An alien species decides to use Earth to test a new bioweapon. An airborne criminal seizes the weapon and tries to use it to blackmail the city of New York. A former WWII flying ace tries to stop him. And, on 15 September 1946, the world is forever changed when the wild card virus is unleashed in the skies over Manhattan.
Ninety percent of those infected by the virus die instantly. A further nine percent develop crippling deformities or abnormalities, becoming known as 'jokers'. And one in a hundred of those infected develops a wondrous superpower. They become the 'aces'. As an alternative history of the 20th Century unfolds, the American government first tries to use the aces for their own ends and then, in a paranoid frenzy, turns against them, before they finally win some recognition for themselves. But for the jokers, forced to live in a ghetto in Manhattan, their road to recognition and respect will be much harder.
Wild Cards is the first book in the series of the same name, which of this time of writing spans twenty-one volumes with two more planned. This isn't a series of novels, but collections of stories written by many different authors. George R.R. Martin (of A Song of Ice and Fire fame) and Melinda Snodgrass provide editorial control, ensuring that each volume has its own narrative drive and point beyond just collecting random short stories together. The stories are set in their own milieu, with authors sharing ideas, using each other's characters and building up a consistent, coherent shared world.
The first Wild Cards book opens with a bang, with Howard Waldrop giving us the origin story for the entire setting in 'Thirty Minutes Over Broadway'. This is a terrific slice of fiction, with Waldrop fusing pulp energy with his own idiosyncratic style to give us something weird, resolutely entertaining and rather tragic in its own right. Roger Zelazny - yes, that one, the author of the Amber series and Lord of Light - then provides the origin story for Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, one of the original aces whose powers shift every time he goes to sleep. Crenson's periods of hibernation provide a handy way of fast-forwarding through the immediate aftermath of the crisis, showing how New York, the USA and the world adapt to the arrival of the virus. Walter Jon Williams and Melinda Snodgrass then show us two sides of the same tale through 'Witness' and 'Degradation Rites', the story of the Four Aces and their betrayal by the American government. These opening four stories provide a quadruple-whammy of setting up this alternate history and doing so whilst telling stories that are well-written (superbly so in both Waldrop and Zelazny's cases, though the others are not far behind), finely characterised and as gut-wrenchingly unpredictable as anything in the editor's fantasy stories.
Later stories remain highly readable, though perhaps not quite on a par with this opening salvo. Martin's own 'Shell Games' is, perhaps unexpectedly, the most uplifting story in the book, the story of the bullied boy who becomes a superhero. Michael Cassut's 'Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace' and David Levine's 'Powers', two new additions for the 2010 edition of the book, are both decent, filling in gaps in the history. Lewis Shiner's 'Long Dark Night of Fortunato' introduces one of the setting's less salubrious characters and makes for effective, if uneasy, reading. Victor Milan's 'Transfigurations' shows how the anti-Vietnam rallies of the late 1960s and early 1970s are changed by the presence of the wild card virus (and gives us an ace-on-ace rumble that is particularly impressive). 'Down Deep' by Edward Bryant and Leanne Harper is probably the weirdest story in the collection (which in this collection is saying something), a moody trawl through the underbelly of New York (figurative and literal). It's probably a little bit too weird, with an ending that is risks being unintentionally comical, but is still reasonably effective.
Stephen Leigh's 'Strings' and Carrie Vaughn's 'Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan' (the latter being another new addition in this edition) return to the quality of the opening quartet. The former depicts the jokers' battle for civil rights, resulting in riots and chaos in Jokertown and New York that a shadowy figure is manipulating for his own ends. 'Ghost Girl' is a straight-up adventure with the titular character teaming up with Croyd Crenson to find her missing friend. 'Ghost Girl' could be a novel in its own right, with the battling criminal gangs and dodgy drug-taking rock bands providing a canvas that's almost too big for the story, but Vaughn's method of keeping the story under control and resolving it is most effective. Finally, John J. Miller's 'Comes a Hunter', in which a 'nat' sets out to avenge the death of his friend by going up against some criminal aces, is a superbly-written thriller which examines how 'normal' people can stand up against aces and jokers.
The book as a whole is excellent, with the stories entwining around real history and changing it in a way that is mostly organic and convincing. There are a few issues with plausibility here - most notably the way no-one seems particularly bothered about the proven existence of an alien race that has just tried to poison the entire planet - but for the most part the writers use the premise to tell stories about the changed history of the USA (from McCarthyism to civil rights to Vietnam) in an intelligent, passionate manner.
Wild Cards (*****) introduces the world, setting and many of its memorable characters through a series of well-written, smart stories. There isn't a weak card in the deck, and the best stories (those by Waldrop, Williams, Snodgrass and especially Zelazny) are up there with the best of their original work.