LitStack Review: Aces Abroad: Wild Card IV edited by George R. R. Martin

by Sharon Browning
Aces Abroad: Wild Card IVaces
Edited by George R. R. Martin
Tor Books
Re-release Date:  January 13, 2015
ISBN 978-0-7653-3558-6

In the 1980s, a group of New Mexico residents, many of them writers, were involved in a superhero role-playing game, grand mastered by author George R. R. Martin (of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire fame).  From what must have been many lively and enjoyable meetings came a compelling idea:  why not turn these created characters and their world into a series of books?  And rather than have one person write it for everyone involved, why not have it be a “mosaic novel” as a shared world anthology, with each person writing a contributing story from their creation’s perspective, moving the over-arching theme along via multiple viewpoints, with one voice recurring throughout, knitting them together into one cohesive whole?

The result is “Wild Cards”, a series of books – 22 at last count – all set in a familiar yet alternate universe where an alien virus, inadvertently unleashed in 1947, had devastating effect on those stricken.  Christened the Wild Card virus due to its unpredictability, ninety percent of those contracting the virus died (or “drew the black queen”).  Of the ten percent that survived, 9% mutated into deformed creatures known as “jokers”, while the remaining 1%, declared “aces”, gained amazing – and sometimes troubling – superpowers.  A few of these aces whose powers were considered useless (such as being able to grow body hair at will) were dubbed “deuces”.

The first book, Wild Cards, was published in 1987.  Over the years, more anthologies, novels, ibooks, comic books and short stories were published through 2014, shepherded by George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass, with other major contributors including Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shiner, Walter Jon Williams, Leanne C. Harper, Chris Claremont, Victor Milán, John J. Miller and Daniel Abraham.  (Interestingly enough, Neil Gaiman approached Martin with an idea of a superhero who lives in a world of dreams; when it was declined, he went on to publish the idea himself, as the original Sandman graphic novel.)  All the books exist along the same timeline, within the shared universe.  Many of the original characters make appearances throughout, some are virtually constant.  It’s an amazing collaborative project.

Now, in 2015, Tor Books has reissued Aces Abroad: Wild Card IV (originally published in 1988), adding two new chapters from authors Kevin Andrew Murphy and Carrie Vaughn.  In it, a delegation of American politicians, jokers, aces and journalists are on a globetrotting, five month long fact-finding mission on the behest of the World Health Organization.  It’s been 40 years since the wild card virus was first unleashed, and different countries treat those afflicted in vastly different ways:  some victims are vilified and even eradicated; elsewhere, they are (supposedly) integrated into mainstream society.  Some of the aces, especially, even become celebrities, or are worshiped as the embodiment of prophecy.

But how aces and jokers are treated in Haiti, Mexico, Peru, Syria, Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia (yes, Czechoslovakia – this is 1987, remember?), Japan, Germany, France and elsewhere, is only the public side of the story (although that part is often fraught with peril).  The personal stories of the likes of Senator Gregg Hartmann (who has Presidential aspirations – and secrets just as large), Peregrine, with her lovely presence and delicate, flight laden wings that makes her a media darling, nine foot tall Troll, whose thick green skin and ogre-ish look belie his down to earth sensibilities, and of course, Dr. Tachyon, the Takisian geneticist and powerful telepath who works (often) tirelessly to help assuage the effects of the virus that his people unleashed, loom just as large, threatening to change the course of not only their own lives, but the entire course of civilization.

It’s very interesting to read a work, set in 1987 and published in 1988.  Even with being rereleased this year, the sentiments are often slightly unfamiliar, more confrontational and more sexist than what our modern, politically correct sensibilities have come to expect.  Although this is a work of speculative/science fiction, with a lot of fluidity in the historical timeline, the basic governments and political movements remain intact, and that at times can be somewhat startling to the modern reader, in a very beguiling way.  There is a sense of, “oh, was life really like this?”  Sometimes the answer is no, but most of the times it is yes.  After all, Soviet Russia had not yet fallen, the Berlin Wall was still intact, Afghanistan was controlled not by the Taliban but by the USSR, the Middle-East had yet to explode, Palestine was beginning a new intifada against Israeli occupation, Reagan sat in the White House, Gorbachev in the Kremlin; the Cold War was in full swing.  By couching the stories within the political intrigue of the time, yet focused within a globe-wide altering event, we are in a constant state of retro-fantasy, which is utterly fascinating.

The stories themselves are somewhat uneven.  Some are downright riveting, whereas others feel like they have been lifted from the worst of the b-grade action movies of the time.  Some of the characters are hard to swallow as being completely unbelievable, even for a mutant/superhero, but others will resonate with a humanity that has been just as affected by the virus as corresponding physical attributes.  The sex – and yes, there is a fair amount of sex in many of the chapters – is universally trite or shocking (as one would expect of speculative sex written almost three decades ago) but that in and of itself lends much to the stories.

I was quite drawn Carrie Vaughn’s contribution, “Always Spring in Prague”, where one of the protagonists was a young American woman – a joker, with one arm that morphed into a tangle of snakes at the elbow – who had fled her privileged home to find a welcoming community in the Czech revolutionary underground.  Her need to be accepted for who she is, not for what she is, was poignant and relevant.  But I think my favorite was Kevin Andrew Murphy’s “Warts and All”.  It may not be the strongest chapter, dramatically or thematically, but the image of a huge, orc like creature being beset by trails and tangles of butterflies is precious.  How Mr. Murphy was able to weave those images into deeper intrigue and even pathos is quite enjoyable.  (Interesting – I just realized my two favorite sections were the ones more recently written….)

Aces Abroad was my first foray into the Wild Card universe, but now that I have stuck my toe into its waters, I do believe that I will continue to seek these books out.  Maybe it’s my own role-playing background, but I find the entire impetus to the series to be quite captivating, and the result to be energizing, coming from so many different yet shared perspectives.  Then again, there are a few story lines that weren’t resolved at the end of the book, and I keep wondering if Senator Hartmann really does run for President, or will the others find out about….. oh, wait – spoilers!  Wouldn’t want to do that, now, would I?  You’ll just have to explore this universe on your own, and make your own discoveries.  But I can guarantee, it will be a fun ride.

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