by Peadar Ó Guilín
What are you looking for when you open a book? Escape? That’s OK, we all need a place to go where the day-job and the chores can’t find us. Or perhaps, it’s education you seek. Or self-betterment. Maybe you just want to experience life as a heart-surgeon or an exotic dancer, but without the experience of real patients dying or all those handsy customers with the sticky palms and the dead eyes.
Me, I’m in it for the travel. I enjoy having my mind stretched, or even contorted. When somebody exclaims, “that concept made my head hurt!” I can only look at them with envy. Give me all your crazy ideas. Take me to fascinating places, real or imagined or a blend of both, and you’ll have my thanks.
You see, I was one of those kids who recognised himself every time the opening voiceover in Star Trek spoke of going “where no one has gone before.” Maybe you were too? Isn’t that why there’s such a huge crossover between the readers (and writers) of SF, fantasy, horror and… and yes, historical fiction?
I want good stories, of course. No, scratch that. I want the best stories, with tight plots, believable characters — or outrageously unbelievable ones — and all the rest of it. It’s just that I’d rather not spend the whole of my reading life in Kansas with Dorothy and Toto. Give me all your technicolor and give it to me now!
Long ago, and far away, in an interview with Locus, Wild Cards editor George R. R. Martin was discussing the crossover between fans and writers of the various genres. He said:
“If you’re a writer you’re a writer: you can tell a story. Sometimes the difference is just the furniture. Aliens or elves, they’re the Other, symbolically, metaphorically. I’ve always read all three of the forms. When I was a kid I’d be reading Heinlein one day and then Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard. (My father called it all ‘weird stuff.’)”
It wasn’t the last time he spoke about “furniture”. I myself have heard the man comparing cowboys to knights in armour and the like. His implication seemed to be that the difference between such characters in many cases was just the setting. And who could disagree with that? That inside each of these characters burns the same passion, the determination and the heroism?
Which is not to say that the setting is meaningless! That would be akin to an assertion that food has no need of flavour or texture or presentation. It would be to deny the overwhelming power of context. After all, it’s only the knowledge that Soylent Green is made of people that makes it taste so delicious! At least to those of us who are connoisseurs. And it’s that very same information that so appalls the po-faced kill-joys who live among us.
No, setting may not always change the basic essence of a story, but you can bet your life it affects a reader’s enjoyment of it.
Besides, if the cowboy and the knight are essentially the same, if the alien and the elf are both manifestations of the “other”, then the real difference between one tale and the next (apart from good story-telling, of course) is the furniture, and Wild Cards, as we shall see, is as greedy as any other franchise out there, to provide its readers with as many couches, chaise-lounges and sofas as they can handle.
Wild Cards Goes Global
Although the first outbreak of the Takisian virus took place in New York, — that’s a town in the USA, I think — one of the earliest books, Aces Abroad, took the readers and some of the cast on a whirlwind tour of the planet. They visited Syria. Dropped in on London, where Russian spies were as active then as they are today. Central America got a mention, and Port-au-Prince produced one of the nastiest monsters you’re ever likely to meet.
All of this new scenery, apart from being pretty, provided an opportunity for the writers to explore the destabilizing effects of the virus on a whole variety of cultures. What happens to a supposedly egalitarian society when some people suddenly develop superpowers? How do you control such people? And what are the consequences for entrenched class based systems when a person with the “superior” blood of a royal can be born a joker or even become one overnight?
In Aces Abroad, part of the scenery we are treated to in these explorations, include fascinating new aces and jokers whose card has turned in ways that reflect their own cultures and background. Some of these are even spectacularly beautiful, such as the butterfly man in Kevin Andrew Murphy’s story “Warts and All”. Many of them are closely tied to local legends. No wonder then, at one point, Fantasy muses that everybody’s card seemed to turn when they had their noses stuck in a book of fairy tales!
The Wild Cards Writers’ Room* frequently welcomes new recruits. Young ones. Tender. So fresh that they still have ideals and dreams.
I myself was brought in to work on Knaves Over Queens, which was set entirely in Britain and Ireland. Almost all of the authors involved came from this side of the pond and they are among the smartest people I have ever had the good fortune to work with.
While most readers loved the results, it didn’t stop one or two from finding things they considered to be “mistakes” and claiming it was typical of “Americans” to get such details wrong!
These readers aren’t fools, though. It’s just that their experience of what it means to be a citizen of today’s UK is never going to be a perfect match of that of writers like Emma Newman or Charles Stross.
My own main character for Knaves Over Queens and the mosaic novel that followed it, Three Kings, was an Irish woman who grew up in the same region I did. Which doesn’t guarantee I got everything right. This is not the one and only objective Ireland, merely Ireland as I, one person with a limited perspective, imagine it to be. But the important thing is that this perspective contains insights that nobody who has lived on the far side of the Atlantic is likely to come up with and thus, it feels, I hope, just fresh enough and strange enough to be enjoyable; to make the non-Irish among you think that you too are going somewhere new.
