Inside Straight

During my recent spate of travel I bought Inside Straight which is a sort of relaunch of the Wild Cards universe. However, I bought it in hardcover (since it's not out in paperback yet) and promptly decided on every plane flight to carry a smaller, lighter paperback or short fiction magazine instead. So once I settled back into home I decided to read it.

I was glad to see that Wild Cards had relaunched. I was introduced to Wild Cards in college when I was running a superheroes role-playing game that turned out to have some parallel themes. (And bringing it full circle, Wild Cards evolved from a role-playing game originally!) It's a shared universe setting where a virus is unleashed on Earth that kills 90 out of 100 infected, horribly deforms another 9, and gives that lucky 100th person superpowers. Most of the books were short story collections (later there were a few novels) and they varied over time in terms of how tightly- linked a single's volumes stories were. This new book is still short stories written by a variety of authors, but it organizes into a single narrative thread more closely than many of the original volumes. (In my memory anyway. It's been years since the last time I reread these books.)

If you've read and enjoyed the previous WC books you should pick up Inside Straight no doubt. I guess it's a tougher question if you aren't familiar with the universe, but that's a little difficult for me to address since it isn't my perspective. I can see how this was a difficult feat for the authors: how to revitalize a series with over a dozen books and make it accessible to new readers and still pleasing to the hardcore fans. Here's my suspicion: it's an impossible job but the authors made a really good attempt. I think it's tilted slightly in favor of the old fans but it's close.

Wild Cards was always a series that played realistically, given the one big fantastic premise. History diverged over time from our history (The Wild Card virus is released right after WWII.), but very few people became crimefighters or donned spandex costumes or whatever. The new series continues that trend, the opening premise is a new reality show called American Hero that pits "Aces" against one another. There are some ties back to the previous stories - the hostess and judges of American Hero are all characters from previous stories, and there are political events afoot that tie to previous stories. This part was done well I think, the tie-ins are present but not mystifying to a new reader.

As the plot begins to develop further it ties more to previous events in the series, and to be honest it ties to a storyline I liked less than most the series offered. That's where I think it would stumble the worst for a new reader, I was having a bit of trouble keeping up with all of the "Oh yeah, that's right. These guys did that back in the past, which now means this has happened now." I'm not convinced the authors provided all of the needed backstory for a few items, I could see some of the plot elements being a bit confusing to a total series newbie.

Also I have to say that the current crop of powers just aren't as interesting. The old stories were remarkable for how varied the characters were - you had pimps using tantric sex for magic, a person who slept most of his life in a chrysalis and woke up every time with a drastically different power (or hideous mutation), or a person who had literally died and returned from the death and could project that experience onto others until they died. The new characters have a few that are intriguing or unusual, but in general it's all a lot more "vanilla" superpowers in this outing.

Still I think that was probably true of the early Wild Card volumes and that the most interesting characters evolved over time. This is the first volume of three books that Tor contracted for and I'd presume the long-term goal is to establish an open-ended series. There's nothing wrong with the new characters per se, they just seem a little bland in comparison - even if the comparison of a 12 volume series to the single volume "relaunch" is a bit unfair.

All in all, I liked Inside Straight and I'm looking forwards to the next volumes. If you haven't read any Wild Cards before I don't know that this is the best embarking point, but I don't think the early books are still in print so it may be your only choice. I think if you enjoy superhero books and especially if the concept of superhereos in an otherwise realistic setting appeals to you that you should probably check out Inside Straight.