Sept 15, 1946: Wild Card Day. When aliens from the planet Takis wanted to test their newly developed virus on a species that is similar to them, naturally, they brought it to Earth. Though they were thwarted by one of their own princes, a foppish alien who has become known to Earthlings as Dr. Tachyon, the virus fell into the hands of evil Dr. Tod, a Nazi sympathizer who, thinking it a biological weapon, decided to drop it on New York City. His archenemy, Jetboy, tried to stop him in a now-legendary air battle above Manhattan, but Jetboy was unsuccessful. When the virus was dumped on New York City, it killed 90% of the people it infected. Nine out of every ten who lived mutated into strange, often hideous, creatures who became known as “Jokers” while one in ten developed a special superpower and became an “Ace.”
WILD CARDS is a shared universe in which several SFF authors contribute their own stories about those who “drew an Ace” on Wild Card Day. There are several volumes in the WILD CARDS series, all edited by George R.R. Martin, the mastermind who created WILD CARDS (with a little help from his friends) 25 years ago. For its 25th anniversary, WILD CARDS is being reprinted by Tor and, for the first time, produced on audio by Brilliance Audio. This first volume has the original stories plus three new ones. All of them introduce Aces and Jokers who lived in America during the time between the end of World War II and the end of the Vietnam war, an era known for the McCarthy hearings, the Civil Rights movement, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. Later WILD CARDS volumes expand on these characters and their storylines and introduce many new ones.
- “Prologue” by Studs Terkel explains the Wild Card virus, why the aliens of Takis invented it, and how Dr. Tachyon tried to get here in time to warn us.
- “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway” by Howard Waldrop is the story of how Jetboy tried to save New York from the alien virus in an air battle over Manhattan.
- “The Sleeper” by Roger Zelazny tells the story of Croyd Crenson, a school boy who runs home during Jetboy’s battle on Wild Card Day. When he goes to bed, he sleeps for a long time. Afterward, he wakes up to find that he has a different body and a superpower. The strange thing about Croyd’s manifestation of the virus is that every time he wakes up, he has a different body and power.
- Anti-communist sentiments are strong and the Aces, those who received special superpowers from the virus, are easy to mistrust. “Witness” by Walter Jon Williams is the story of the trials of the Four Aces and how Jack Braun, aka Golden Boy, will forever be known as a Judas.
- Blythe Stanhope Van Renssaeler, the Ace known as Brain Trust, can absorb the knowledge from anyone’s brain. “Degradation Rites” by Melinda M. Snodgrass tells her story and explains why her nervous breakdown broke Dr. Tachyon’s heart.
- In “Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace” by Michael Cassutt, Karl, a Hollywood producer with superpowers, decides to help catch The Medusa Killer, a serial murderer who targets Jokers. This is a new WILD CARDS story — it wasn’t in the original Wild Cards anthology.
- The U.S. government has started rounding up Aces, but nobody knows what it’s doing with them. In “Powers” by David D. Levine, we find out when one secret Ace decides to out himself so he can help rescue a captured U.S. airman.
- “Shell Games” by George R.R. Martin is the story of a college-age secret Ace who decides to come out of his shell after the assassination of President Kennedy. The courage of The Great and Powerful Turtle is inspiring to Dr. Tachyon, who’s been a depressed alcoholic since Blythe’s breakdown.
- In “The Long, Dark Night of Fortunato” by Lewis Shiner, a black/Japanese pimp discovers that he’s an Ace who can use tantric sex to power his magic.
- Victor Milan’s “Transfigurations” introduces Mark Meadows, a biochemistry grad student who is talked into trying LSD by a girl he has a crush on. Under the influence of LSD, he transforms into an Ace who becomes known as The Radical when he gets involved in an anti-war protest in Berkeley. Dr. Meadows will later be known as Captain Trips.
- “Down Deep” by Edward Bryant and Leanne C. Harper takes place mostly in the abandoned subway tunnels underneath New York City and introduces Sewer Jack Robicheaux, who turns into an alligator when stressed, and a homeless lady named Bagabond who talks to cats.
- In “Strings” by Stephen Leigh, we meet a senator who is trying to use his power of influence over others to become president of the United States.
- “Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan” by Carrie Vaughn, is another new story. Wraith’s “ace” is that she can make parts, or all, of her body transparent. She’s been reluctant to use her power, but a night out on the town changes her mind.
- “Comes a Hunter” by John J. Miller tells of Daniel Brennan (“Yeoman”), a Vietnam veteran who got tied up with a traitor in Vietnam and framed for treason. After many years of hiding and training, Daniel is ready for revenge.
There are five interludes interspersed among the WILD CARD stories which further describe or explain some aspect of the WILD CARDS world. There is also an appendix at the back of the book (and at the end of the audiobook) which explains some of the background, history, and science of the virus. Audiobook readers may want to listen to that after listening to “Prologue.”
Luke Daniels narrated Wild Cards, which means that it was wonderful to listen to on audio. I was excited to see this title in Brilliance Audio’s catalog this season and I look forward to reading the next WILD CARDS volume, Aces High in this format. Wild Cards is more than a good anthology — it’s a wonderful shared world experience, I suspect, mostly because of George R.R. Martin’s careful editing. I didn’t love every story in this volume, but I do love the endless variation in the WILD CARDS world and how these stories fit together so well, each expanding this crazy world in another direction while remaining true to the original shared vision.