Saturday, 13 August 2016

Playing the Wild Card: A Reading Order to George R.R. Martin & Melinda Snodgrass's Superhero Universe

The news last week that Universal had taken out an option on the Wild Cards shared world superhero series seems to have awoken some renewed interest in the franchise. Wild Cards has been an ongoing project since 1987, now encompassing twenty-three books and contributed to by thirty-one authors, so it may be helpful to arrange this into some kind of structure suitable for newcomers.

The Premise

In 1946 Earth was nearly destroyed by an alien race known as the Takisians. Genetically identical to humans, a rogue Takisian house decided to field-test a new virus on the planet to assess the effects on a large population before deploying it against its enemies. Prince Tisianne, one of the creators of the virus, had second thoughts on moral grounds and pursued the test ship to Earth to destroy it. He successfully halted the release of the virus into Earth's atmosphere, but was detained by American military personnel. During his detention, a human criminal named Dr. Tod recovered the virus and used to it to blackmail the American government, threatening to release it over New York City unless he was paid $20 million.

Dr. Tod's bluff was called and he attacked New York in a massive dirigible on 15 September 1946: Wild Card Day. World War II flying ace Robert Tomlin - popularly known as "Jetboy" - helped destroy the airship at the cost of his own life, but the virus was still released. Fortunately, thanks to Jetboy's efforts, the virus landed in pockets across the city, reducing the death toll from the millions to ten thousand.

The virus had the following effects:
  • 90% of those infected died instantly.
  • 9% of those infected survived, but were mutated and deformed, becoming known as Jokers.
  • 1% of those infected survived and were granted amazing powers, becoming known as Aces.
Unfortunately, the impact of the virus was not confined to New York City. Wind currents carried the virus across much of the eastern seaboard, whilst some of the virus spores actually survived intact and were carried unwittingly in cargo planes and ships across the globe. Major outbreaks followed in Rio de Janeiro, Mombasa, Port Said, Hong Kong and Auckland, with smaller outbreaks in many parts of the world.

The virus was also genetically transmittable, most commonly from parents to children. As a result of propagation, the number of people affected by the wild card virus, although still a minuscule minority of the human race, was still rising in the early 21st Century, seventy years after its arrival.

Prince Tisianne elected to remain on Earth and help make amends for the impact of the virus. Dubbed Dr. Tachyon by the press (for his spacecraft's FTL drive) and possessing immense telepathic powers, Tisianne is counted as an Ace although his powers are innate to his species rather than drawn from exposure to the virus. In the 1980s Tisianne returned to Takis and learned that the Takisian faction that had tried to test the virus on Earth had fallen from power, and there was no further threat to Earth from his people.

The first Wild Card book (and several stories in later volumes) spans the period 1946-86, showing how the existence of the Jokers and Aces alters the course of history. These reveal that a chunk of Manhattan has been turned into "Jokertown" where Jokers (and some Aces) are forced to live in a ghetto by a population fearful of their horrible appearances, and that a civil rights movement for Jokers later gets underway. Meanwhile, some Aces are employed by the American government, some go solo as vigilantes and some become villains. These stories also expand on the impact of the virus: we get to meet Deuces, Aces whose powers are useless or seem so, and Joker-Aces, Aces who have amazing powers but also the deformed and unpleasant appearance of Jokers.

From the second volume onwards, the stories proceed roughly in real-time, taking place approximately analogous with the year the book was released.

In 2008 the series was "rebooted" with the eighteenth volume in the series, Inside Straight, which picks up five years after the previous volume with a "Next Generation" approach, focusing mainly on new characters (although older ones are referenced or show up in smaller roles). This was done to create a second, easy entry point to the series for new readers.


