10 Things You Should Know Before Reading George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards Series

By Andy Hughes in Daily Lists, Miscellaneous
Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 8:02 am
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You've already read all the books in A Song of Ice and Fire and have decided you need more GRRM in your life. Or maybe you just saw last week's announcement that SyFy Films bought the movie rights to the long-running superhero mosaic anthology series and learned Wild Cards existed for the first time. Either way, right now, you're wondering: Should I read the Wild Cards series? Unfortunately, there's not an easy yes-or-no answer. Let me tell you a story; I first started reading this site back in 2009-ish, and that summer I won my very own TR shirt through the Worst Science Fiction Novel contest. The dubious tome that inspired the recollection which snagged me the prize was the 9th volume of the group-written science-fiction Wild Cards saga, Jokertown Shuffle, a book that has left me with still-twitching mental wounds which I may never recover from.

On the other hand, as much as I love to dish on all the completely ridiculous things my brain has seen because of it, I can't deny how much time I've put into this series and how much space in my mind it's occupied over the years. So I can't tell you if you should read it. what I can do is give you a few guidelines to the Wild Cards series so you can make the call for yourself. If you're curious about GRRM's pre-ASoIaF writing career, if you've never heard anything about these books, or if you just want to hear an overly verbose nerd wrestle with himself, then read on.


10) It's Probably the Most Successful Mosaic Series Still Out There
Wild Cards began in 1987 and is sort of a combination of three other sci-fi products of its time: a role-playing game the authors used to play together, the "gritty and realistic" tone of late '80s comics, and mosaic novels. Obviously the latter is most significant in terms of format, even more so since there aren't many others around anymore; there was a brief craze for these but most other similarly minded franchises have since fallen by the wayside (the only one that comes close is Thieves' World, which is credited with originating the term). After years in limbo, the series has been recently revived by none other than Tor books and is going strong once more, welcoming new generation authors like Carrie Vaughn and Daniel Abrahms. As I write this the 21st book, Fort Freak, has been on the shelves for a few months and a 22nd ("Slowball"?) is planned for some time next year. And let's not forget WC has also seen spinoff in multiple comics series and two different pen and paper role-playing games. Suck on that, Heroes in Hell.

9) It's Set in an Alternate History
The premise: in 1946, an experimental virus from another planet is released on Earth over Manhattan. This virus is extremely unpredictable and thus becomes known as "the Wild Card." 90% of victims die (known as "drawing the black queen"), and 90% of those survivors become hideous deformed mutants ("Jokers"). A lucky few ("Aces") become gifted with powers and abilities of differing magnitudes (there are also "Deuces" with minor powers and a few Joker-Aces that blur the line between the categories). This alternate take on the superhero would seem to be enough story fuel but Wild Cards goes even further by developing its world into a significant alternate universe, a world in which the modern Middle East is governed by a revived caliphate, Vietnam is a haven for Jokers and Frank Zappa is an acclaimed military general (!!!). Because so much of the rest of their universe reflects our own, it can be a little jarring to hear these sorts of references, but it's the sort of thing you pick up on after a while. Like a lot of things, the newer books have made this aspect a little less daunting.

8) It's Split into "Cycles" and Generally Follows a Pattern
From the beginning, this series was planned to proceed in certain three-book cycles with each cycle following a general overplot (much like a season of a TV show), and for the most part it has done so. Understanding this may help you break down the formidable page count. Because the books are usually grouped into trilogies, they typically follow a formula in which the first two are collections of interrelated short stories by different authors, and the third or climactic "true mosaic" volume is one narrative that switches between several characters. Authors usually have claims over their specific characters, and write their separate sections in the "true mosaics" which are incorporated into the grander piece later, often surprisingly seamlessly. Adding to the possible confusion are the non-mosaic novels written by one or two people which pop up every once and a while: sometimes these are "meanwhile"-quels that take place at the same time as other books but feature different characters, and sometimes they tell their own standalone stories entirely. For the most part, though, you can split the series up by whatever the overplot or general theme is, with a "true mosaic" marking the end of each cycle. It'll make more sense once you start reading. Martin once described Song of Ice and Fire as "like Wild Cards except I write all the characters".

