Wild Cards Volume 1 - WILD CARDS
The bible for all that is to follow, this sets up many of the characters and most of the 'heavy hitters' who will feature prominently in the volumes to come. Although billed as a 'mosaic novel' it is, in fact, an anthology of linked short stories interspersed with fictional extracts from relevant publications of the time and covers events from 1946 to the early eighties.
The series begins with a brief Prologue - 'excerpts' of interiews taken from "Wild Times: An Oral History of the Postwar Years" by Studs Terkel, that provide a human perspective on the arrival on earth of the father of the Wild Cards, Dr Tachyon in 1946.
The book then starts proper with the 'Golden Age' Jetboy story, Thirty Minutes Over Broadway! Jetboy's Last Adventure! (by Howard Waldrop) detailing the heroic attempt by a WW2 fighter pilot ace to prevent the dispersal of the Wild Card virus over Manhattan by a maniac in an airship.
With The Sleeper (by Roger Zelazny), we are introduced to our first Wild Card victim, Croyd Crenson, and one of the main figureheads of the series who is cursed to fall into a coma and wake up in a new body every few months. Sometimes an ace, sometimes a joker, we follow his evolution from a fourteen year old boy to adulthood and his inevitable (considering his condition) descent into the world of crime.
Next is Witness (by Walter Jon Williams), a first-person account by one of the first major aces - Jack Braun, AKA Golden Boy - who tells of his rise in the forties, the creation of The Four Aces and his fall during the HUAC witch-hunt trials.
Degradation Rites (by Melinda Snodgrass) fleshes out the Dr Tachyon character and his involvement with the other two members of the Four Aces.
We are then given our first Interlude - an extract from "Red Aces, Black Years", a New Republic article from 1977 by Elizabeth Crofton.
The 'Silver Age' of the Wild Cards universe begins with Shell Games (by George R.R. Martin) as we are introduced to the Great and Powerful Turtle in the early sixties, and witness the origin of one of the most prominent and important aces in the series.
Another Interlude - a brief news story from the New York Times from 1966 - before we seque into The Long Dark Night of Fortunato (by Lewis Shiner) which details the rise of the powerful sorcerer as he plays detective to find a serial killer.
Transfigurations (by Victor Milán) follows with the origin of another major ace in the Wild Cards mythos, Cap'n Trips, a hippie who finds out that that the drugs DO work as he plays host to a myriad of super-powered personalities and the beginning of his quest to find himself.
An amusing Interlude follows - from "Wild Card Chic" by Tom Wolfe, written in his style - before we move onto Down Deep (by Edward Bryant & Leanne C. Harper) and the introduction of Bagabond, a bag lady who can control the will of animals and Sewer Jack, a subway worker who can metamorphose into an alligator.
Another interlude follows, this time in the style of Hunter S. Thompson from an extract of his Rolling Stone article "Fear and Loathing in Jokertown" as he tries to deal with a paranoid Croyd Crenson.
Strings (by Steven Leigh) introduces Puppetman, one of the major villains of the series, an ace able to control the minds af anyone he touches and feed off their negative emotions, while another Interlude provides a collection of random quotes from various characters taken from "Thirty-Five Years of Wild Cards - a Retrospective" in Aces magazine.
The final story, Comes a Hunter (by John J. Miller) gives us Daniel Brennan, AKA Yeoman, a Vietnam veteran notable for the fact that he is completely unaffected by the Wild Card virus and relies purely on his human skills as he arrives in town to begin his vendetta against Kien, the murderer of his wife.
An Epilogue (by Lewis Shiner) rounds off the collection with the introduction of a minor character with the unlikely moniker of Kid Dinosaur, and we also get a couple of Appendices that deal with the Wild Card virus itself.
This opening volume deals with the formation of the Wild Cards universe, and is the first of a three book cycle, or 'triad', which continues in volume two with the Wild Cards' attempts to defeat an alien menace, and concludes with a major skirmish with a psychotic ace in volume three.