There is no central character in the Wild Cards universe, with instead the stories moving between a rotating cast of characters at different periods of time and in different locations. That said, several of the most notable characters are as follows:

Thomas Tudby, aka "The Great and Powerful Turtle"

Tudby is a powerful telekinetic who can move vast amounts of matter with his mind: he once lifted a 45,000 ton American warship. However, his powers falter if he becomes scared or nervous. To render himself immune to attack, he used his powers to create a shell out of old motor car bodies, which he can then levitate and fly around. This led to the nickname of "the Turtle". The Turtle played a major role in several incidents of the late 1980s and early 1990s before revealing his identity to the world and effectively retiring. Formerly respected by Aces and Jokers alike for his bravery, his later writing of his memoirs and authorising of a film based on his life led to accusations of him "selling out".

The Turtle is regarded as George R.R. Martin's signature character, as well as the one most closely based on the author himself, also being from New Jersey and a massive comic book fan. Whether George R.R. Martin also has monstrous powers of telekinesis has not yet been confirmed, although it is known that he can get tens of thousands of people to freak out by simply mentioning words like "Winter" on his blog.

Croyd Crenson, aka "The Sleeper"

Croyd has arguably the weirdest ace power of them all. Every few months he goes into a deep sleep, lasting anywhere from weeks to months. When he wakes up, he is not only still alive but he will have attained a completely new appearance and set of powers. Two-thirds of the time he wakes up as an Ace or Joker-Ace, but one-third of the time he will take the form of a Joker with no powers and a disturbing appearance. He retains his memories over transformations but loses all other identifying marks, including fingerprints. His next appearance can be of any age, so it is unclear if he is immortal or if his body is still ageing normally (in which case he would be almost ninety years old).

Created by the late Roger Zelazny, but used by other writers with his blessing, the Sleeper is arguably the most popular Wild Cards character and the most versatile.

Jack Braun, aka "Golden Boy"

Braun became one of the most recognisable and famous Aces after the virus was released. His powers grant him immortality (he looks the same now that he did in 1946), super-strength and virtual invulnerability. He is not completely indestructible (a large enough explosion could kill him and he is vulnerable to poison) but he is pretty close. Braun fought as part of a superhero team known as the Four Aces after the virus, but in 1950 betrayed his comrades during the McCarthy witch hunts. After a stint as a Hollywood actor, he felt guilty about his actions and went into seclusion, emerging rarely thereafter. In 2008 he uncharacteristically agreed to take part in a reality TV show, serving as a "boss" the contestants had to defeat. Despite his shunning of the limelight, he liked the fact that no-one cared who he was any more.

Prince Tisianne, aka "Dr. Tachyon"

Dr. Tachyon is one of the Takisian scientists who helped create the wild card virus. Later repenting his actions, he tried to stop the deployment of the virus on Earth. He failed. Riven by guilt, he decided to stay and make amends by helping with Earth's technological development, the treatment of those infected by the virus and cataloguing the powers of the Aces. As Takisians are genetically identical to humans, he can pass as human with no problem. He is quite short and enjoys dressing in eccentric clothing. He has tremendous telepathic powers.

Dr. Tachyon was a character of primary importance in the first ten books in the series. However, he was then written out when he returned to his homeworld and stayed there. It is unknown if he will appear again.

Novels or Short Stories?

Wild Cards has been described as a series of novels and as a series of short story anthologies, although neither description is entirely accurate. It is fairer to say that Wild Cards is, taken as a whole, an alternate history of the world (but predominantly the United States) from 1946 to the present day. Single-author novels, multiple-author novels (known as mosaic novels), stand-alone short stories and short stories linked by chronology, location or thematic elements all combine to fill in this history. The Wild Cards series is also not defined by a single over-arcing narrative. This is no single story with a beginning, middle and end, but a whole series of stories set in a shared world. It is perfectly possible to read and enjoy books from the middle and even more recent period of the series without having read the rest first.

In-Print or Out of Print?

The problem of catching up with the series is also exacerbated by many of the middle books in the series being long out of print. Both Tor Books (in the USA) and Gollancz (in the UK) have embarked on ambitious plans to reprint the entire series, but both are proceeding incredibly slowly: Tor, slightly ludicrously, is only releasing the books at a rate of one a year and has only reached the fifth book (the sixth is out in February). This means they should complete the reprinting of the series in 2028. Meanwhile, Gollancz seem to have stalled after the publication of the seventh volume last October, with no more releases scheduled at present.

