by Peadar O Guilin
Pick a card.
Look, I’ll make it easy for you. I’ll fan them out across the table and all you have to do is choose. But you hesitate. I think you’re afraid.
Anybody who has followed the wonderful Wild Cards series down the years will know that truly random cards are rarely dealt. Once there was a kid who loved dinosaurs and now — Shock! Horror! — he can become any of the ancient lizards he wants; a dancer yearning for the love of a particular man gets the power to make any male fall for her; and it comes as no surprise when, in Inside Straight, so many of the jokers who grew up in the shadow of the pyramids take on the physical appearances of ancient gods.
It’s almost as though the Takisian virus insists that every person it infects should pick their own card. Joker or ace or black queen, it all comes from the inside, often expressing a character’s deepest self in a way that is impossible to conceal.
And it’s not just ordinary Joes and Josephines that get infected. Wild Cards history does not begin to diverge from our own until 1946, so plenty of those who were rich and famous in our timeline have had their lives changed forever too.
Buddy Holley, for example, survives his plane crash and acquires the powers of a shaman. Winston Churchill ceases aging and Elizabeth Windsor, why, she never lives to become queen herself, having drawn the black one.
Since the dawn of time, story-tellers and other world-builders have incorporated the famous into their creations. It’s one reason ancient kings used to keep turning up in fireside tales all the time, whether it was Fionn Mac Cumhall, King Arthur or a host of others.
Dante must have loved that part of his job. Here was a man who got to rule on whether the major figures of his day made it into heaven or tumbled down to hell. Some of the judgements depended on how badly these people had screwed him over personally, and how bitter he felt (very) about lifelong exile from his beloved home in Florence. The rewards and punishments he doled out rarely came without a healthy dose of irony.
Poor Ugolino, for example, a real historical figure (1220-1289), was bricked up in a tower with his own children and no source of food. One by one, as the youngsters began to die, they begged their father to eat them in the hopes he would live long enough to escape. He never did. Now, according to Dante’s Inferno, he spends eternity in Hell, constantly eating the head of the Bishop who forced him into cannibalism in the first place. Don’t worry! It’s more hygienic that it sounds. Dante points out that Ugolino gets to wipe his lips on his victim’s hair. Phew!
Even those who find this story a little too grisly, have to acknowledge its poetic justice. Personally, I am also immensely fond of the circle of Hell where those who make money from religion are punished and several of the others too. But I’ll leave you to read that for yourselves if you haven’t already. I need to get back to talking about jokers and aces.
A few years ago, as a rookie Wild Cards writer working on Knaves Over Queens, I was enormously tempted to play with some of the famous people of my day too.
I grew up close to the border with Northern Ireland. We did our shopping in Derry, sometimes arriving there along a road covered in bricks and bottles from a riot the night before. My father, a surgeon, operated on people who’d been hurt in the conflict, while a neighbour of mine was arrested for his involvement with a terrorist organization. And so on. I was never personally affected in any way, but it certainly overshadowed the economic prospects of the whole of Ireland and most acutely, the region of Donegal where I spent the bigger part of my childhood.
Knaves Over Queens is an alternate history book. Just like Wild Cards I, it starts in 1946 and takes us right up to the present day, but this time, the events described all take place in Britain and Ireland. Some of the characters appear in just one story, but my creation, Badb, is followed right through the conflict in Northern Ireland, from beginning to… well, not its end, exactly. Not as we would know it in our world.
Like with so many other characters, the card she’s dealt is far from random. As a disturbed, sick girl who grows up surrounded by rebel poetry and history books, she becomes, or so she believes, a manifestation of the ancient Irish Goddess of war. And what would such a goddess want if she were real? Conflict, of course. And sacrifice. As much of it as possible. In the parallel Wild Cards universe, her powers and her malice are the reasons that so many attempts to make peace between Nationalists, Unionists and jokers, come to nothing.
Like Badb, like most of you reading this, I’ve had a particular upbringing that has sent my thinking and my instincts down very particular paths. My paths are different from yours, of course. The reason this awful creature sprang out of *my* subconscious, was because somewhere among the dense thickets of my psyche is a knot of hatred for those I really do think prolonged or exacerbated the conflict in the real world. She is a manifestation of all those unworthy feelings.
But as I worked her out of my system, I wanted more. I was enormously tempted to pull a Dante. There was one politician in particular who used to whip up fury and violence and I had the idea of making him into a ghoul, who could eat nothing but the flesh of murder victims.
Luckily, I resisted. Not because I object to any writer doing such things, but because I myself need to be aware of the limitations of my own experience. You see, unlike Dante, I was never one of those who actually suffered in the conflict I was writing about. I was a mere observer with no right to damn anybody.
Still, though, the fact that all this horror sits in the back of my mind, really makes me wonder what I would have become had my own card turned.
