Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Inside Straight

Last week I ordered and received nine new books from Amazon, with authors including Jay Lake and Iain Banks. It seems fairly indicative that of the nine, the one I first chose to read is the latest in George R. R. Martin's Wild Card universe. Originally begun in 1987, this shared universe captured (and captures) my imagination for a number of reasons. First, it offers an interesting science-fictional origin for superpowers. The Earth has been used as a test bed for an alien virus: 90% of those infected die immediately, 90% of the survivors become horribly mutated (a squid head or invisible skin, for some of the less disgusting examples), and the remaining 1% of the affected population become aces—exhibiting what we think of as superpowers. The second reason, closely tied to the first, is the extremely powerful and rigorous story-telling taking place in the series. I'm not sure how much oversight Martin himself has over the series, but someone has been guiding it with a steady hand for over two decades. The stable of writers has been awesome, including Roger Zelazny, and the characters and adventures in this alternate Earth (where Castro left Cuba and played baseball for the Dodgers, who never left Brooklyn, for example) are fully realized. And the third reason, again apparently closely tied to the first two, is that this series arose as an act of affection between players of an role-playing game. The camaraderie that the writers shared pervades the series; these people thoroughly enjoy their characters and stories. Nothing ever seems workmanlike and the books fly by, sometimes much to this reader's chagrin.

The books spent a great deal of time trying to catch up to their contemporary history, but Inside Straight finds the series in all-too-familiar alternative Earth. America seems totally infatuated with reality television, such that a new show, American Hero, is about to air, pitting 28 aces against one another to determine who…well, who does whatever it takes to win a reality show the best. The anthology of short stories moves back and forth among the contestants on the show, using their points of view to describe the challenges and voting processes. We find that the reasons for being on the show roughly parallel the reasons one might expect for any reality television, except that it is clear that some of these heroes want to make a difference in their world and the show is a first step to make it happen. There are, of course, a lot of folks on the show who only want the title "hero" to advance their personal goals, whether it be fame or fortune. Implicitly, this division of intent powers the action of the book, and only rarely does the difference come to a head. And when it does, it is often in reality show mode, in the form of a confession after a challenge has been completed and someone voted off the show. It's all a fascinating study of the nature of being a hero—something the series has long excelled at—taking up the same themes and examining them under a contemporary prism.

At the same time, in the background, a radical Muslim leader has decided to wage war against Egypt's jokers, in part because they just appear different and thus must be accursed by Allah and in part because a number of them worship "the Old Gods," jokers and aces who have taken on the aspect and some of the powers of the Egyptian pantheon. The Old Gods apparently never intended to be worshipped, but provided aid and succor to the jokers of the Middle East, such that those jokers' admirations crossed the line. The Old Gods also don't take advantage of this worship, at least not obviously, setting up camps and caring for those in need. But it is all too much for the Caliph, who also seeks to consolidate his new position after a murder within his ranks.

As should be obvious with this set-up, those two plotlines collide violently when the contestants in American Hero who believe in the power of heroism go to Egypt to try to put a stop to the government-supported massacre of the helpless jokers. And as in earlier books, no ace is immune to death, a distinct departure from the comic book genre from which the stories find their origin. Characters sacrifice themselves or even die stupidly, as one would expect humans to do—in distinct counterpoint to the comic clichés where most heroes that attempt to sacrifice survive and stupidity has no long-lasting repercussions. But what makes the series distinct is the voices of the characters involved in the stories, adding layers of perspective to the action taking place, and sometimes taking side-trips to unexpected places. The characters are individuals, no two completely alike, and we see them from the perspective of other characters as the various stories unwind. There are a few moments of disconcert where a character appears innocuous in some hands and inept in others. It's easy to pass this off as varying perspective, and when the conflicted character takes on the role of protagonist, those inconsistencies are fleshed out nicely.

Also part of the joy of the Wild Cards books is the imaginative powers the aces have. The primary narrator is Jonathan Hive, who has the power to dissolve his body into a swarm of wasps, all of whose perceptions become his own. The stunts that Hive performs reflects some of the best gaming scenarios I have ever been a part of, ones in which we drove the GM to distraction by completely thinking outside the box and ruining his well-laid plans with original solutions. Another interesting character is Drummer Boy, who is basically a walking drum set, complete with six arms to play himself. For most of Inside Straight, Drummer Boy is an ass, a stereotypical contestant on game shows. But when he takes over the storytelling, at the climax of the action, we get to see the confusion that drives the character such that the miserable situation he puts himself in is somewhat ameliorated.

The good news is that Inside Straight is the first of new cycle of Wild Cards book such that no previous knowledge of the Wild Cards is required. Some history is given in the backgrounds of the characters, but it isn't necessary to enjoy the stories. There are a few familiar faces, just enough to make me want to go back and reread all the books to greet old friends, but the new heroes offer something to look forward to as the series progresses. The writing remains crisp, even with some new writers taking on the challenge of their predecessors, and the characters are fascinating. I really look forward to the rest of the books in the cycle.

(Just one little complaint—the press information on the back of the book, that usually self-serving précis of the plot and quotes from admiring authors and critics, appears to be about a different book. The background established in the synopsis are only formed in the last few pages of the book, and some of the events described don't happen at all….)

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