by Mark Lawrence
When, to my great surprise, George RR Martin’s email appeared in my inbox inviting me to join the Wild Cards universe, I hadn’t ever read any of the books. So, the first thing I did was go to the beginning and start reading the stories in book 1.
Very early on I understood that one of the defining features of the undertaking was that the stories took place at every level of society and engaged firmly with the impact and consequences of the central thesis – that of superheroes appearing among us as the result of a plague, along with the less fortunate effects such as a great many fresh corpses and disfigured victims.
A natural and important consequence of this approach was that the story reached into politics. There are many stories from within the corridors of power in more than one nation. Wild Cards did not accept the fiction of many superhero franchises, that humans with god-like powers could walk among us without changing our history. Wild Cards did not employ the “reset” that the comic books use to ensure that whatever happened last week is forgotten this week and that nothing lasts to scar the future.
As a result of 36 years of Wild Card writing across some 80 years of in-universe Wild Card time, the history of planet Earth in Wild Cards diverged from our own just after World War II, and now has a number of significant differences.
It is interesting then, when something that happened in the Wild Cards world but not ours, later happens in our own world in one form or other. We get the chance to see how well the writer’s imagination lived up to reality, and to put to the test the old saw that reality is the stranger of the two.
Still being a Wild Cards newbie – mostly due to my shamefully slow reading speed – I can’t claim to be an aficionado or to have read a large fraction of the 29 books currently on offer. So, many more opportunities for such comparison doubtless exist than I’m aware of. However, the most obvious one is given practically on page 1 of book 1 and explored in great detail across the years. A potentially fatal virus.
We’ve had two years of pandemic at this point and well over ten million people are thought to have died (wrapping in estimates for countries whose own accounting is demonstrably flawed), a million of them in America alone.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the pandemic is how every last element of it has become the subject of partisan politics. You don’t have to look hard to find video of people earnestly denying the virus exists, vehemently rejecting the vaccines that would vastly reduce their chances of dying from it, and – terrifyingly – sitting in hospital beds, fighting for the breath to say that they’re not that sick, and they don’t have covid because it doesn’t exist, only to have the banner “Jim died three days later.” scroll across the end of the clip.
Wild Cards might be given a pass on not predicting this one, since Xenovirus Takis-A (XTA) has a 90% mortality rate, and it’s hard to imagine how even the most potent mix of misinformation and wilful ignorance could resist the cold hard facts of something like that. It’s interesting to speculate though about just how far you could push that mortality rate along the line from 1% to 90% before people just stopped arguing and started running.
As a counterpoint, it should be noted that in Wild Cards, XTA is self-limiting, popping up in clusters and vanishing again, affecting a very small percentage of the global population. So, it’s actually quite easy to imagine that people outside those bubbles would practice politics much the same as we have in our pandemic. Denying its existence, refusing to take precautions, and spawning endless conspiracy theories.
But truth is stranger than fiction, and (as far as I know) the general public in Wild Card stories have never evidenced quite the same levels of batshit crazy that our own neighbours have. If I’d read a story that actually predicted this, rather than praise the farsighted genius of the author, I would probably have snorted at their excessive cynicism. Surely, I would have said, the aggression of a virus, pointed in every direction without fear or favour, would be the one thing people could unite against? Sadly, no.
A popular ‘what if’ gambit for alternate histories is a World War III scenario, or, more presciently, the potential start of one with new aggression from Russia, China, or some hitherto unsuspected power block that’s postulated to grow into a threat.
To be honest, these scenarios have always made me roll my eyes a little. Particularly moving into the 21st century with the instant access of the internet where, I once naively imagined, there would be no hiding from the truth when you could see it in video streamed live by the citizenry. In this brave new world, it seemed impossible that tanks would roll across borders in great number as had been the great fear looming in the background of my childhood.
When authors put such deeds in motion, I was happy to play along – nice story, bro – but I never bought into it.
And now … we have now.
Wild Cards did bring us a world war. In Aces High, book 2 of the series, The Swarm arrived from space and assaulted humanity in 1985. Ukraine was even a primary target. We got to see superheroes fighting alongside soldiers and citizenry against a common foe. And because that foe was an alien biomass, we could cheer the aces without reservation as they unleashed their power against ‘flesh and blood’.
When you pit superheroes against regular humans in a war it tends to be an uncomfortable business unless the opposition can be painted as so clearly evil (or with more nuance, clearly in the service of evil) that compassion can take a back seat. We saw Captain America battle the Nazis without reservation. My favourite childhood comic (which is still going, and is still a great read) 2000AD, brought us various takes on this over the years, including the British superhero Maximan who dies in combat with a superpowered Nazi. Interestingly, one of Maximan’s inheritors, around whom the comic strip is based, is a dissolute cowardly wastrel in the 80s, an individual named Zenith (still my favourite superhero). And as chance would have it, Zenith’s costume is typically the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, combined with the ‘Z’ that’s fast becoming the 21stcenturies replacement for the swastika. Covering all the bases is totally on brand for Zenith…
Anyway, my point, and god knows that this stream-of-consciousness meander needs one, is that the truth which is currently dominating our news and bringing terror to the lives of millions, is something I would have found hard to believe had the pages of Wild Cards brought it to me in place of the alien Swarm of their own third global war.
Moreover, given our current sense of helplessness, our desire to aid being pitched against our desire to avoid a conflict that could easily become nuclear, it would be nice to have a superhero or two start going mano-a-tanko. Provided that they were on our side, of course.
And it’s even a case where I would feel closer to the Golden Boy vs The Swarm, or Captain America vs the Nazis mindset. Not that the individual soldiers are evil, but that a single motivating malignance, be it Swarm Mother, Hitler, or Putin, is wielding them to do evil, and must be confronted.
Sadly, truth maybe stranger than fiction, but it is also generally more complicated, more sad, and more layered. Our fascination with superpowers is a romance with power, a yearning for control, a desire for the individual to matter more. There is a definite element of “If I could shoot fire from my eyes, they’d have to listen to me then,” about it. That’s not all of it, but it’s one of the structural supports.
The irony is, that we find ourselves at this extreme, where the entire population of the planet feels the ripples of this conflict, and a large part of it convulses in the throes of the malady, precisely because one man has far too much power. The world has managed to create (again) a situation where one man has been allowed to collect to himself a vast, unchecked power, slowly stripping away the constraints on individual authority, doing away with the consensus required for action. And this is a process that self-selects for sociopaths, psychopaths, and monsters. The world ignored the lessons written in blood across the previous century and made another dictator. It let him stew in isolation, paranoia, and a consuming sense of grievance. And now we have now.
And all I can do is write stories about heroes who might save us, while better men and women fight in the rubble of their cities.