Aces and Jokers and Nats, Oh My

By Daniel Abraham


One of the things I admire most about the whole Wild Cards project – and one of the things I’ve gotten to play with in my stories here – is taxonomy.  Okay, that sounds a little abstract, but hang with me.


Taxonomy is always a problem.  In biology, figuring out where one species ends and the next one begins is profoundly tricky because nature doesn’t care that much about linguistic categories. Even pigeons don’t fit gracefully into pigeon holes.   You can start out with simple ideas like This is a horseor This is a sparrowand it seems straightforward enough.  But then you spend a little time looking at the world, and you find yourself at things like This is a mule, which is part horse and part donkey, but sterile, so it’s neither a member of either parent species nor a distinct species of its own.  Or This bird is a member of a ring species which circles the globe, and can interbreed with birds to its east and west, but can’t mate with a member of the ring that is brought directly across from it.


Messy, weird, contradictory spaces, those.  And that’s important.


The Wild Card virus created a simple taxonomy.  Everyone ends up in one of four pigeon holes:  Nats who weren’t infected; Aces who got powers, Jokers who were deformed by the infection, and Black Queens who died.  Simple, easy, straightforward.  This is a horse.  That is a joker.  Easy peasy.


But while the project begins there, it doesn’t end anywhere close.


My first Wild Cards story was a stand-alone called Father Henry’s Little Miracle in the collection Deuces Down.  Unlike the volumes that came before, Deuces Down drew from all parts of the Wild Cards timeline with essentially stand-alone stories about people who’d contracted the virus and wound up with trivial powers.  Someone who could turn their right hand blue or can revive burned-out lightbulbs is a deuce.  It’s a power, but it’s a trivial power.  And so a new pigeon hole comes into being.  An ace, but not really an ace.  A deuce. Father Henry was able to turn drinking water into cheap Merlot. Water into wine.  The story was built so that his power was actually useful, but not more useful than the fact that he was seriously nearsighted.

Father Henry was also not a pretty man.  He joked in his sermons about being mistaken for a joker.  Just as the extraordinary powers of aces are subject to social judgment – here’s a power that’s just not good enough – people’s appearances are also divided.  The difference between a joker and a nat who failed to meet the traditional standards of beauty or normalcy is an issue of mechanism.  Did your skin get that way because of the Wild Card virus or something else?  How someone fits into the categories of the Wild Card universe gets complex on that axis too.


Father Henry’s enemy on the story was Demise, another mule character who was both Ace and Black Queen, and able to project his own death into others through eye contact.


My second contribution to the Wild Cards roster of characters-if-not-always-heroes was Jonathan Tipton-Clarke, who really wants to be called Jonathan Hive, but everyone actually refers to as Bugsy.  His power – to convert his body into an equivalent mass of green, wasp-like insects – has body immense power and flexibility.  He can fly.  He can sting. He can pop a couple wasps out of his flesh and then listen and see through their senses – literal “bugs.”  He thinks of himself as a journalist and an ace.


And so it’s a real shock to him when he finds out other people think of him as a joker because he’s essentially a huge sack of bugs. The Joker-Aces are a subset of people who have been infected and have both their appearances and changed and powered bestowed, another complication of the taxonomy.  The individual people in Wild Cards can straddle categories – Joker, Ace, Black Queen, Nat – and by doing so, they illuminate the flaws and assumptions that taxonomy requires.

In practice, it turns out that whether someone is a joker or not, whether they’re an ace or a deuce, depends on more than just the virus.  Whatever effects the Wild Card has on someone, that’s just the effect it has. How it is judged from outside, by others, is what determines what that person is.   Wild Cards sets up its categories very early on, and then spends volumes gleefully and consistently undermining them.  And by doing that, the project quietly reminds us that the world is like that too.


In Wild Cards, people are Aces or Deuces, Jokers or Nats. In the real world, people are Black or White, male or female.  Syrian or Jewish or Baltimore Orioles fans.   All taxonomies are stories.  They simplify the actual situation.  It’s what makes them useful, and it’s what makes them dangerous.  And Wild Cards from the beginning has made room on the margins.  The heroes of the ambiguous case.