Wild Cards: Card Sharks, created and edited by George R.R. Martin, written by Stephen Leigh, William F. Wu, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Michael Cassutt, Victor Milan, Roger Zelazny, Kevin Andrew Murphy and Laura J. Mixon (1993): George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards shared-universe series is a delight, a dark romp through a world forever altered by the introduction of an alien virus in 1946. The virus, a bioweapon meant to be tested on humanity by an alien race, does one of four things to humans who contract it: kills 90% of them, gives them major superpowers, gives them minor superpowers, or twists them into grotesques who also occasionally have superpowers.
In the vernacular of the series, the first group drew the Black Queen, the second group an Ace, the third group a Deuce and the fourth the Joker. Like anthrax, the wild card virus proliferates through spores and not direct human contact, so that over time Wild Cards are everywhere and not just in the New York area where the virus was first introduced. ‘Normal’ humans are disparagingly referred to as ‘Nats’ by Jokers, who themselves are ghettoized both literally and figuratively.
The first 12-book Wild Cards cycle followed world events from 1946 to the late 1980’s, introducing such characters as Doctor “Tachyon”, the alien scientist who tried to stop the virus’s release; The Great and Powerful Turtle, a telekinetic ace who only appears in public inside a flying, heavily armored tank; The Sleeper, a wild card who gains a new power and new appearance after every hibernation/regeneration cycle; Captain Trips, a hippie with multiple personalities with their own bodies; and a host of other heroes, villains, and just plain folk.
This first book in the second Wild Cards ‘cycle’ sends Hannah Davis, a stubborn human fire investigator, on a trip through past events that suggest a massive conspiracy against Wild Cards since the virus first appeared — a sustained attempt to find a way to kill every Wild Card on Earth by a cabal of the world’s most powerful people. The conspiracy may have killed the Kennedys, caused the spread of AIDS, destroyed the early American space program, caused the failure of the Iran hostage rescue, and involved Marilyn Monroe, who in the Wild Card universe is still alive in the early 1990’s.
Aided by the hunchbacked, time-and-mind-fractured Joker Quasiman and a number of other Aces, Jokers and Nats, Davis begins to uncover the current plans of the conspiracy (whose members call themselves ‘Card Sharks’), inviting unwelcome attention. By the end of this volume, Davis has enlisted an ally whom readers of the previous cycle will find somewhat…worrying.
Basically, this is a very snazzy superhero book with a better explanation for its hero’s wild powers than most traditional comic-book superheroes (the Wild Card virus is essentially telepathic and telekinetic in nature, and those it doesn’t kill are generally empowered or twisted by some random trigger within that person’s self-image or subconscious. Regardless, the powers themselves are telepathic and telekinetic in nature no matter how they appear — super-strength and super-speed are both telekinetic in nature, as would be weather control, fire control, flying and a variety of others).
It’s Heroes or Alphas, only with good writers who know what they’re doing and have an unlimited special effects budget. And it gave us heroic, doomed Jetboy’s poignant dying line, “I can’t die yet. I haven’t seen The Jolson Story!” Highly recommended, though one should read the earlier books first.