Imagine a world filled with people with superpowers. With its rerelease of Wild Cards I, the first book in the shared-world anthology series edited by fantasy titan George R.R. Martin, Tor Books wants to make it a little easier for you to do just that. The anthology, first released in 1986, presents an alternate history where an alien virus unleashed in the immediate aftermath of World War II irrevocably changes the human condition. Granted, the result isn’t always—or even often—Superman. In fact, those who are infected (“draw a wild card”) are more likely to be horribly disfigured or killed (“draw a joker”) as to gain a useful ability (“draw an ace”).
To newcomers, the anthology’s “real world” take on the super-powered might seem a well-trodden path. After all, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s acclaimed 1986 limited series comic Watchmen presented a similar, grittier version of how the traditional comic hero, that paragon of human virtue, might fare in a world where those less noble human traits—lust, ambition, greed, etc.—abound. Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns,Watchmen was a seismic event in hero “theory,” forever altering the tone and tenor of superhero storytelling in ways that are the rule, not the exception, these days. But the Wild Cards series actually was introduced the same year as Watchmen andDark Knight. It’s less copycat than it is concurrent generation, and deserves a measure of respect as such.
Shared-world anthologies can sometimes be off-putting, or at the very least confusing, as disparate writing styles clash to the detriment of the larger world being built. Wild Cards I certainly has a diverse and skilled range of voices—from the late Roger Zelazny, one of the giants of fantasy and science fiction, to Nebula Award winners Edward Bryant, Howard Waldrop and Walter Jon Williams. But George R.R. Martin provides plenty of reader-centering ligature between the tales in the form of a prologue, interludes and an appendix, as well as in his editing and ordering of the stories. First-time readers will quickly gain their footing in this world of Aces, Jokers and “ nats” (slang for “ naturals” —those unaffected by the virus), even as different perspectives and time periods are presented. As for existing fans, the new edition includes three new stories (by Michael Cassutt, David D. Levine and Carrie Vaughn)—perhaps reason enough to purchase Wild Cards I a second time.
With HBO bringing Martin’s landmark fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, to televisions everywhere starting in the spring of 2011, interest in Martin’s other projects should spike as viewers—many of them uninitiated in the genre—check out other works with his name attached. (Just ask Charlaine Harris what impact HBO’sTrue Blood—based on her Southern Vampire Mysteries series—had on interest in her body of work.)
Taken together, Wild Cards I isn’t necessarily greater than the sum of its parts, but it doesn’t need to be. If you enjoy Harry Turtledove-esque forays into alternate history, fantastic tales of super-powered protagonists or just like pulp fiction-fueled, bite-sized excursions away from the day-to-day, Wild Cards I has plenty to offer.