7) The Characters Are the Main Appeal
I mean, the characters are the main appeal of a lot of series, but it's especially true about this one, as the length and complexity of the Wild Cards universe allows the authors interesting ways to develop their creations. Even the biggest bashers can't deny the greats: Captain Trips, a crime-fighting neo-hippie with several super-powered multiple personalities based on aspects of his psyche. Yeoman, who's sort of a Zen-flavored Green Arrow crossed with the Punisher on a vendetta against a powerful crime lord. The Great and Powerful Turtle, who can use extraordinary telekinesis but only when he feels protected inside his armored "shell". And of course, there's lovable bastard Croyd Crenson, alias The Sleeper, the ultimate Wild Carder who gets re-infected every time he falls asleep and can wake up as Ace, Joker, or something in between. These are fascinating individuals and many could easily support a franchise of their own: seeing them in the same universe strengthens both them and it. You get the sense that the authors caught on as to who was a heavy hitter and who wasn't, and most volumes split time between the crowd pleasers and a few newer or less popular faces.

6) Even the Best Books Can Be Wildly Uneven
The structure of Wild Cards is part of the appeal -- when it works it's like a well-edited TV show, or, as Martin once said, a Robert Altman movie. Unfortunately, most of the books tend to cast the net wide when it comes to plots and involve a wide range of characters and stories as a result, each with an equally wide range of quality. One volume may vacillate between an intense thriller storyline and a useless plot about something completely unrelated that goes nowhere. Also, certain characters will get only one story in one random volume and never be featured in the spotlight again, sometimes for the best, sometimes not (whither thou, Lazy Dragon?). This is simply a casualty of the highly ambitious format, and of course, one man's Uwe Boll is another man's Scorsese (with the obvious exception of the real Uwe Boll, of course).

5) Melinda Snodgrass Will Build You Up Just to Let You Down
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I hate to pick on her, and I realize again that this is a matter of opinion, but if you're going to get into this series you'll have to deal with the thorny issue of Melinda Snodgrass (whose credits include story editor on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Reasonable Doubts). Snod is one of the key players of the series, there from the very beginning and often serving as a co-editor as well as a contributor. Her best and most prominent creation is the central character of Dr. Tachyon (pictured next to Snodgrass), the tormented, aristocratic alien indirectly responsible for the development of the Wild Card virus and its release on the people of Earth. For the first six books, Tachyon's character dynamic works well: he falls only to rise again, he makes mistakes and drinks and sleeps around but still matures and manages to recover and find some measure of redemption for his selfishness. The Snodgrass entry in the very first volume, "Degradation Rites", is one of the best of all Wild Cards stories. Around Volume 8, One Eyed Jacks, things get ugly. I don't know what happened but her writing goes from gripping and evocative and sly to overblown and garish and just plain awful almost from the very beginning of her section in this book on, and in the next she hits the absolute nadir of her character, if not the whole series. If you want explicit details, you can check out my contest-winning description; otherwise, just know you're in for a rough ride. Things get slightly better after Jokertown Shuffle (the ending of volume ten, Double Solitaire, provides some relief) and Snodgrass still puts in solid work as Martin's right hand to this day, but in my eyes the rest of her contributions never really got back to her previous standard, which is a shame. She at least seems like a nice person.

4) There is A Lot of Sex and Violence, and Most of it is Pretty Fucked Up, You Don't Even Know
Time to address the body-fluid soaked elephant in the room (ew): Yes, these books are somewhat notorious for how graphic they are, although personally I respond not to the subject matter as much as the quality of writing about said subject matter (how many times are you going to use the word "mons", Melinda Snodgrass, seriously?) But rest assured that throughout the course of the series there is indeed all sorts of sordid phantasmagorical events: centaur sex, mutant rape, guttings, a woman who kills people with her vagina, dismemberments, butt sex with dead people, and what I can only describe as the most horrifying blowjob scene I have ever read outside of FFF. I shudder to even remember it.

