Wild Cards Volume 2 - ACES HIGH
If the first volume was more or less a collection of loosely connected short stories, then Aces High is the first actual novel of the series. Although it has the same basic structure as volume one, here each individual chapter is connected by an interlinking narrative (Jube by George R.R. Martin) running throughout the story. In this case, we get a 'B' movie on paper as an alien entity called the Swarm makes its way towards our planet to cause untold destruction, while on earth, the new leader of an ancient sect of Masons conspires to help it on its way.
The book begins with a prologue of sorts with Pennies from Hell (by Lewis Shiner) which takes place in 1979 as Fortunato continues his quest begun a decade ago and starts to see how serious this whole Mason thing is.
The first of seven Jube interludes brings us to 1985. These chapters let us in on a few secrets of the walrus who provides Jokertown with its news, and connect the various plot points as he becomes aware of the Swarm and tries to do something about it.
With the Unto the Sixth Generation Prologue (by Walter Jon Williams) we get our first glimpse of the Swarm before getting another Jube interlude, and then we're off and running into another Croyd Crenson story, Ashes to Ashes (by Roger Zelazny) as the Sleeper is hired by Jube to do a little bodysnatching.
Unto the Sixth Generation Parts One & Two (by Walter Jon Williams) deal with the introduction (and creation) of another heavy-hitter, the sentient android Modular Man, before dropping us into the action as the first wave hits earth and aces start showing what they can (and can't) do.
A brief Jube episode and we're back one year later with If Looks Could Kill (by Walton Simons) which introduces the sociopathic ace, James Spector, to the Wild Cards universe, as well as the Astronomer, both of whom will feature more prominently in the third volume.
Another spell with Jube and a brief epilogue to Unto the Sixth Generation before we catch up with the Turtle and his continuing problems in Winter's Chill (by George R.R. Martin).
The fifth Jube chapter is followed by Relative Difficulties (by Melinda Snodgrass) in which Mark Meadows meets Dr Tachyon for the first time as well as some of his less than savoury relations. With a Little Help From His Friends (by Victor Milan) follows right on as Mark and Tachyon discover the second wave might actually be under way.
The penultimate Jube chapter is next before we're introduced to Jane Dow (or Water Lily) in By Lost Ways (by Pat Cadigan) along with a bunch of aces and a skirmish with the Astronomer. Mr Koyama's Comet (by Walter Jon Williams) prepares us for the final chapter, Half Past Dead (by John J. Miller) which sees the return of Brennan and Fortunato and the final confrontation with the Swarm.
The seventh and final Jube acts as an epilogue wherein an old face returns and Jube has to make a painful choice.
A major improvement over the first book, Aces High is one of the better entries in the Wild Cards series and if the previous volume had its low points, this one is far more consistent in quality.
The highlights of this one include Zelazny's Ashes to Ashes, which may be the funniest story in the series. We get a deeper insight into Croyd Crenson's personality as he constantly bemoans his lack of algebra knowledge (a running joke throughout the series) while the body he's been sent to retrieve crumbles around him. Williams' Unto the Sixth Generation is also top-notch and answers the question of how to make the character of an android more interesting than some of the flesh-and-blood players, whilst also containing the book's major setpiece - aces versus the Swarm.
Another first appearance worthy of note is that of the seedy killer-for-hire ace, James Spector, AKA Demise, in If Looks Could Kill. With a blacker than black sense of humour, Spector, along with Jay Ackroyd and Croyd Crenson, gets most of the choice lines in the series and somehow manages to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the reader despite the fact that he's an unmitigated psychopath.
The Turtle chapter, Winter's Chill, is a fairly slow, understated entry after the fast moving Shell Games in the previous volume dealing, as it does, with Tom facing the impending wedding of his high-school sweetheart to his biggest rival (shades of Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson & Flash Thompson). This sets the pattern for future Turtle stories as his biggest enemy tends to be himself rather than the usual larger-than-life villain (his contribution to Volume 11 being the notable exception to the rule).
Relative Difficulties and With a Little Help From His Friends marks the return of flaky Mark Meadows, AKA Captain Trips, and introduces a few of the politically-correct personalities he's discovered in his attempts to reclaim the Radical identity he lost in the first volume. Whether it's ass-kicker Moonchild's repeatedly failed attempts to adhere to her code of non-violence, Cosmic Traveler's extreme cowardice, or the ultra-powerful Starshine's penchant for bad poetry recitings at inappropriate moments, it's a contest to see who is the more ridiculous. Fortunately, they're all fun characters to read, so that's all right.
Finally, John J. Millers's Half Past Dead wraps everything up nicely in an action-packed finale as Tachyon helps Fortunato, Yeoman and his friend, Mai, take the battle to the heart of the enemy, where they discover that violence isn't always the answer.
Croyd: 'I had to quit school in ninth grade and I never got to go back. I always regretted it.'
Kid Dinosaur: 'Why? You're doing okay.'
Croyd: 'There's all that stuff I missed. I wish I hadn't.'
Kid Dinosaur: 'Like what?'
Croyd: 'Well... Algebra. I never learned algebra.'
Kid Dinosaur: 'What the fuck good's algebra?'
Croyd: 'I don't know and I never will, because I didn't learn it. I sometimes look at people on the street and say, 'Gee, I'll bet they all know algebra,' and it makes me feel kind of inferior.'
Kid Dinosaur: 'Well, I don't know algebra and it doesn't make me feel a damn bit inferior.'
Croyd: 'Give it time.'
Fat naked man: 'What's happening? Another Wild Card outbreak?'
Modular Man: 'Monsters from space, apparently.'
Spector (to his latest victim): 'Is it dead, or is it Memorex?'