The year 2008 saw the (second?) rebirth of the WILD CARDS series edited and co-written by George R.R. Martin. These are ‘mosaic’ novels — stories written by several authors and set in a shared universe. The first book, Wild Cards, appeared in 1987. Inside Straight (2008) is book 18. To make this 18th book a good entry point, Martin and his companions created something of a Wild Cards: the Next Generation to reboot the series.
What do you need to know about the back story of the Wild Cards? Not a lot really. In 1946 an alien virus hit earth. It killed ninety percent of those infected, disfigured nine percent and left a lucky one percent with superhuman powers. The unlucky nine percent are referred to as Jokers while the ones with interesting powers are the Aces and have influenced to course of history and politics considerably. By 2007, the year in which Inside Straight is set, some of them have attained fame and wealth. At the same time their less fortunate fellows are still very much discriminated against. Many of them live in poverty.
For some, 1946 is a long time ago; the world has grown used to the virus and the Aces it has created. Why, someone in Hollywood thinks they are fine material for a reality TV-show. Thus American Hero is born. It pits a number of, mostly, young Aces against each other in staged contests. The series is a hit and prime fodder for the entertainment press. Fights, sex, relationships and backstabbing predictably ensue. Not everybody is distracted by the TV-show however. Contestant and early discard Jonathan Hive develops an interest in events taking place in Egypt, where the assassination of an Arab Caliph has resulted in a severe outbreak of anti-Joker violence. He figures it is better to be a hero in real life than pretend to be one on television.
WILD CARDS is clearly the result of the young George Martin’s love for comics. Superhero comics aren’t as big of a cultural influence on my side of the Atlantic as they are in the United States, so that puts me at a bit of a disadvantage. Superheroes take some getting used to. Suspension of disbelief simply is not enough. You have to blindly accept the powers some of the Aces have, as some of it is complete nonsense. The Crusader for instance can create an impenetrable armour and a sword that will cut though any known substance. There is an Ace who can change himself into a swarm of wasps, an Ace who changes kinetic energy into bodyweight, and we even encounter a magic amulet. Once I got past that hurdle though, I found Inside Straight to be very entertaining reading. (I did suffer from one quite unwanted association, though. The abbreviation of American Hero — AH — is also the name of the largest supermarket chain here in the Netherlands. I tell you, this book conspires not to let me take it seriously!)
The advantage of a novel over a comic is that you get more information about what a character is feeling and thinking and Martin has collected a group of authors who flesh out these characters well. They have created quite a volatile mix in the American Heroes contestants. Some of them are angry, selfish, impulsive or plain stupid and it clearly shows in what they do to each other on the show. But, and I guess this is what makes them superheroes, when they really need to, they pull together and pull off the impossible. The plot is a bit lightweight and predictable, but I enjoyed it all the same.
What I really admire about Inside Straight is the editing. There are nine contributors to this volume: Daniel Abraham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassut, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, George R.R. Martin, Ian Tregillis and S.L. Farrell. It must have been one hell of a job to make these people speak with one voice and take into account 17 books of back story. If you really make an effort you can see the differences in style, but I thought it was a pretty smooth ride.
Many of the Aces that fans of the series are familiar with play only a minor part in Inside Straight.
Readers who start reading WILD CARDS with book 18 will, of course, be missing some references to things that happened in earlier books, but it won’t stop them from understanding what’s going on. They’ll find Inside Straight to be a fast and fun read, and a very unusual project.