cover of Wild Cards book 1Before George R. R. Martin brought Game of Thrones to television, he’d acted as writer and editor to a group of science fiction writers who had discovered a joint fascination with the pulp and superhero genre.  Under Martin’s direction, the group became the Wild Card Trust, and began penning the incredible series known as Wild Cards.

This ingenious series of books had a wonderful premise, that of developing a science-fiction-based world of superheroes, as realistic as they could be within the SF framework, and creating an alternate of our world that was forever changed by the characters.  It became a cult hit, spanning (so far) 21 books and (so far) three decades, rewriting our world’s history from 1946 on, and has been recently begun the process of re-release to a new world of fans.  And as this was one of my favorite books series, I am brimming over with the desire to tell you readers all about it.

The Wild Cards premise is catalyzed by a single act: The arrival on Earth of an alien, physiologically almost identical to humans, who warns that his family is about to release an incredible virus on Earth… just to see what it does to us before they experiment on themselves.  But the alien’s desperation to save us from planetary experimentation is matched by human suspicion and distrust; and while the alien is imprisoned and stonewalled, a criminal finds the virus container, and despite the valiant efforts of a WWII hero to stop him, the virus is released over New York City, and though it concentrates there, it eventually spreads around the world.

The virus has the ability to mutate humans in incredible ways, no two the same.  Of those who catch the virus, one may gain incredible superhuman powers… but for every one, ten will suffer a horrible disfigurement… and for every one of those, ten will die a horrible death in minutes.  And once the virus has been spread, there is no way to predict who may catch it, or what will happen to them.  The lucky ones are called Aces… the disfigured ones are called Jokers.  (There are also a few who get incredibly meaningless powers, like the ability to create rainbows over their heads, etc… who are generally called Deuces.)

This nightmarish beginning ushers us into an age of wonder, where men and women with incredible abilities take on the mantle of protecting the world… occasionally from those with equal powers but less scrupulous ambitions.  Of course, there are superheroes… lots of them, or every size, shape and color, and with powers Marvel and DC would have died to have thought of.  There is supposed to be a logic behind how these superpowers can work, though some of it is as simple as saying “it works because he believes it works”; it’s a sort of mental power that manifests itself as a physical power, like flight.  Still, seeing someone fly because they believe they can fly is no less impressive.  And many other powers are tied tightly to the laws of real physics, making the efforts and limitations of the aces all the more realistic and believable (for superheroes, anyway).

But as time goes on, the series paints a world that, while incredible, is no more perfect than our own.  Human foibles continue to influence history, and not every world problem can be solved, even with superpowers.  One of the most interesting elements of the series is keeping track of which moments in history were changed by the appearance of Aces, and which moments stayed the same despite them.  Aces and jokers become at different times heroes and pariahs, looked up to and sneered at, the brunt of jokes and prejudice and the subject of reality shows, sometimes-willing and often not-so-willing soldiers in the various war efforts, leaders, politicians, media stars, terrorists and entrepreneurs.

In short, superheroes have been blended into our world as seamlessly and cleverly as if the authors have a view into that alternate universe and were presenting it to us with no embellishment.  No more believable series of superheroes has ever existed; nor a world that deals with such heroes in a more realistic fashion.

Most of the books feature a central theme, and follow various characters, written by their author-creators, as their part of the story progresses.  In the earliest books, these central characters would finally come together in a big climax, when all the story threads tie together in spectacular fashion.  Later, some books would display more of a humanistic, rather than superheroic, theme, or would center around a much smaller cast of characters.

Throughout, the world of Wild Cards reminds the reader of Marvel’s X-Men comics on a superficial level: Characters that must live and work in a world that hates them just for being.  But whereas the X-Men comics pay minimal lip-service to that theme, just before busting supervillain heads, Wild Cards spends a great deal more effort examining what that public distrust and revulsion means to the characters, and how it impacts their lives on a more believable level.  There are no well-trained and uber-ripped boys and girls living rent-free in someone’s mansion… there are no (well, only a few) colorful costumes… and when people die… they stay dead.

An equally incredible list of authors made for a wide variety of stories and story types, moments ranging from comic-book adventure to pure science fiction, mystery, comedy, drama, and everything in-between.  The Wild Cards books are also sexy, willing to delve into aspects of superhero fiction never intended for youngsters.  This also sets them apart from the comic book and TV heroes many of us grew up on.  For perhaps the first time, the Wild Cards gave us an adult world of superheroes in a more realistic world.

This series is now being reissued… but not without some difficulty.  The copyrights issues of having so many authors involved in each book as formidable, and has delayed the issuance of many of these books into the ebook arena.  But their staying power is testament to the fantastic job the writers accomplished in constructing their stories.

I highly recommend this series to anyone with a fancy for pulp-style adventure yarns, a love of superheroes, or a yen to see how those heroes could fit realistically into our world.  Delightful and addictive, the Wild Cards series will make sure you never look at superheroes the same, ever again.