WILD CARDS: MISSISSIPPI ROLL edited by George R.R. Martin
Harper Voyager, h/b, £16.99
Reviewed by Matthew Johns
The excellent Wild Cards series tells fun, action-packed tales about genetic mutations, the powers they give some people, and the impact they have on everyone – mutated or not.
For many people, the word mutations when used in fiction conjures up one of two images – post-nuclear disaster with melting faces, or super-powered heroes flying through the air saving humanity. This series actually combines the two very successfully. After WW2, an alien virus (known as the Wild Card virus) was somehow unleashed on Earth. This caused mutations in a substantial part of the population – some, known as aces, gained fantastic powers without unpleasant physical mutations. Others, known as jokers, instead received often bizarre physical and even mental mutations with some powers – some of which are useful, others useless. Some were even unluckier, receiving mutations that killed them there and then – this is referred to as “drawing the black queen”.
This series follows difference aces and jokers as they cope with personal problems, battle prejudices, fight crime and generally save the world. Each book is written by a number of different authors, with different chapters coming from each author – an idea that works surprisingly well, with no feeling of disconnect between them. This particular book is set on the steamer Natchez as it travels up the Mississippi River on what is supposed to be its final voyage. Murdered in 1951, the spirit of its captain is bound to the boat – unable to leave, unable to move on, only gaining form when he absorbs the steam from the engines. Onboard, the remaining members of a joker band – the Joker Boys, two joker cabaret performers, some insurance investigators and other passengers co-exist and try to enjoy the cruise.
Prejudice is an obvious, and common theme throughout this series – the jokers are often topics of enormous hatred and contempt from those unaffected by the virus. The depiction of how they cope with this is very realistic and human – some brush it off, some use humour to cope with it, others turn to alcohol or drugs, while others fight against it, either politically or physically. The authors really do take this alien concept and bring a huge amount of humanity to it. In the current geo-political climate, it’s easy to empathise with the characters in the books. Whatever your political leanings, the books are an enjoyable romp packed with action, humour and are surprisingly thoughtful at times.