Tuesday 28 August 2012

Wild Cards Vol. 21: Fort Freak

Like Them On Acebook

Wild Cards 21: Fort Freak
Edited by George R. R. Martin
Tor Books. ISBN: 9780765325709

There’s something about picking up the latest Wild Cards book that always feels like I’m getting reacquainted with an old friend I’ve not seen in a while. Like just a couple of people I know, I first got into the Wild Cards mosaic novels (lots of writers contributing short stories or sometimes just chapters to talk about one specific story arc or series of events, depending on the tone of the volume in question) when the first in the series arrived back in 1987. Now the publishing history of these books have made them very hard to stick with for most people (I’m the only person I know who still reads them) because it’s been, well, pretty erratic to say the least.

With the original “cycle” finished after the first twelve books, or so we all thought, even the second half of that initial run could only be bought in imported US editions. Then with multiple publishing companies, large gaps between these so-called cycles (which are just all continuations of the same alternate reality anyway) and the next ones and also gaps between individual titles, including an ultra rare volume which only shelved a very, very short time (a week maybe?) and with only 600 copies printed before the publishing house of that one went under (and which had a crucial link between different generations of Wild Cards explained)... it’s no wonder some of the original readers (at least the ones I know) didn’t stick with these (I bought my copy of that particular single-writer volume from the writer himself, his last spare copy, on ebay and he was good enough to personalise it for me).

Still, having said that, they’re now back in the habit of publishing one new mosaic novel a year so there must still be something of an audience for these out there. I’m very glad because the Wild Cards novels never fail to move me and the warmth of the collected writers always shines through.

Set in an alternate reality where the adventure hero Jetboy failed to save the human race from the alien Black Queen virus back in the forties (Jetboy’s famous last words were, “I can't die yet. I haven't seen The Jolson Story”), the stories deal with the lives of the surviving population of the planet who are, since that fateful day, split into three groups: nats (unaffected), Aces (superpowered heroes) and Jokers (deformed mutants, some of whom also have powers). There are also “deuces” and “suicide kings” but I won’t go into details here... discover all this stuff for yourself.

This volume is a collection of interpenetrating stories from the Jokertown police precinct and mostly features brand new characters and the two linking stories in this involve a snake powered joker inadvertently the target of corrupt Jokertown cops and a Ramsheaded police sergeant, Leo, who has a few months left before retirement and he’s delving into an old, unsolved cold case from the 80s in his spare time. This story also features a cameo from Bubbles, one of the new generation aces recruited by the government from the Big Brother style reality show American Heroes (covered in more detail in the last four novels in the series) but readers who have been with the series a long time will be interested in the inclusion of some of the characters from the past.

A part of one of the investigations taking part in the Jokertown museum obviously allows for references to such past characters as Doctor Tachyon, Golden Boy and The Great And Powerful Turtle... but in addition to this there are a couple of very minor appearances from Jube, the walrus bodied joker newsstand guy who takes his name, presumably, from The Beatles’ song I Am The Walrus (you know... goo goo ga jube) but who long in the tusk readers might recall is actually an alien masquerading as a joker. There are also much more meatier and recurring roles throughout the novel from fan favourite Croyd Crenson aka The Sleeper, originally created by classic scifi writer Roger Zelazny for his stories and chapters in the original opening novels and kept alive as a character by the writers long after Zelazny’s death... and some very significant inclusions by two characters which a lot of fans of the series will appreciate.

Father Squid, the squid faced ex-soldier priest who founded the principal Joker cathedral in Jokertown is back and his history has been added to. I won’t say too much but he turns out to be very linked in to Leo’s investigation of his cold case, the slaughter of everyone (almost everyone) in a Jokertown diner decades in the past. You’re going to be heartbroken, but also guessing the extent of Father Squid's involvement in this case until right at the end, long after you think you know the answer. A warning for long time readers though... it’s pretty heavy.

More heartbreaking, though, is a character devoted fans will know as The Oddity. The Oddity used to be three people... one of the three’s “card turned” (a euphemism for the emergence of the previously dormant black queen virus), as the stories always went, when the lady and two guys in question were having a sexual threesome and their bodies and minds fused together to make one, hard to look at and painful to move, abomination and self proclaimed vigilante protector of Jokertown, The Oddity. Only something bad is about to happen... another series regular, the chief medical practitioner of the Jokertown clinic Bradley Finn (who also happens to be a centaur) discovers that the reason The Oddity has been going a bit “haywire” just lately is because one of the three people inside his/her personality has fallen victim to Alzheimers. Something must be done and Finn has the solution... but it’s a painful solution and fans of this character will certainly find one door closing and another opening in what may possibly be the final appearance of this character, at least in the way we’ve known The Oddity over the years.

As with all the Wild Cards novels, this one is incredibly well written and never forgets to inject the little details that make the world that is the background for these stories come alive in your mind’s eye. It also never forgets that all the characters have a warm, beating heart and these books are always a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride. You may think the genre format of these things doesn’t allow for the kind of warmth and emotional hit you’d get from novels in other genres but you’d be very wrong and certainly don’t let that put you off delving into the Wild Cards universe.

If you’ve never read a Wild Cards novel before, do the smart thing and seek them out from their very beginnings (a major reprint of the novels is already underway) and read them before some smart TV producer finally realises what an excellent set of mini-series' these novels and characters would make (I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that some day we’ll see a Chrysalis action figure on toy shop shelves). If you’re already a fan of this series, however, then you certainly won’t need my recommendation to tell you to pick this one up in a hurry. It’s another triumphant piece of literature that truly exceeds any genre limitations perceived by people unfamiliar with these kinds of stories. Truly another artistic success.

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