Now, before whatever Wild Carders who happen to be reading this get all huffy and offended, I do realize that these books intended to embrace a dark aesthetic indicative of their times and sometimes we're supposed to be horrified and the blowjob is actually an important plot point and blah blah blahbbity blah. And I'm no prude: again, the issue is not necessarily the content. It is the way in which it is portrayed that frustrates and alienates, going a line, paragraph or page more than anyone really needed. In the worst cases, it's almost as if the author is punishing you for your devotion to the series and daring you to keep reading, a useful tactic if you're Lars Von Trier but not if you're attempting to craft compelling narrative fiction. But far worse is that somehow, the writing gets more embarrassing and rickety the more "adult" it tries to be nearly across the board, and no amount of context can justify writing that is lazy, insensitive, or insulting. Sometimes it's better just to suggest something rather than show us all the juicy bits. So just a heads up: if you want the good stuff, this is some of what you'll have to wade through. At least it isn't boring, I guess. For what it's worth, the newer books seem to deal with this much better and manage to broach dark topics without degenerating into merciless onslaughts.

3) You Shouldn't Feel Bad About Skipping Certain Books or Reading Them Out of Order
As stated above, the books are (mostly) grouped into different cycles, usually three books long but sometimes more, and each of these has its own self-contained plot. Though each cycle obviously impacts the next, some of them have entries that can be omitted from your busy reading schedule without missing a whole bunch. Dead Man's Hand is really just an expansion of two dropped threads from the sixth book, and I read volume 11 before 10 without feeling like I'd missed anything. Depending on which characters you care about, I'd almost say you could skip entire cycles without missing too too much, as quite a few minor players show up early on but don't re-emerge until later. And usually there's at least some recap of what went before, which helps even if the impact isn't the same.

2) The New Cycle is a Continuation, Not a Reboot
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When the first book in the newest section of the series and the 18th overall, Inside Straight, was released in 2008 by Tor, some reviewers referred to it as a "reboot" or "restart" of the franchise, probably because it had been a few years since the last book (Death Draws Five) and quite a few more since the last "real" one written by a group the old-fashioned way. While Inside Straight does introduce a whole bunch of new authors and characters and weave its own self-contained plot around them, it's very much in the same universe as the old series and builds upon actions from it (one character is the son of two key figures from earlier volumes). This becomes even more evident in the next few books as more and more old faces return. Fortunately, there's always at least some description of events, and the fact that younger cast of characters doesn't always know their history is a convenient way to explain some of the older series mythology to the reader. While it's not exactly my favorite, this one isn't a bad way to get into the series, as the basic premise is re-established and the violence and sex generally toned down. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, you might miss some of the words but you'll get the music. To make it even better, Tor is rereleasing the originals starting with the very first book, so you, dear reader, might have a chance to start both the original and the next generation at the same time. Lucky you.

1)The Best Characters and Stories Usually Make Up for Everything Else (Usually)
With all those negatives, you're probably wondering why you should even bother, and here's where the love-hate thing comes in. While this series has given me, a long-term reader, much undeniable psychic pain and confusion, it has also brought me the sort of satisfaction one only gets from getting to know a well-developed world. I probably haven't mentioned how funny and exhilarating it can be at times too, and that its more irreverent characters help leaven the bleakness of its world. I am truly happy I met characters like The Sleeper, Billy Ray, pre-crisis Dr. Tachyon, Chrysalis, Demise, Modular Man, Popinjay, even Gregg Hartman, and the collective of writers that produced them is probably unparalleled within the circles of modern science fiction authors (people like Roger Zelazny, Howard Waldrop, Walton Simons and Chris Claremont have all made contributions). If you commit, I can promise that there will be high points despite the lows but I can't promise whether they will be completely worth your time. So we ask again: should you read Wild Cards? You definitely don't have to read all of it to enjoy it. If the concept interests you in the slightest, I'd say give either Inside Straight or the very first book a crack. If not, this whole article has been a verbalicious waste of your time, and I apologize. But hey, I swore a lot less than I thought I would!

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