Why Not Omnibi*?

More than once it has been suggested that reprinting the series one-by-one has been inefficient, with a better way forwards being to reprint the books as omnibuses with three or four books per omnibus. This strategy was pursued by the Black Library with great success when it reprinted most of its Warhammer 40,000 output as massive, economically-priced omnibus and saw them sell over a million books in a short period of time. This method would be even more appropriate for Wild Cards, with narrative arcs often unfolding over three or four volumes. For their ebook editions, Gollancz has experimented with this process by collecting Books 1-3 as an omnibus called The Epic Beginning and Books 4-7 as The Puppetmaster Quartet. It would be interesting to see this expanded to the print editions as well (and yes, this would mean some very big books, but it worked brilliantly for the Black Library and for other publishers putting out big omnibuses), but no doubt this will depend on sales.

The Publishers

The Wild Cards series has been published by four distinct publishers to date: Bantam Spectra released Books 1-12, whilst Baen Books released Books 13-15. iBooks picked up Books 16 and 17 before spectacularly going bust. Tor Books have published Books 18-22 and will be publishing Book 23 later this year, and will remain the primary publisher of the series going forwards (three more books are under contract). The series has had several UK publishers but Gollancz are currently handling the series in Britain.

The Books

As previously mentioned, there are twenty-three books in the series. They are generally organised into "triads", arcs spanning three volumes but this name is something of a misnomer: Books 6 and 7 were supposed to be one book split into two for length, whilst Book 10 is something of a side-story  to the events of 8-9 and 11 (which form the triad proper and can be read in that order). There aren't really official titles for each triad, so they are more descriptive than formal:

The Beginning Triad
1. Wild Cards (1987)
2. Aces High (1987)
3. Jokers Wild (1987)

These first three volumes in the series introduce the wild card virus and chronicle the way it reshapes the history of the 20th Century. By the end of the second volume the series has already caught up with the then-present day (1987) and events in the series then unfold in real time (more or less). Book 1 introduces the premise and the original cast of characters, whilst Books 2 and 3 see the Aces learning of a potential alien invasion.

The Puppermaster Triad
4. Aces Abroad (1988)
5. Down and Dirty (1988)
6. Ace in the Hole (1990)
7. Dead Man's Hand (1990)

These four novels chronicle the machinations of the mysterious "Puppetmaster" and his eventual downfall, whilst numerous other events take place. Most notably, Book 4 explores the impact the wild card virus has had in other parts of the world beyond the United States.

The Jumper Triad
8. One-Eyed Jacks (1991)
9. Jokertown Shuffle (1991)
10. Double Solitaire (1992)
11. Dealer's Choice  (1992)

These four novels deal with the activities of a gang of body-swapping villains known as jumpers. Double Solitaire is notable for being a single novel written by Melinda Snodgrass rather than the usual rotating team of writers and stands apart in the continuity, being set on Dr. Tachyon's homeworld of Takis simultaneously with the events of Dealer's Choice.

As a note of trivia, George R.R. Martin started writing A Game of Thrones either whilst writing and editing work was proceeding on Jokertown Shuffle or just after it had been completed.

12. Turn of the Cards (1993)

This is a single stand-alone novel written by Victor Milan. The previous volume had finished off the jumper storyline and there was one book left on the contract with Bantam. Rather than start a new storyline, the editors decided to write a stand-alone book to fulfil the contract and retain the freedom to move to a new publisher if necessary.

The Card Sharks Triad

13. Card Sharks (1993)
14. Marked Cards (1994)
15. Black Trump (1995)

The series moved to Baen Books for this trilogy, which revolves around a protagonist who is neither an Ace nor a Joker. Although Baen offered a larger advance, they lacked the marketing muscle of Bantam. With no new books coming out, Bantam also let the older books go out of print, which effected both backlist sales and also meant that newcomers did not have an easy jumping-on point for the series.

