by Laura J. Mixon
Once upon a die-roll, my friends Melinda Snodgrass and Walter Jon Williams invited me to join a group of fellow New Mexican science fiction writers and fans, who got together on a regular basis to play tabletop role-playing games, or RPGs.
This was back in 1984 or thereabouts. I had just returned from a two-year Peace Corps stint in Kenya and was trying to figure out what the heck to do with myself. Luckily, Melinda and Walter had some thoughts about that.
“Hey, Laura,” Melinda asked me one evening, while we were out for a walk, “have you ever played RPGs?”
She and her roleplaying buddies had apparently, in a spasm of dicey judgment, agreed to welcome me into their ranks.
I’m referring of course to the role-playing group whose hijinks in George’s “Superworld” game served as the inspiration for the Wild Cards shared-world anthologies.
(Sidebar: can you think up a leisure activity any better suited to science fiction and fantasy writers and readers? I mean, seriously. It’s like having your brain scooped out of your cranium every week. Try HALO’ing into a pack of Uplifted, hivemind Pomeranians, who are taking the fight to cyborg thieves, who are hiding out in the gut of their trans-dimensional pet Kraken, who… (you get the idea)…every Saturday afternoon at 3, for nine hours at a stretch. With cookies and tea, and cultural conversation!)
The Superworld campaign, the one famous for spawning Wild Cards, had already wrapped up by the time I joined, so I wasn’t one of the original members. You might say I was in the spinoff.
As I recall, George and Melinda and the Wild Cards gang were working hard to get the first three anthologies up on their feet, around the time Walter introduced me to Melinda, and she introduced me to George and the other regulars in our RPG game—Parris, Victor Milan, John Miller, Gail Gerstner-Miller, Chip Wideman, and Jim Moore.
OK, so don’t tell George this, but when he was making his plans for a second trilogy of books, I really wanted to pitch a character and story to him. But I couldn’t achieve lift on it.
In the first place, the idea of going up against my fellow writer RPGers, who were all accomplished writers with several published works by then? Not to mention the likes of Roger Zelazny, Bill Wu, Pat Cadigan, Howard Waldrop, Ed Bryant, Leanne Harper, Lew Shiner…? Before the one sale I’d made by then was even in print?
And second, I was also working full-time, and was concerned about whether I could meet the needed deadlines. Writing in a shared world is a big commitment, requiring lots of communication, revision, and back-to-the-drawing-boards to get the story soufflé to set properly.
Long story short; I didn’t jump in. Not then.
In 1987, I had to leave New Mexico—and my beloved RPG group—behind. Financial necessity, in the shape of a nifty engineering opportunity on the East Coast, called. This was followed in rapid and serendipitous succession by a plum job in New York, as well as passion, romance, and marriage (at WeddingCon ‘89, to a cute and talented redhead, I might add). By the early 90s, Steve Gould (of Jumper notoriety) and I had settled in New York City.
While all this was happening, the Wild Cards gang had been hard at work. They’d penned a trilogy of trilogies, as well as a couple of solo novels, and now they were gearing up for the fourth trilogy: Card Sharks.
George reached out to me to see if I was interested in pitching for one or more of them. I’d had two novels published by then, and had sold two more. My YA space thriller had been a bit of a breakout success, and my first adult novel, a cyberpunk mystery, had come out in paperback and been received well. So I had more confidence in my ability to write something sufficient unto the day. Unfortunately, as before I had a fulltime day job and we were expecting our first child soon.
This time, though, I wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip by (sleep; who needs sleep?). So I pitched and George accepted. I was in.
I wrote two stories for the Card Sharks trilogy. “The Lamia’s Tale” appeared in Book One, Card Sharks, and “A Dose of Reality,” co-written with Melinda, appeared in the second, Marked Cards.
I’d intended to pitch a story for the final book, Black Trump, as well, but by then we had an infant to raise, plus I had two books on contract that I was already late on (and still working; you know the drill), so I couldn’t make a third story happen. But I sure had a blast with the two I wrote.
In “The Lamia’s Tale,” I told the story of Joan van Rensselaer, the wife of the wealthy and powerful Brandon van Rensselaer.
Joan is a green-eyed beauty, lithe and blonde. She’s a high-society deb, the daughter of East Coast elites, who’s been handed the finest of everything on a silver platter. She believes she is owed every dollop of fulsome glory she has ever been given.
Joan and Brandon have some things in common; for instance, she shares Brandon’s disdain for jokers and all things Wild card. But she’s miserable being married to him. He torments, humiliates, and controls her without surcease.
As her one solace, she has little Clara, her one true joy, whom she showers with love and affection. As for the rest of her miserable existence, Joan figures at least she can bury her sorrows under a mountain of excess: clothing, jewelry, outings to the latest Broadway shows, dinners at five-star restaurants, trips to remote locales. Until the day her recessive wild card gene expresses itself and she awakens to find herself in the body of to a human-cobra hybrid.
It’s impossible to hide the transformation, of course. Brandon promptly divorces her and gains full custody of Clara. She is disowned by her family and shunned, not just by all her friends, but the rest of the world. And with this, as they say, the student is enlightened. Joan comes to see the world as it is from the other side of the looking-glass. She realizes finally how shortsighted, how selfish and shallow she has been.
She ends up moving to Jokertown, where she makes a much more congenial home for herself, however humble, and devotes herself to helping her fellow jokers and atoning for her past mistakes. She’s happier than she had ever been in her former life.
