Aces High is the second volume of George R.R. Martin’s long-running WILD CARDS anthology. In the first volume, Wild Cards, we learned how aliens from the planet Takis decided to test their new virus by using humans as their guinea pigs. In the 1960s, they let loose what has now become known as the Wild Card virus on Manhattan. Much of the world population died and many of the survivors became grossly deformed and are now referred to as “Jokers.” A much smaller proportion of those who were infected gained one or more superpowers and are now known as “Aces.” In Wild Cards, we followed several Aces and Jokers as they dealt not only with their new status in life, but also with the social and political events of the 1960s.
Aces High, which is named after the upscale restaurant at the top of the Empire State Building that caters to Aces, is set in the early 1980s. The Wild Card virus continues to exert its effects on the Earth, regularly producing malformed Jokers and occasionally creating a new Ace. One thing that makes this series so interesting is that the Wild Card virus mixes with each individual’s unique DNA, resulting in a completely different species of Joker and Ace each time it strikes. I don’t really believe that this is how an alien virus would manifest (there’s just not enough diversity in the human genome), but there’s always something fresh and new in WILD CARDS — it’s not constrained by the character types laid down at the beginning of the series.
This installment contains stories by Lewis Shiner, George R.R. Martin, Walter Jon Williams, Roger Zelazny, Walton Simons, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Victor Milán, Pat Cadigan, and John J. Miller. Amazingly — and this is another thing that makes WILD CARDS work so well — though it’s an anthology, Aces High reads like a novel written by one author. This is a testament to Martin’s excellent editorial skills, I’m sure. For one thing, all of the stories are written in a similar style — they’re all fast-paced, focused on character and action, and have similar amounts of description and dialogue. A couple of the stories are divided into several parts that appear as interludes between the other stories, making it feel like a novel with chapters from different points of view. But more importantly, every story fits snugly in its place and refers to characters and events in the other stories, always getting the other stories’ particulars correct but never repeating anything in a clumsily obvious attempt to show that they’re connected. I envision Martin taking all of these individual stories and adding in these clever little details to make it flow so smoothly. The end result is brilliant.
This time the Aces are dealing with an Egyptian Masonic Temple and the Swarm aliens they want to bring to Earth. Meanwhile, Dr. Tachyon’s relatives have tracked him down and want him to come home. Then there’s the crazy old bag lady who’s carrying around a Singularity Shifter in her bag. All of these threads are eventually weaved together.
Some of the characters in Aces High are ones we met in the first volume: Fortunato the pimp, Croyd Crenson the sleeper (who is now considered and Ace rather than a Joker), the Magnificent Turtle, Dr. Mark Meadows (Captain Trips) and Yeoman. We’re introduced in this installment to Jube the Walrus, the paperboy who is really an alien; Modular Man, the sensitive robot who has a conscience (he’s one of my favorites); Demise, who can kill people by staring at them; The Astronomer, the evil guy who runs the Masonic Temple; Water Lily, who can suck all the water out of a human body; and Kafka who, as his name implies, has metamorphed into a giant cockroach. Though most of the villains in Aces High are comically two-dimensional (the whole series has a superhero comic strip vibe), the stories themselves are unique and exciting and there’s even a couple of touching love stories for the tender-hearted reader.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of Aces High, read by Luke Daniels. That last phrase, “Read by Luke Daniels,” should be Enough Said for anyone who’s listened to him before. He’s flawless and entertaining as always.