16. Deuces Down (2002)
17. Death Draws Five (2006)

With sales for Baen being disappointing, the series moved again to iBooks for these two volumes. Deuces Down is unusual in being a true anthology, consisting of short stories from all over the Wild Cards history, unified only by the theme of focusing on Deuces, Aces with powers which are of only apparently marginal utility. Death Draws Five is a single novel written by John J. Miller with a stand-alone storyline, although it does feature the final appearance of original Wild Cards character Fortunato. Death Draws Five is the rarest Wild Cards book, as only a few hundred copies were published before iBooks went bust. These two books were recently reissued as ebooks from Brick Tower Press, who bought out the iBooks stock.

The American Heroes Triad (aka The Committee Triad)
18. Inside Straight (2008)
19. Busted Flush (2008)
20. Suicide Kings (2009)

The series moved to Tor Books for this triad, which works as a "Next Generation"-style entry point for new readers to the series and mostly focuses on new characters. The series initially focuses on a reality TV show revolving around Aces but then moves onto the formation of a new superhero organisation called the Committee.

The Jokertown Triad
21. Fort Freak (2011)
22. Lowball (2014)
23. High Stakes (2016)

This triad adopts a back-to-basics approach, focusing on the "Fort Freak" police department which has to handle cases in and around Jokertown in New York City.

The USA Triad
24. Texas Hold 'Em (tbc)
25. Mississippi Roll (tbc)
26. Low Chicago (tbc)

This forthcoming triad is under contract to Tor Books. According to George R.R. Martin, although it's unofficially called the USA Triad it's actually going to be three self-contained books linked more by location (presumably Texas, Mississippi and Chicago) than anything else. There are also potentially two more triads, which will have more traditional linking stories, under discussion.


Wild Cards evolved out of a roleplaying campaign run by George R.R. Martin using the Superworld rules from Chaosium. As the original games master, Martin is counted as the creator of the Wild Cards universe and the primary editor-in-chief, although all of the writers have a say in the future direction of stories and the series. Martin is a bit busy with his own fantasy side-project, so he no longer writes for the series (his last story was in Inside Straight almost a decade ago, and before that in Black Trump a decade earlier) but is still the main editor. Melinda Snodgrass, a respected science fiction and fantasy author and scriptwriter in her own right, has acted as co-editor on many volumes in the series and regularly contributes stories.

The other Wild Cards authors have been, or still are: Daniel Abraham, Edward Bryant, Pat Cadigan, Michael Cassutt, Chris Claremont, Paul Cornell, Arthur Byron Cover, David Anthony Durham, Ty Franck, Gail Gerstner-Miller, Leanne C. Harper, Stephen Leigh, David D. Levine, Victor Milan, John J. Miller, Laura J. Mixon, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Kevin Andrew Murphy, Cherie Priest, Lewis Shiner, Walter Simons, Caroline Spector, Ian Tregillis, Carrie Vaughn, Howard Waldrop, Sage Walker, Walter Jon Williams, William F. Wu and Roger Zelazny. The next triad will feature stories from new writers Saladin Ahmed, Max Gladstone, Marko Kloos and Diana Rowland.

Where to Start?

This is pretty straightforward. The most obvious answer is simply Wild Cards, the original 1987 book that started the whole thing rolling. It is easily available now, having been reprinted many times. However, you can also start with Book 18, Inside Straight (2008), the first novel from Tor Books which was deliberately written as a fresh entry point to the series for new readers, taking a "Next Generation" approach.
* Technically this is incorrect usage, but what the hell. It rhymes.


JD Woodman said...

If you do start reading them chronologically, take it from one who tracked them all down through secondhand bookstores and knows: skip the Jumper books. They are terrible, rapey nonsense that very nearly ruined the series. Most of the next two triads is about cleaning up that damage. In my opinion, read up to number 7, read 12 if you can find it, then jump forward to the Committee Triad.

Siderite said...

I disagree. The Jumper books were certainly more interesting that some of the other Wild Cards books, introducing aspects of detective noir, body horror and other elements that felt refreshing after reading all the previous books. Not the best, but certainly not the worst.