes an ace, seemingly unchanged but gifted with a supranormal ability. Lucky for Earth, the alien creators of the virus were thwarted by one of their own, a foppish prince nicknamed Dr. Tachyon.

In Walter Jon Williams' "Witness" (still one of the best of the series) and "The Sleeper" by the late legend Roger Zelazny, readers get to know Golden Boy and The Sleeper--two aces created on the first Wild Card Day, whose lives take very different turns. Golden Boy becomes a part of a superhero team working to promote democracy around the world in the '50s, who faces his greatest challenge in the form of the U.S. government. Meanwhile, the Sleeper acquires a new form and power every time he falls asleep; he's awake for weeks and then asleep for weeks, so faces the prospect of time passing him by. He tries to hold on to what he can--but fate laughs at the plans of even the most powerful ace.

Melinda Snodgrass's "Degradation Rites" chronicles the dark days of Dr. Tachyon--a beautiful story full of melancholy, as Tachyon tries to help victims of the virus, falls in love, sees wild carders work toward making the world a better place, and then is forced into a choice that affects the world for decades to come. It's a story that frames exhilaration, heartbreak, and loss splendidly.

Michael Cassutt's terrific "Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace" follows the doings of a German expatriate and former rocket scientist-turned-TV producer. Endowed with super-sight, all Karl wants is to figure out why his lead actor can't show up on time. With jokers being murdered and wild carders driven underground, pursuing this mystery could result in his cancellation. A clever and engaging tale set in '50s Hollywood, this is a story that could probably only be written by someone with Cassutt's own familiarity with Tinseltown. Well done.

In "Powers," by David Levine, a mid-level CIA analyst with a secret has figured out a captured US airman's impending fate. Can he bring himself to risk everything to save a man he's never met? A fascinating look at a very tricky sort of power and the responsibility that comes with maybe knowing too much.

"Shell Games" by George R.R. Martin brings to the fore Tom Tudbury, one of the series' greatest heroes: the Great and Powerful Turtle. In the aftermath of national tragedy, Tudbury finds his inner hero...and wraps him in a steel shell. It's a terrific coming-of-age story with superpowers, one of Martin's most elegant and heartfelt tales.

The title character in Lewis Shiner's "Long Dark Night of Fortunato" is a remarkable creation, perhaps only possible in a series like this: he's a half-black/half-Japanese pimp whose sorcery is fueled by tantric sex. Shiner makes him an indelible presence as well as a powerhouse ace, so that Fortunato is one of the defining figures of Wild Cards altogether.

Victor Milan's "Transfigurations" heralded the debut of Cap'n Trips (aka Dr. Mark Meadows), a crewcut nerd-genius who falls into the counter-culture of the '60s and never really emerges. As the Radical, Mark achieves his fondest dream--but long-time readers will know how easily dreams can become nightmares. Still, this is Mark at his most innocent and happy, and a terrific read.

"Strings" by Stephen Leigh introduces Sen. Gregg Hartmann, whose ace allows him an insidious hold over those he meets. Hartmann's story dominates several of the early books and justly so; he's a brilliantly evil character.

"Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan" by Carrie Vaughn (the third and last new story in the book) ties in nicely with John Joseph Miller's gripping "Comes A Hunter", which introduces Vietnam vet Yeoman and his war with criminal mastermind Kien Phuc. The ghost girl we meet is Wraith, who will have a role to play in Yeoman's private vendetta, but here we see her learning about her powers in a fun, action-packed story of a girl's night out gone wrong.

Revisiting these stories, and reading the new ones, is like re-joining a discussion with old friends. There's something wonderful about it, going back to the early days and seeing the foundations of this strange, exciting world laid down by so many terrific writers. It's easy to see why Wild Cards is the longest-running shared world anthology of all time.

Readers who have heard about the series but held back should dive in now. This is the book that got the ball rolling. Find it, buy it, read it again and again.

Highest recommendation.

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