But losing her daughter to a psychopath like Brandon is a splinter in her heart, and she fears for Clara’s wellbeing.
In “A Dose of Reality,” Melinda and I traded viewpoints to tell the twin stories of Joan and Brandon’s daughter Clara, and Dr. Bradley Finn, a doctor at the Jokertown Clinic, whose wild card had turned him into a centaur[*].
Since the time that Joan’s card turned when Clara was five, she has been brought up in what is essentially a cult. She was homeschooled, fed fake news. When she showed an aptitude for math and science, her father fed her voracious intellect and talents by channeling her learning into a very narrow canyon: to gain all the knowledge she could of the Wild card virus, and develop a bioweapon that would target and kill anyone who had a copy of the Wild card in their genome. By the time Marked Cards opens, Clara has all but finished a prototype of the Black Trump virus.
From Clara’s standpoint, this was both a necessity and a mercy: her mother (so she’d been told) had died a horrible, painful death, and she’s been fed a diet of anti-Joker propaganda for years, to the point where she believes their lives aren’t worth living. Furthermore, her analysis told her that if the wild card virus wasn’t eradicated and soon, the virus would spread till the whole human race would be at risk.
Clara is blissfully unaware that—while her weaponized virus is terrifyingly real, and will kill millions if her mission is completed—she’s been living inside a lie. Her analysis of the risks of the wild card virus becoming a global threat was built on falsehoods and pseudo-science. The Card Sharks are zealots and charlatans, and Clara’s research has been tainted by their bigotry and ideologically-driven “facts.” If ignorance is bliss, Clara has discovered Nirvana.
In order to finish her virus, she has to infiltrate the Jokertown Clinic and obtain a Maguffin there (I disremember the details. Don’t judge!). Instead she uncovers the truth: that everything she was ever taught about the Wild card virus was a lie, that jokers are not the cartoonish monstrosities she’s been taught they were—and that she has created a horror—a eugenic bomb—which is about to go off, killing millions.
She and Dr. Finn may start out at cross purposes, but they soon become allies, and by the story’s end, as lovers[†], as they race to stop the Card Sharks from unleashing the monstrous weapon Clara created.
In my mind, Wild Cards has several characteristics that distinguish it from other superhero series and franchises. For one thing, it has a science-fictional feel that is more prominent than in most superhero milieus.
Second, while there’s always going to be some drift in a series with this many books (what, 26 as of this writing?) and contributors (40? WTF, George??), the level continuity is remarkable. This lends the books a sense of depth—things you sense in the periphery of your vision as you read, which makes the world spill out beyond the edges of the page. In Wild Cards, you sense that more is always going on than what you see before you.
I also agree with something Melinda said to me recently: that the heart of Wild Cards is its jokers. If you contract the virus, you are by far most likely to die—90% of all wild card victims die. But if you live—if! Then you’re ten times more likely to end up monstrified than you are to keep your good looks and gain new powers. I don’t know about the rest of you, but much as I’d enjoy wielding godlike powers, I don’t much care for those odds.
This really ups the stakes for the characters we come to know and love (or love to hate). And it’d be tough to find a better metaphor for extreme inequality than Wild Cards: aces are quite literally the 1%!
But most importantly, in Wild Cards, superpowers are a disease. That feeds back into that depth-of-field feeling. You don’t see someone getting exposed to radiation over here, someone bitten by a spider there, and that person over there falling into a vat of acid. Wild Cards is superpowers-as-ecosystem. An ecosystem originally imposed on us by aliens, yes—but by now it’s become part of nature. A part of who we are. And thus nature itself has become something terrifying and unpredictable. (Like, say, climate change. Or a stolen election.)
It’s this, the idea of superpowers-as-a-disease, that makes Wild Cards so simultaneously disturbing and exhilarating. It tells you that anything could happen.
The disease—carnage, monstrosity, and all too often, monstrous godhood—has infiltrated our genome. It has become part of who we are, and in so doing has plunged us into unknown territory.
You could be standing on a street corner, minding your own business, reading the news on your phone, and suddenly the person next to you is dissolving into a pile of goo—still wearing that person’s face.
Or maybe on a day when you’re dropping your kid at pre-school, you enter to see the wall between yours and the next vanish as a big hole opens in the floor. The schools ace-power-alert bell goes off as the floor buckles and begins to crumbles.
The teacher can’t suppress the fear in her voice as she pulls kids away from the precipice. “All right—just like we practiced; time for our visit to the Ace Accident Shelter! Hold tight to your buddy’s hands, now…Oh. Oh, dear! Where’s Jimmy?”
Wild Cards is as relentless as a heat wave. As egalitarian as a storm surge. It respects no borders. It has no regard for age, race, religion, gender, or wealth. It’s a disruptive and terrifying lottery, one that could strike you or someone you love at any time, no matter who or where you are. A wall is not going to keep it out.
Like the honey badger, Wild Cards don’t give a shit; it’s going to grab hold of the world and shake things loose to see what falls out. Who know what things will look like afterward?
They say every story poses a question, even if it’s one that the story can’t resolve. If that’s so, then one thing Wild Cards asks is, what’s lurking in our marrow, waiting for a crisis to release it? Will it reveal itself as the friend of life, or its implacable enemy?
Are we gods, or are we monsters? Or are we dead already, and just don’t know it?
What better koan could there be for life in times such as these?
[*] A really cute one, too, with an adorable forelock!
[†] And yes, you salacious voyeur you; there is on-scene sex. It involves swing sets and trampolines. And a parade.