I was never that familiar with the whole “Wild Cards” phenomenon, a shared universe of superhero homages and alternate history created by a group of New Mexico-based SF authors. It was big about 15 years ago when a series of anthologies came out, but since then there have only been five books released. Now Tor is reviving the franchise with the first novel since 2006, Inside Straight. Edited by George R.R. Martin (one of the creators of the series), this book is what is called a “mosaic novel,” where individual authors write individual chapters that come together as one novel. Buffeted by the many new (to me) concepts in this novel, I plunged into it and came up for air only when I was done. I’m impressed, and I’m definitely coming back for more when the next book is out.
In 1946, an alien virus hit New York, killing 90 percent of the residents, turning 99 percent into monstrosities called “Jokers” and giving the other one percent some type of “Ace” or super power. These Aces have lived their lives, becoming celebrities and sometimes fighting crime or villains with plans for world domination. But now we enter a second generation of Aces, and the society of 2008 is much different from that of their forebears. In the new Caliphate, a rogue Ace kills the Caliph and puts blame on a Joker organization, resulting in horrible persecution of Jokers in Egypt. Back in the States, the new phenomenon is “American Hero,” a reality show where selected Aces are put together on teams and given various tasks to do. After each task, members of the losing teams have to vote one of their members off, and they live in houses with cameras all over. Think Big Brother, Survivor, and American Idol (because a few judges comment on the whole thing, and there’s definitely a Simon caricature) all rolled into one. But what happens when some of these “heroes” develop a conscience? Maybe they can’t save the world, but they can do something - can’t they?
The various contributors to Inside Straight have come up with some unique characters, fleshing them out with winning personalities (or loser ones that are nonetheless extremely interesting to read about), and all write with a flair that brings life to the various stories contained within the narrative. Each writer has a different character as the focus of their chapter, telling a fairly complete story while still adding to the whole that is the novel. Meanwhile, there’s an overarching commentary story, written as a blog by “Jonathan Hive,” an Ace who can turn his body into wasps and send them out to sting or spy for him. Most of the chapters have blog posts in the middle that move some of the main story forward before we get back to a different author’s take on the whole thing. The concept is fascinating, and while it does take some getting used to, it works really well. Occasionally, there are some jarring characterization switches as a character is used by somebody other than his or her creator, but that is rare and doesn’t affect the story that much.
The stories are a mix of humor and seriousness, with the humor coming mostly from the characters’ personalities. Inside Straight is obviously a metaphor for the Sudan and how the American public is spending more time thinking about things like the next American Idol while atrocities are going on halfway around the world. It’s a rather effective metaphor, too, reflected in the trials and travails of John Fortune, an Ace whose power drove him insane before he was defeated and lost that power. Now, he’s just a production assistant for his mother’s reality show - until the possibility of regaining his power emerges, or of gaining new ones. Doing so draws his attention to what is going on elsewhere, and his actions in leading a group of Aces to do something about it are effectively showcased. He’s the ultimate example of that American public, and he slowly drags others along with him.
The characters these authors have created are all intriguing. Drummer Boy, a six-armed man who can pound a great beat by hitting various parts of his body, is a rock star and ladies’ man who finally meets his match in one of the other contestants. He begins to change, at first for personal reasons but then developing something he never thought he’d have: a morality. Earth Witch, a young Latina woman who has the power to move the earth, is probably the most interesting. She has spent the entirety of her young life since her power manifested digging holes and doing other things under the table for a local company in order to provide for her family. Her brother encourages her to audition for American Hero, and the change that happens during the show is phenomenal. All of the characters are like this, and I can’t think of any of them who don’t have at least one interesting hook to draw the reader in.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Inside Straight is about “superheroes,” though. This is definitely an adult novel, with some sex (but even more references to it) and lots of swearing. It can also be delightfully politically incorrect, such as Jonathan Hive’s blog post pointing out that the producers of the show have gone out and found a Mexican ditch-digger for the show and wondering how this got past the liberal Hollywood establishment. It can also be pretty violent, especially the scenes over in Egypt, but it never really gets so graphic that those of you sickened by bloody descriptions have much to worry about.
Inside Straight is a wonderful starting point for anybody interested in the “Wild Cards” universe. There are references to a backstory that may have you searching the old stories out, but none of the old books are required to make sense of this one. Instead, we are presented with an interesting world with fascinating characters whose stories are well-told and fit seamlessly together into a wonderful mosaic. Who knows? You might discover a new author as well, as I was only familiar with three of the nine contributors. This book is highly recommended.