MOVES LIKE JAGGER
But not all irony is doom and gloom and bad politics. Some of it can be fun and some, even glorious.
What’s not to love about the fact that Mick Jagger is a werewolf? He became so in a throwaway line from a Wild Cards story by Victor Milan, but it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The sheer energy of the man, the passion that bursts out of him every time he is on stage makes it perfectly logical that he might transform into a ravening beast at a concert on the Isle of Wight. Dante would have loved that and might also have appreciated a host of other examples from WC, such as the way that the great mathematician, Alan Turing, became a living computer, or how Julie Cotton’s very real rabbit’s ears inspired Hugh Heffner.
A lot of amusement can be had speculating what would happen to the famous figures of our own day with the sudden flip of a card. Would your most hated politician be a joker or a super-villainous manipulator of minds? Or would their pants literally catch fire every time they… misspoke?
But there’s more! These people are the makers of history, so how will their mutation affect the timeline? I mean, what would have happened had JFK developed an iron skin to go with that iron will of his? Alas, he never did. Even in the WC universe he suffered the same fate he did here in our world.
And yet, for all the fun that there is to be had speculating about the rich and the famous, the most interesting game that readers of the series can play, is about themselves. Our subconscious would probably pick our card for us, ensuring some kind of ironic outcome, but unlike what happens in Dante’s Divine Comedy, justice has very little to do with it: the sweetest people can suffer the worst mutations, while villains rejoice in obscene levels of power.
Wild Cards is not a child-friendly series, but there is no doubt that for most of us, our first encounter with the superhero genre came early. While adults are often nostalgic for youth, remembering all the games and the lack of responsibility that characterizes most modern western childhoods, what the young themselves often experience, is a distinct lack of power. They are not in control of their own lives nor even, in most cases, their own diet. Who wouldn’t fantasize about being truly special in such circumstances? About having the opportunity to make a real difference?
When I was growing up, traditional superhero comics were not very common in Ireland. But the idea of superpowers — under various guises — was everywhere. From Danny with his magical transistor radio, to Wolfie Smith’s amazing telekinesis, to the Asterix books where threats of Roman violence could always be met with a draught of magic potion.
Later, my parents sent me to a boarding school, where even stricter rules applied than at home. One night, just after lights out, a friend lying in the next bed asked me for the name of a superhero, any superhero.
“Why?” I wanted to know.
“Just pick one.”
“Hawkman,” I said, thinking I was making that up.
“That will do it! Thanks.” All he’d wanted was a fantasy to help him fall asleep, and imagining himself as Hawkman, a hero, seemed to fit the bill. I understood perfectly, because I was no different at that age.
Now, as an adult, I still fantasize about things. Winning a Hugo and being a bestseller are perennial favourites. I also pay regular visits to a sumptuous mind palace, where previously harsh critics of my work queue up every night to beg my forgiveness. “We didn’t recognise you, master! Not in your human form.”
But because I have decades of struggle and disappointment behind me, as well as some lovely but more… realistic successes, I find it harder to immerse myself in these dreams unless I make them more plausible somehow, and the older I get, the more experience I gain of reality, the harder that becomes.
The same holds true for my ability to get lost in a story.
For example, I have a passion for languages. I love everything about them: their history, their constant evolution, the rich way they reflect the cultures they grew out of. The downside of all this pleasure is the way it can ruin a good plot. Recently, I sat through the first episode of Fargo series 4, muttering, “Those gangsters wouldn’t have spoken standard Italian like that,” and, “that’s a terrible Irish accent.”
Despite this, I am somehow perfectly happy to accept a Takisian virus, or Jedi mind powers. It’s as if I willingly sign away my right to skepticism when I buy the book — but only about that one particular thing. Flying people? Fine. Silly accent? No, curse you! No!
All fantasy is built on a foundation of sturdy realism, but the type of realism that allows suspension of disbelief can differ radically from one reader to the next. I find it particularly interesting that so many of the impossibilities we are willing to accept, such as superpowers, are things we first latched onto in childhood, before we had erected an entire fortress of rationality to keep them out.
So it is thanks to the children we once were that we still get to dream even if those dreams are under constant siege from the grown-up spoilsport that lives inside us.
“I want 70% realism or I’m waking you up!”
Like Dante, the adult has seen so much that is awful. He or she spends all day working on spreadsheets or toasting muffins or dealing with terrible people. And that adult is terrified of what might happen when the cards are fanned out before them and they have to pick.
“I’m going to draw the Black Queen, aren’t I?” they mutter. Or, “I’ll be one of those jokers that squeamish readers try to forget.”
But when your turn comes, just go with it. Let your inner child pick for you. They like dinosaurs, after all. And Hawkman. They still think you can be a hero. They’re right.