Too many cooks can spoil the broth.
This post chronicles my general thoughts about the first few Wild Cards books, given that I’d read the first three before starting this blog and didn’t have the patience to go through them again to get to Aces Abroad.
For the uninitiated, Wild Cards is a unique authorial collaboration. It is an science fiction alt-history series premised on the introduction of an alien virus to Earth right after World War II. The virus, known as the Wild Card, kills 90% of those it infects, in grotesque, monstrous ways. It turns 9% into Jokers, giving them unfortunate deformities that vary from Joker to Joker. To a privileged 1%, called Aces, the Wild Card bequeaths superpowers ranging from mind control to flying.
The series kicks off in 1946, and chronicles this alternate history all the way to the present day. Each book is written by a team of a few writers, who usually take charge of certain character POVs. The series features an ensemble cast of various characters, both Ace, Joker and natural, and follows them through the decades as history runs its course amid the new social, institutional and cultural gulfs caused by the aftermath of the virus outbreak.
Oh, and the series helmsman and creative editor, marshaling the various authorial inputs into a coherent narrative, is George RR Martin, of ASOIAF infamy.
That was what drew me to this series, and the first three books didn’t disappoint. The first and second books (Wild Cards and Aces High)are a little different from the third book – they’re collections of loosely-related short stories, with multiple narrative paths per character, and is written in a more historical mode, expanding on the world and its inhabitants. The third book, Jokers Wild, is more properly s mosaic novel, with a conventional three-part structure, buildup, and a primary antagonist of sorts.
The first two books do a good job of weaving together a historical narrative of an interventionist America that used its aces to affect geopolitics, while its large Joker population was facing discrimination, abuse and injustice of the sort that would not be too unfamiliar to those who experienced the black civil rights movement. The virus’ effects are a perfect foil by which the books can examine the common themes of the Cold War – American exceptionalism, and human rights being at the forefront – in a speculative fiction setting. The team was made up of stellar talents – Walter Jon Williams, Roger Zelazny and GRRM among them – who created some of the series’ most iconic and well-loved characters.
So, how does Aces Abroad fare in comparison?
I think it’s safe to say that Aces Abroad is probably the weakest Wild Cards book so far, to a considerable degree. It’s mainly because it’s so inconsistent this time round. The first three books had the benefit of tight editing, ensuring that the story and characters flowed well both within their internal arcs as well as across arcs. Aces Abroad, on the other hand, feels unfocused and inconsistent, in terms of characterization and story. The book takes place in 1987, and a UN delegation of Aces, Jokers and politicians have embarked on a world tour to investigate the conditions faced by sufferers of the Wild Card virus in other countries. This premise is in itself somewhat of a weak justification upon which to hang the book’s main selling point – taking the series out of its New York-centric setting and into the wider world. The result is a confusing mishmash of styles and a book made out of poorly strung together series of vignettes of varying quality, hinting at a number of plot developments that never actually play out in the book, but will ostensibly be saved for later volumes.
Some of the stories in this collection are surprisingly poorly written and can hardly be counted to the level of quality shown in previous volumes. They feature uneven characterization and betray a lack of understanding of the established motivations of the characters that they feature. Some of these stories are throwaways, adventures involving various characters in various stops on their world tour, which play upon that sense of the exotic to provide traction for the plot. The result is usually a story that plays up cultural stereotypes to show up a contemporaneous social problem encountered by that culture, whether post-colonialism of the Australian Aborigines, Japanese xenophobia, South African apartheid, or Middle-Eastern religious fundamentalism. Many of the stories lacked proper pacing, and relied on a lot of expository, info-dumping dialogue to propel the story forward. I had the constant sense that the writers were just trying to finish their stories within the word limit so that the collection could move on to the next stop on the world tour.
There are some redeeming points, though. The chapters by GRRM, which are written from the perspective of a Joker delegate and series regular Xavier Desmond, provide a kind of thematic or narrative glue to the collection, are probably the best thing about the book, even if they are somewhat inadequate to give the book a sense of unity. Some stories are well-written and stand up on their own – I’m thinking Beasts of Burden and Blood Rights, two of the earlier chapters. And of course, the book seems like it is setting the stage for another mosaic novel featuring major antagonists and crises – I won’t name names, however.
All told, however, this is still probably the weakest Wild Cards novel to date, an opinion shared by many readers of the series, who, unlike me, have actually read the rest (I’m reading them as they get re-published, about once a year). I can only hope this is just a blip, and not a slow, gradual decline, because that would be a waste of a very good narrative universe.
I give this book: 2.5 out of 5 butterflies