Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Been thinking about Wild Cards

Yes, George R. R. Martin has written other books besides Game of Thrones.

Martin was editor of a science fiction anthology called Wild Cards.  It is one of my favorite science fiction franchises and that is perhaps due to the collection's superhero angle.

Wild Cards was initially the product of a group of writers who all played the Superworld role-playing game.  Together they created a shared universe not unlike the kind inhabited by DC or Marvel superheroes.  Multiple writers wrote short stories set within this common milieu, creating a sort of mosaic novel.  Among the talent that has visited this series are Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shiner, Walter Jon Williams, and Pat Cadigan.

But just what is the story of Wild Cards?  Glad you asked.

Just after World War II, an alien named Dr. Tachyon arrived on Earth from the planet Takis.  Tachyon was a geneticist who had helped his people create a virus that human doctors came to call Xenovirus Takis-A.  Known as "the Enhancer" to Takisians, the virus was intended to amplify the aliens' natural telepathic abilities.  Would it work?  Only one prudent way to find out.  Just as we would do to chimps, the Takisians decided to test the virus on a species with DNA similar to their own.  Namely the humans of Earth.

The spaceship that carried the virus to this planet was downed.  It was in this wreckage that a scar-faced, Nazi-sympathizing, mad scientist named Dr. Tod found the pressurized canister of the virus and rightly presumed it to be a bioweapon.  In "Thirty Seconds Over Broadway," one of the introductory stories of the series, Dr. Tod placed the virus inside a blimp and hovered it over New York City.  He announced by radio that if he did not receive 20 million dollars (remember, a lot of money back in the 1940s), he would detonate the blimp and send the virus sprinkling to the populace below.  Oh the bastardous scaramouch!

All-American hero Jetboy is then called in to deal with the matter.  Jetboy was an orphan who fell into the possession of an experimental, prototype jet fighter called the JB-1 after its designer, Professor Silverberg, was gunned down by Nazis.  Jetboy went on to become a flying ace in the war, earning numerous victories.  He was not so lucky over Broadway.

Jetboy crashed the JB-1 into the blimp's gondola and confronted Dr. Tod.  Both men reached for the bomb's detonator...

Jetboy's final words were: "I can't die yet, I haven't seen The Jolson Story."

The virus was released after all.

What would happen to the infected was, as the Wild Card name would imply, a luck of the draw.  The vast majority of people died from illness, drawing "The Black Queen." A very small percentage of people, however, might draw a Joker.  That means that they would mutate into an unattractive form.  You might grow a tail or scaly, lizard-like skin might form over your body.  You might even exude a hideous odor from every pore of your body as in the hapless case of Snotman.  An even smaller number might draw an Ace, meaning they would develop super powers.  These can include the traditional superhero fare such as flight, telepathy, or super intelligence or perhaps animal based like Spider-Man.  An Ace might also draw a Deuce, meaning their superpower is utterly being to grow body hair at will.

Like the virus itself, what you got from the stories depended very much on who was writing them.  The story might take a pulpy form as it did with Jetboy, it might be more traditional in the comic book way, or it might be otherwise realistic science fiction with graphic sex, accurate violence, and societal problems.  Something for everyone.

While published in 1987, Wild Cards remains one of the freshest takes on the "mass pandemic" subgenre of fiction.  Instead of a dreadful illness or the trite redundancy of the "zombie apocalypse," why not include the possibility of something extraordinary happening?

The slim chance of acquiring powers would almost make me want to take the Wild Card risk.


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