Shuffling the Deck or, Book Four and the World Tour

{HERE THERE BE SPOILERS! You do not want to read what follows until after you’ve finished Aces Abroad and the three books before it}

Wild Cards began with a three-book contract, but the series was always intended to be open-ended. So when the first three volumes were published to excellent reviews and very strong sales and Bantam asked me for more, my writers and I were pleased to oblige. We loved this world and the characters who peopled it, and knew we had many more stories to tell about them.

The question was, where should we go from here?

Jokers Wild had brought the first triad to a climactic close. The Astronomer was dead, his Egyptian Freemasons smashed and dispersed, and out in the dark of space the Swarm had been tamed and turned away from Earth……but our characters remained, and damned few of them had been left to live happily ever after. Yeoman was still on the streets with his bow, fighting his one-man war against the Shadow Fist. Croyd Crenson still woke transformed every time he surrendered to sleep. James Spector remained on the loose, his eyes brimming with death. The Great and Powerful Turtle had been killed in Jokers Wild…or had he? Was the Turtle sighting that evening authentic? Just what had happened to Tom Tudbury after the Astronomer’s minions had sent his shell crashing into the Hudson?

And we had larger issues to deal with as well. We’d had some fun pitting our aces against the menace of the Swarm and the evil of the Astronomer, but we were plowing ground that had been plowed a thousand times before. Aliens and supervillians had been staples of the funny books since the first one came rolling off the press. Our versions had been grittier and more visceral, perhaps, but there was nothing really new in those types of adventures.

The most widely acclaimed story in the first three books had been Walter Jon Williams’ Nebula finalist, “Witness,” a powerful tale of human frailty where the villain was neither the Swarm nor the Astronomer, but rather the House Un-American Activities Committee (a few of our readers seemed to think that Walter made up HUAC, but never mind). There was a lesson there, if we wanted Wild Cards to be all that it could be. Plenty of comic books had featured superheroes fighting supervillians and alien invasions, but very few had seriously explored the deeper issues that would arise if a handful of superhumans had “power and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” The responsibilities and temptations of great power, randomly bestowed. The ways society would deal with those who were more than human, and with the new underclass, the jokers. Aces as objects of hero worship and aces as objects of fear. The cult of the celebrity. All this should be grist for our mill, and the thematic heart and soul of the Wild Cards.

We also wanted to broaden our canvas. The first triad had been very tightly focused on New York City. Oh, we got some glimpses of what was happening in the rest of the world during the Swarm War, and earlier as well, when the Four Aces were chasing Peron from Argentina and losing China to the Communists……but that was all they were, glimpses. For the most part our eyes remained fixed on the towers of Manhattan and the mean streets of Jokertown. It was time we showed what the Takisian virus had done to the rest of the world.

Last time I talked about my belief that the most effective shared worlds were those that maximized the sharing. That was a lesson that carried over into the second triad. We wanted a series where the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts. I had been fortunate enough to assemble the most gifted group of writers ever to work together on a collaborative project of this nature, and in the first three books they had given us a richly textured world with its own history, full of fascinating characters and conflicts…but to build on that foundation we needed to start working together more closely than we had previously. I wanted to draw our plot threads together, and make the second Wild Cards triad much more tightly woven than the first.

In later years, much of the planning for the Wild Cards books would be done on line, in a private category on the Genie BBS service, but back then the series and the Internet were both still in their infancy. Instead the New Mexico Wild Cards contingent assembled in the living room of Melinda Snodgrass’s old house on 2nd street, where we argued over coffee, and from time to time phoned up some of our out-of-town contributors to draw them into the dialogue as well.

As with the earlier triad, we decided that the first two volumes would feature a series of individual stories linked by an interstitial narrative, while the third and concluding volume would bring everything together in a full mosaic novel along the lines of Jokers Wild. The Astronomer and his Masonic cult had been the major overarching threat in the first three books. In this new triad, that role would be filled by Senator Gregg Hartmann, a wonderfully complex character who showed a noble, idealistic face to the world as he led the fight for joker rights, while concealing the sadistic ace Puppetman within. Hartmann’s 1976 bid for the presidency had failed in book one, but there was no reason he should not try again.

The Hartman story would be the major unifying thread of these next three books — the overplot, we called it — but there would be other conflicts going on as well. Both John Miller and Leanne Harper had given us a glimpse into New York’s criminal underworld, and it seemed inevitable that John’s Asian mob and Leanne’s old line Mafia family would come into conflict. So that became a second major plot thread, the focus of the middle book of this triad, volume five in the overall series, which would eventually be titled Down & Dirty.

