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Friday, January 18, 2008

"Inside Straight" edited by George R. R. Martin

Read Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist’s INTERVIEW with All Nine Authors of “Inside Straight

Before last year I had never heard of Wild Cards. So, for those who may also be in the dark here’s a little background information. Basically, Wild Cards is a series of novels/anthologies set in a shared universe—think of Marvel or DC comics for a perfect example—that was established in the mid-80s by a consortium of writers including creator/editors George R. R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass, and over the years has featured an impressive cast of contributors such as Walter Jon Williams, Roger Zelazny (RIP), Pat Cadigan, Howard Waldrop, Chris Claremont, etc. The defining aspect of this shared universe is that it’s much like our own except for one major difference: an alien virus dubbed the ‘Wild Card’ which killed off ninety percent of the people it infected while rewiring the DNA of the other ten percent. Of that remaining percentage, most became mutated freaks, or ‘jokers’, while a measly 1% were granted superhuman abilities. These individuals became known as ‘aces’ and are the focal point of the Wild Cards series.

What the creators/writers have decided to do with the eighteenth volume in the
Wild Cards universe is treat the book as a launching point for a new generation of readers. In other words, it’s the same world and the same history, but a whole new cast of ‘younger, hipper’ characters. To help usher in this new millennium, first-time contributors Caroline Spector, Ian Tregillis and Carrie Vaughn were brought in to work with Daniel Abraham—wrote a short story for the Wild Cards novel “Deuces Blood” (Volume sixteen)—and veterans Michael Cassutt, S.L. Farrell (Stephen Leigh), John Jos. Miller, Melinda Snodgrass and George R. R. Martin who once again doubles as the anthology’s editor.

As far as the format, “Inside Straight” can be described as a ‘mosaic’ novel which means that the book is broken up into different short stories—each written from a different character’s point-of-view—that act as chapters to a single overarcing storyline. In this particular volume, all of the writers with the exception of Mr. Abraham provide a short story—Melinda actually does three of them :)—while Daniel handles the framework opening and closing the novel as well as connecting together the individual chapters with Jonathan Hive passages and ‘blog posts’. Ironically, the book I just finished reading before this one was “Hunter’s Run”, which was also a collaborative piece that included writers
GRRM and Daniel Abraham, so even though “Inside Straight” was my first mosaic novel, I sort of knew what to expect. And to be honest, even though the book features nine different authors, “Inside Straight”—like “Hunter’s Run”—is so cohesively written throughout that the novel almost feels like the work of just one person.

Now coincidentally, the first Wild Cards novel came out around the same time as
Alan Moore’sWatchmen” and Frank Miller’sThe Dark Knight Returns”—two of my favorites!!!—and like those groundbreaking comic books, the series looked at superheroes with an edgier, more realistic approach that helped to redefine the superhero archetype. That influence can still be seen today, not just with comic books—Marvel’sUltimate Universe’, X-Men and Civil War; DC’s Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, 52, and One Year Later; J. Michael Straczynski’sRising Stars” + “Supreme Power”; Kurt Busiek’sAstro City”; and Alex Ross’Marvels” + “Kingdom Come” are all great examples—but also in film, television (Heroes, The 4400) and even novels (Soon I Will Be Invincible). For me, I love reading comic books almost as much as I love reading speculative fiction, so I was pretty excited about “Inside Straight”, but at the same time I was a bit worried at how the novel would stack up against all of the other ‘realistic’ superhero stories that you can find today. Thankfully, “Inside Straight” allayed my fears for the most part, and delivered a story that was as heroic and exciting as it was clever, humorous and relevant…

