by Mark Lawrence

GRRM reminded me that this blog post was due in three weeks and immediately a low grade panic set in. Not that I couldn’t think of anything to say in the general area of superheroes and Wild Cards -the series has sprawled over decades and reached story threads into pretty much every topic imaginable so there are endless topics to tackle – but that I wouldn’t be able to say anything new about it.    Moreover, how would I even know if I were repeating some theme or point that had been exercised frequently in recent years? It’s not like I’ve read a significant fraction of what’s been published on the subject… In the end I consoled myself with the fact that most of the people who read what I end up writing will also not have consumed a large chunk of opinion on the topic in hand, and so if I’m turning over stones that have been turned over before, I might still provide some entertainment. 

Let’s see, shall we? 

Like GRRM I’m a gardener – I have no idea where this post is going. I’m just sprinkling seeds as I type and hopefully they’ll grow into something pretty, or edible, or both.

          In addition to the Wild Cards stories I’ve read, I’ve recently devoured a fair number of other books and TV where random superpowers are distributed among a sizeable cast of characters. The recent examples front and centre in my thinking are the excellent Strange the Dreamer and The Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor, and on TV: Project PowerThe Umbrella Academy, and Misfits (plus The Boys which I mention in my last blog). It set me thinking about why the idea’s appeal is so enduring. 

Obviously there is a large component of wish fulfilment and power-fantasy involved. It’s part of the human condition to want to be special. Gaining power can be as much about being free from fear as it is about exercising that power over others. That power can be used to prevent others doing harm or to help them, or just to take what you want – but for many the appeal is an escape from their own fears. 

And of course celebrity is the drug of choice for the twenty-first century, so rather than merely being a side effect, for many it could be the driving engine behind the attraction this kind of fantasy exerts.

But power comes in many forms – rolling the dice at a list of random abilities is not the only way to acquire power. Wealth is an alternative that offers a lot more flexibility and reach than, say, super strength or stone skin etc, and yet many would choose a “cool” power over some millions of dollars, perhaps even a billion.

 A significant element of the interest seems to rest on the importance that all 7.9 billion of us place on being unique. And we are, of course, unique, but it’s the uniqueness of a snowflake. It’s there, it’s wonderful, but you need a microscope to see it. Together we’re the unique, unnoticed components of a vast snowdrift. 

A writer has their own microscope – they can sit inside their character, see the world through their eyes, and view the interior of their mind. But from the outside, in real life, it’s easy to overlook people, in fact it’s often impossible not to. A special power stamps the owner with a uniqueness made easily visible and demanding attention. At least it does if the recipients are not so numerous that repetition occurs and, for example, if such powers were more prevalent then crowds (flocks? fusillades?) of Human Torch equivalents might take to the air.

Surviving the wild card virus offers added enticement in that the powers it hands out are often in some way a manifestation of the character or interests of the person gaining them, or are a reflection of some internal conflict. This personalisation excites the readers’ imagination, making them wonder what kind of power their own angels and demons would settle upon their shoulders. Part of the fun of reading a Wild Cards story is speculating how (or if) the author has connected the power of their character to their history or nature. 

In the first book of the nearly thirty that now make up the series we met the Turtle, a nervous, comic-book loving boy who’s a target for bullies. His wild card power is telekinesis, which means he can deal with the world at more than arm’s length. And very early on he uses that power to create a metal shell within which he can shelter. We also meet Ghost Girl, a deeply introverted individual who in gaining the power to pass through solid matter becomes able to slip away whenever she wants – every introvert’s dream. And of course in moments of great embarrassment she doesn’t merely wish that the ground would swallow her… 

My own character, The Visitor, was born severely disabled, and her power enables her to inhabit other people’s bodies so that she can experience the world more fully. It’s a fun game to play.

Another Wild Cards selling point is that if you do defy the odds and both live through the experience and avoid horrible disfigurement you get a reward. You get to reach into the mystery bag and pull out something special. It adds a sense of natural justice absent in the real world – the prize has been earned. Wouldn’t it be great if surviving illness came with a better prize than just being allowed to carry on? 

Immediately after the Christmas we’ve just passed my youngest daughter went into hospital with septicaemia / sepsis, a condition with a much higher mortality rate than your average 90 year old with Covid faces. I stayed in with her and after 9 days, 7 of them with her on intravenous antibiotics, we came out. And I was overjoyed to have her return to normal. But how much nicer if the world handed out a reward for such endurance and given her a special power (or even just lessened the severity of her disability).

So the wild card virus that powers the series contains two key elements that enhance the core appeal of superpowers. Firstly that it is an earned power, achieved through suffering and danger. Secondly that in addition to giving an overt stamp of the individual’s uniqueness it’s one that is driven to some degree by their personality rather than randomly assigned from some list of possibilities. It is, in its way, a revealing of the light inside that person. I guess it’s a form of the old adage that pressure often brings out the best in people. 

I was hoping that the pressure to come up with this blog post would take my Christmas lump of coal and produce a diamond from it. I squeezed hard but sadly I seem to have ended up with a fistful of coal dust. But as T.S Elliot tells us, there’s all manner of things to be seen in a handful of dust so please use your imagination to patch over my failings.

Have a great 2021 everyone, and stay safe from that very real virus out there – it’s offering no prizes.