The fourth book would be built around the global junket led by Senator Hartmann, its stated purpose to investigate the impact of the wild card virus on other parts of the world. That would serve to reintroduce Hartmann and Puppetman and get the overplot rolling, while simultaneously allowing us to tell some stories we would never have been able to tell had the series remained tightly based in New York City.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. With Wild Cards, nothing ever was. I have sometimes likened Wild Cards to a big band or a symphony, but writers are not accustomed to following a conductor. In this band, sometimes two people would leap in to play the same solo, determined to drown each other out. At other times, while most of the band was attempting Beethoven’s Fifth, there would be one oboe off in the corner stubbornly playing Mozart instead, and another guy on the harmonica doing the theme song to “My Mother, the Car.” As editor, sometimes I felt as if I were herding cats. Big cats, and me with neither a chair nor a whip……though I did have a checkbook, which works better than a whip on writers.

The triad which began with Aces Abroad was indeed much more tightly plotted than the first……though not nearly as tightly plotted as some of the later triads would be. Wild Cards was more interwoven than any shared world series that preceded it (or that followed it, for that matter), but that meant we were exploring virgin territory, so none of us really knew the way. No, not even Your Humble Editor, though editors are usually infallible, as is well known. Looking back on Aces Abroad all these years later, I think that perhaps I should have cracked my checkbook-whip a little more often at several points in the proceedings. Having Hartmann kidnapped twice during the same tour was a bit much, really, and I should have insisted that my writers juggle with the balls they already had up in the air before allowing them to toss up so many new ones. It is all very well when the plot thickens, but if it gets too bloody thick you’re likely to throw your wrist out stirring.

Still, it all worked out in the end, more or less. And if perhaps there were too many new characters being introduced, well, many of them would go on to greatly enrich the series in later books. It was here we first met the Living Gods, and Ti Malice, here that Mackie Messer first cut a bloody path into our hearts, here that the Hero Twins and the Black Dog and Dr. Tachyon’s darling grandson Blaise made their debuts, and Kahina and the Nur al-Allah as well. Polyakov came on stage for the fist time, as did Ed Bryant’s aboriginal shaman Wyungare……though the new character destined to play the largest role down the line was not actually new at all.

That was Jerry Strauss, introduced in the first book as the Projectionist, before becoming a Great Ape for a decade and a half. It was only after he was restored to humanity in Aces Abroad that our readers, like Dr. Tachyon, found themselves slapping their heads and remembering that the wild card never affects animals. As the Projectionist and the Great Ape, Jerry was just a bit player, but later as Nobody he would become somebody. So to speak.

Aces Abroad was a book for goodbyes as well. Lew Shiner’s heroic pimp Fortunato had been a Wild Cards mainstay since the first volume. In those early days he was one of our two most popular characters, judging from the mail we got and what our readers told us at conventions. (Dr. Tachyon was the only character to equal Fortunato’s popularity, but the readers who loved Tach inevitably hated Fortunato, and vice versa. “The Wimp and the Pimp” dichotomy we called it.) Lew had sent Fortunato off to Japan after his climactic battle with the Astronomer in Jokers Wild, to give the character some closure. But Gail Gerstner Miller threw him a curve ball when she had Peregrine turn up pregnant by Fortunato…and then we brought the tour toJapan, right to his doorstep. That managed to coax one last Fortunato story out of Lew……after which the pimp shuffled offstage once more, leaving the wimp to reign in solitary splendor for a time.

Aces Abroad also marked the end of my own Xavier Desmond, the “Mayor of Jokertown,” whose voice I used for the interstitial narrative. Writing the interstitial segments was always one of the most challenging assignments in doing a Wild Cards book. Not only did you need to tell a good story of your own, you also had to tie together all the other stories, bridge any gaps your fellow writers might have left, and patch up holes in the overplot. Later in the series, I would farm out the interstitials to various other brave souls, but in the beginning I did them all myself. “The Journal of Xavier Desmond” was the best of my interstitials, I think, and one of the most powerful things I ever wrote for Wild Cards.

All in all, the second Wild Cards triad got off to a flying start when our aces and jokers boarded the Stacked Deck for their trip around the world, little realizing what storms lay ahead for the characters, writers, and editor alike — the madness that was Down & Dirty and the monstrous runaway growth of book six.

But those are tales for another day.