Monday, January 28, 2008

Wild Cards XVIII: Inside Straight, by George R.R. Martin et al.

Okay, there are quite a few superhero novels around now, but for a while there it was basically just the Wild Cards series. Most of you are probably already familiar with Wild Cards; if you aren't, I suggest you become so (it's a shared-world anthology series set in a world in which an alien virus started giving people superpowers and turning them into monsters in 1946). A quick history of how the series developed:

Vol I: introductory. Covered almost forty years of history in one book and was therefore not entirely satisfactory as a story. Well, it wasn't a story. Some of the pieces were really good, though.
Vol II-III: this is where it started building up steam. There were complete stories here, and we saw just what these writers had in mind, and how great it could be.
Vol IV-VII: just as good as volumes II and III, but bigger and wilder and for higher stakes. To me, volumes VI and VII were the high points of the series... pretty much.
Vol VIII-XII: here's where it started getting a bit too dark. Still good, especially vols X and XII, but a lot of people were driven away by the extravagance of the ordeals some of these characters went through.
Vol XIII-XV: the series moved to a new publisher. Still dark. Still good in places, but not as much. The editing problems that cropped up in volume XI returned.
Vol XVI-XVII: after a long hiatus, these two books came out from still another publisher, one that has since gone out of business (I think), and while they weren't bad, they just didn't have the magic.

So when it was announced that there were three *more* books coming out, I wasn't particularly optimistic. I mean, I'm a Wild Cards fan, so much so that I'd buy the books even if I was pretty sure they were going to be terrible, but I figured that we had already seen the best, second best, and third and fourth best of this series, and that three more books would be going to the well too often.

Wrong again!

I liked it a lot. I don't say it was as good as vol III or VI or VII or X or XII, but it's not too far behind them. I can't wait for the next book, and I don't remember how long it's been since I had that feeling. Before book XIV, I guess.

One good thing about this book is that it's not too tightly woven into the previous stories that have been told. New characters, new plot elements, an easy jumping-on point. And I mostly like the new characters; some of them have got superpowers I've never even contemplated, for one thing, and that's hard to do. Now, I'm still attached to the old characters, and there are some unresolved points from previous volumes that I'd like to see addressed, if only in passing:

- whatever happened to Mod Man and Patchwork?
- did Belew survive book XV?
- Tachyon must return to Earth at some point! He still owes Jube a favour! And he's still carrying the wild card virus, right?
- what happened with Zoe trying to kill all those people? (Must be nothing, 'cause as far as I can tell they're all still alive, but what's she been doing, then?)
- I refuse to believe that Mark Meadows is stuck as the Radical forevermore. It's a terrible way to leave things.
- whatever happened to Water Lily? Haven't seen her since vol V. Is she still hiding?

But here's the thing that they really got right. One of the features of the series up to now is that it hasn't been about superheroes. It's been about ordinary people who have superpowers and monstrous deformities. Occasionally some of them do heroic things, but mostly they're behaving like people. There were thrilling movements and moving moments and tragic moments and sordid moments, but almost no inspiring moments. Not until this book. In this book the characters start acting legitimately superheroic. It's great stuff if you like that kind of thing. I like that kind of thing.

The reason why I say they got it right... I mentioned how the wild card virus was first released in 1946. Does that year mean anything to anyone? Yes, it's the year after World War II ended, but it's also the year popularly believed to be the first birthyear of the Boom generation (I go by the Strauss-and-Howe definition, in which 1943 was the first Boom birthyear). The writers of the first Wild Cards books were Boomers, mostly, and so were their characters, mostly. There were some older and younger characters, but for the most part the Wild Cards series was a Boom odyssey through the magical and self-actualizing world of superpowers. I don't mean that as a criticism! Some of these characters and their stories are among my favourites in all of fiction. But we're talking about a Boom artifact here, with everything that implies.

This latest volume, though, has Millennials, not Boomers, as its main characters, and so the story is not about the heroes finding their own mystical destinies or revisiting the Vietnam war or being dragged down by their overindulgences in sex and/or drugs or exterminating Gen X punks. It's about the heroes putting aside their personal problems and discarding pop culture BS and working as a team to do what has to be done. In other words, it's about a Hero generation, not a Prophet generation. And I can't wait for the next book.

(See this post for a little more explanation of what I'm talking about with all this generational stuff.)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I always traced the decline of Wild Cards to the contributions of Chris Claremont, who I supposed wanted to make the story grittier.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

It's an easy association to make, since he had the first story in vol VIII, which was the start of the downhill slide, but as a newcomer to the series I wouldn't have thought he'd have that much influence.

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds interesting! Guess I'll have to arrange to check it out...

From the library, that is. How many of these things did you say there are?

4:54 AM  
Blogger Matthew E said...

This is the eighteenth. The first six were recently reprinted by ibooks, and the next six had multiple printings. The three after that, not sure. And the most recent two before this one were just in the last few years. You're probably better off tracking them down used; I'm not sure how much play they got in the libraries. Good hunting!

9:03 AM  

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