Broaden the Mind
I’ve already told you what kind of child I was, so you won’t be surprised to learn that I adored the way the writer Jack Vance could invent dozens of new and bizarre civilizations over the course of a single book. I remember thinking at the time that every one of them would have made a brilliant novel of its own. Indeed, decades later, when I encountered China Miéville’s Hugo winner, The City and the City, I recognised one of Vance’s throwaway civilisations in the central premise.
Jack Vance was like one of those trees that spits thousands of seeds out into the forest, and everywhere they landed, a new story started growing in somebody’s head. In my opinion, what distinguishes the best settings is the desire they create in others to write stories of their own, and Wild Cards definitely had that effect on me.
“Oh,” you might say, “but Wild Cards has no special universe of its own, it’s just our world.”
Well, sure. But a lot of the very best worldbuilding starts with something familiar, i.e. school, and adds in a single special ingredient, i.e. wizardry, that makes all the difference. From there, both reader and writer can extrapolate to their heart’s content.
I was still an unpublished writer when I first stumbled across a copy of Wild Cards. There were such great names in the Table of Contents! Roger Zelazny, in particular, had been a real childhood hero of mine, and I would soon discover just how good several of the other writers were too. But after I stopped huffing and puffing over that and read the stories themselves, I immediately began wondering what superpower I myself might have developed; or more likely, what awful mutation I would wake up with in the morning.
In other words, seeds had been planted and in a way that had never really happened for me with the little of the Marvel and DC universes I had been exposed to up to that point. This is because furniture is a very personal thing. Some like it garish. Some fans of Marie Kondo prefer it to be spare. Personally, I want an explanation, a system of some kind, so I particularly liked that there was a single cause to most of the mutations in the WC universe. It’s what allowed me to create new mutants of my own, even if only for the pleasure of daydreaming when I should have been studying.
The Wild Cards setting has numerous bells and whistles of course, such as beings from outer space and so on, but really, it is the virus. This central core is simple enough for anybody to grasp, but grows ever more elaborate with the passing of time. Each hero, villain and klutz changes the timeline, and since the first outbreak occurred in 1946, the world has been diverging from ours ever since.
But what is even more interesting than this, is the fact that the WC aces and jokers do more than just alter history: often, they embody it too.
Journeys Through Time
One way to rearrange the furniture is to travel in time as well as space. Low Chicago does this by throwing a group of characters into different parts of history, but other books in the series do their time travel in a more conventional fashion, i.e. by just waiting around for the future to come to them.
As we all know by now, the first volume of Wild Cards depicted the history of the world from the 1940s up as far as the 1980s. Of course, our stellar cast of writers did what they could to make sure that each of their characters were “of their time”. One of the creators, Victor Milán, decided to go a step further.
Following the Kent State Massacre — an event that takes place in both timelines — the Wild Cards universe takes a turn for the… radical.
A massive confrontation is brewing between the peaceniks protesting in People’s Park in Berkeley, and those they refer to as “the Establishment”. It looks like it’s going to get ugly, maybe even uglier than the one that happened a year earlier when fifty people were shot.
But as the two sides start tearing into each other, a pair of new aces appear, each the perfect representation of one of the two factions’ philosophies: Hardhat, as the superhero version of the conservative working man, armed with a wrench; and The Radical, dressed in jeans, his hair long, wielding an enormous peace medallion…
This was far from the last time that WC writers employed this technique. Kevin Andrew Murphy did something similar in Low Chicago, where his character, Julie Cotton became the symbol of the sexual revolution, and even I have had a go at this, trying to represent the spirit of a time period I had lived through.
My main character for Knaves Over Queens is Badb, a deluded “goddess of war”, constantly working to prevent the Northern Irish conflict from ever ending. But I also gave her a sidekick, the hapless joker, Billy Little. He was a child of what was then referred to as a “mixed marriage”. The virus gave him mouths instead of nipples. He had to keep them taped shut, because when freed, each of them uttered the vilest bigotry imaginable, one anti-catholic and one anti-protestant. The two sides of his own heritage hated each other and he was never allowed to forget it.
Visiting the Future
Wild Cards is still pushing itself into new settings. Some of the more recent books in the series have seen it travel down the Mississippi by riverboat and even all the way to the moon. There’s also a book I worked on, but can’t talk about yet, that has one of the coolest settings I’ve ever seen: a place that could host a thousand stories of its own! You’ll see what I mean whenever it’s published.
Every piece of new territory enriches the world, stretches the old characters and makes new ones possible. Every one of them will set fires in the imaginations of all those who yearn to travel somewhere new. Hopefully, I’ll see you there!
*The metaphorical one.