While this isn't the best entry in the Wild Cards series this first volume is a highly enjoyable, if episodic, introduction to the major characters and is the only one in the series that can be read as a stand-alone book. If you read this but don't want to read volume 2 you won't feel that you've wasted your time. However, without the connecting thread employed in later volumes, this really is an anthology of short stories rather than an actual novel. Most of the tales are hugely enjoyable, although some are inevitably better than others. But readers will surely find a few characters they can identify with.
One of the highlights, The Sleeper, introduces the reader to a memorable character in the Wild Cards universe, Croyd Crenson, as we see how he adapts to a an existence where he's only awake 10 percent of the time. Half-good, half-bad, half-ace, half-joker, he's everything the Wild Card can be in one package, and is the only character who remains constant throughout the whole series.
Witness is also excellent and recounts an alternate 1940's with the McCarthy witch-hunts foregoing communists for aces. Throughout the series, human beings not afflicted by the virus (nats) are generally shown in a less than commendable light, and the hatred and bigotry shown towards Wild Cards begins with this tale, and will reach its zenith in the Card Sharks trilogy further down the line. Shell Games and Transfigurations are also very enjoyable chapters that introduce two of the biggest personalities in the series, Tom Tudbury, AKA The Great and Powerful Turtle, and Mark Meadows PhD, AKA Cap'n Trips - both of whom will play major roles in tales to come.
The debut of Earth's master of the mystic arts comes in The Long Dark Night of Fortunato. All-powerful he may be, likable he ain't. It's puzzling how he became such a fan favourite when the series originally hit the shelves, as there's very little that's commendable about him or his character. An unapologetic user of women (which explains his hatred of Tachyon - two peas in a pod) with little regard for anyone but himself or his 'property', Fortunato was fortunately put on the shelf after volume three only returning for the occasional cameo.
Down Deep is possibly one of the least engaging stories in the book, with characters that are either unsympathetic (Bagabond) or ill-thought out (C.C. Ryder the subway train?). Sewer Jack's amiable at least, but how much mileage can one get out of a man who changes into an alligator whenever he gets stressed out?
A certain amount of enjoyment can be found in trying to 'spot the celeb' as many allusions to real-life personalities that are made in the series begin with this volume. Mick Jagger's an ace with lycanthropy powers while Jim Morrison really is the Lizard King, although here he's called Tom Douglas, for some reason. This will continue throughout the series with the parallel versions of Fidel Castro, Buddy Holly and Frank Zappa especially noteworthy.
Fortunato is clearly an amoral version of Dr Strange, the Turtle's private life sucks in the same manner as Spider-Man, while the similarity between Yeoman and the Punisher is too clear to ignore - but other characters are less obvious homages. Jetboy is a salute to the all-but forgotten Golden Age comic character Airboy. The Four Aces are probably a tip of the hat to the Fantastic Four with a disgraced Superman in Jack Braun. And anyone who remembers the old DC comic, 'Dial H for Hero', will see where Captain Trips is coming from.
'Thirty Minutes Over Broadway' takes its title from the movie 'Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo' from 1944 which told the story of the Doolittle Raid on Japan in 1942.
Jetboy: 'I can't die yet. I haven't seen The Al Jolson Story.'
Croyd Crenson (to Dr Tachyon): 'By the way Doctor... How do you spell 'amphetamine'?'
Jack Braun: 'I'm strong. I can pick up trucks. I glow gold when I do it.'
Turtle: 'I am the Great and Powerful Turtle. You assholes are up shit creek. Surrender now.'
Croyd Crenson: 'Got any speed?'
Hunter S. Thompson: 'Do I look like the kind of man who'd do crank?'
Croyd Crenson: 'Guess we'll have to do mine then.'
Mal (to Dr Tachyon): 'Never knew no man cried as much as you do.'