Of the story, “Inside Straight” offers a pretty dynamic blend of American pop culture, political intrigue, superhero action and social commentary on such weighty issues as the Iraq war, foreign policy and media coverage. To be more specific, the novel opens in Baghdad with an assassination attempt on the Caliph and a decision that will have dire ramifications for the jokers of Egypt. From there, the novel spends a few chapters satirizing reality TV with American Hero—an obvious send-up of American Idol, Survivor and The Apprentice—which is a new program that pits ‘aces’ against each other in an attempt to become the next ‘American Hero’. To be honest, this segment of the book sort of lagged for me, mainly because I absolutely detest reality shows and the petty drama that is depicted is frighteningly accurate. But, I have to admit that it was extremely well done and really reinforces the problem with American television when more important matters are occurring around the world. For the story, this contrast is illustrated by a genocide that is taking place in the Middle East—which no one is really paying attention to—and a group of American Hero contestants who decide to go to Egypt to help out the jokers. What’s interesting about this part of the novel are which characters go to Egypt (and their reasons why), and which ones stay and continue to compete on American Hero. For those that do make the trip, the story explores the difficulties they have to face—not just against impossible odds and a seemingly unbeatable ace in the Righteous Djinn—but also having to deal with more complex problems like international law, national sovereignty and the perception that they’ve sided with terrorists. From here, the authors do a good job of wrapping up the conflict, portraying American Hero as insignificant, and setting up the rest of the trilogy which continues in “Busted Flush”…

As impressive as the book was, I admit that I had a few issues. For starters, I didn’t think the virus was explained well enough. As someone that’s new to the series, I kept wondering what dictated whether a person became an ‘ace’, a ‘joker’ or was just killed in the first place. Also, since the virus originated in 1946, how was it being spread to people born in the 80s or 90s? Plus, why do the manifestations occur at such varied stages in an individual’s life, and what factors determine the kind of power or mutation a person will develop? In addition to this, I was also disappointed with John Fortune’s segment. John happens to be one of the few returning characters in the book and also an ace who apparently lost his power in the previous Wild Cards novel “Death Draws Five”. As a result, one of “Inside Straight’s” subplots was of him trying to regain his gift, which eventually leads him to Egypt. Unfortunately, not much of this backstory was explained which I thought hindered what was in effect an important part of the story.

Focusing on the subject of characters, one aspect that I really liked about the different POVs was getting to read such a diverse mix of individuals. And I’m not talking about their powers, some of which I have to admit were pretty inventive such as Drummer Boy, a six-armed musician whose very body is a personal drum set; Spasm who can make anyone instantaneously have hiccups or an orgasm; Jonathan Hive who can separate into thousands of wasps; and my personal favorite Double Helix whose power is to remain a secret because of the storyline ;). No, what’s so fascinating about these characters are their human elements. For instance, The Amazing Bubbles was a former supermodel whose ace power is stronger the fatter she is; the Arthurian-like Lohengrin sold his honor for sponsorships; Stuntman uses his ethnicity as a weapon; Rustbelt is an example of how perceptions can be altered by something as simple as a single word; and so on. To be honest though, my favorite characters in the book were Lilith and the hermaphrodite Noel Matthews and once you read the novel, you’ll see why :) On the flipside, what I didn’t like about the different POVs is that as a reader you start to miss the in-depth characterization that a chapter offers when you switch to a different viewpoint. For example, Ana Cortez aka Earth Witch was one of the earlier POVs and offered a number of interesting dynamics as a character, but once the novel shifts away from her, she loses a lot of what made her interesting and becomes more of a bit player. For me, this was actually an issue throughout the entire novel, but not enough of a problem to prevent my from enjoying myself :). Aside from all of that, I have just one last complaint: the pseudonyms. For a series that has been described as “a smart reimagining of superheroes”, some of the alias are pretty lame. Gardener!?! Holy Roller!?! The Amazing Bubbles!?! Righteous Djinn!?! Surely the authors could have come up with something a little bit better ;)

Despite my few misgivings, I have to say that “Inside Straight” was even better than advertised, although I am a bit ashamed that I never heard of the Wild Cards universe before now. Of course, it’s better late than never right, and you can be sure that I won’t be missing out on any future installments :) As for all those readers who might still be on the fence, let me give you some advice. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve heard of Wild Cards, or if you read any comic books, or even if you like superheroes because at the end of the day, “Inside Straight” is about great storytelling & great characters, and given the novel’s smart writing and imagination, it doesn’t get much better than this…


Anonymous said...

I'm getting this, along with Dragons of Babel by Swanwick and The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. Connolly btw has the Charlie Parker series which I think you'd really like, it's a supernatural urban Fantasy with an interesting male lead.

Robert said...

I finally got a copy of "The Dragons of Babel", but I want to read "The Iron Dragon's Daughter" first, so a review might be a while.

I appreciate the tip on John Connolly. Heard the name, but never read anything. Just dug around a little and his Charlie Parker series definitely sounds interesting. Which means even more books for me to read :D


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