The first Wild Cards book, and not incidentally my favorite so far, is ironically one of the ones I read most recently. Unlike most of the other books in the series, the first book is almost entirely set-up and therefore, is not as concerned with running plot threads. It's mostly about introducing the characters and getting things set up for the next book in the series.
A warning: Because this book sets up so much of the rest of the series, it is impossible to discuss large potions of it without spoilers. I am going to attempt to do this while giving away as little as possible. Also because a lot of the stories work as character introductions, I am giving a lot of the pieces more analysis than I would otherwise. This means book one will be split up into multiple posts.
The "heroes" of Wild Cards tend to be an erratic bunch. Though capable of genuine heroism, they are also largely neurotic, self-destructive, and sometimes plain unlikable. Nor are all of them crime fighters, although most of the Aces are at least part-time adventurers, if only to keep up appearances. Although they are often drawn into conflict, many of the "heroes" choose to use their powers in other ways. For instance, Dr. Tachyon, the character who is arguably the protagonist of the first ten books in the series (as much as Wild Cards can be said to have protagonist), is a medical doctor who occasionally forays into fighting criminals and aliens.
Dr. Tachyon is introduced in the prologue material that is found to the first volume (brilliantly presented as a pastiche of the writing of Studs Terkel). Tachyon is an alien Takisian and one of the designers of the Wild Card virus. He arrives on Earth with good news and bad news: On one hand, he has successfully stopped his fellow Takisians from dropping the virus on Earth. The bad news is, in the process, five canisters containing the virus have been lost somewhere in the United States.
This story probably had the strongest impact on the Wild Cards series as a whole, simply in terms of setting. George RR Martin had approached his friend science fiction writer, Howard Waldrop, about contributing to the series. Coincidentally, Waldrop had been kicking about an idea for a short story about a character named Jetboy and offered it for inclusion in the anthology. The only catch was that Waldrop wanted his story to be set in the late 1940s. Martin had originally intended for the Wild Card virus outbreak to occur in modern times (which would have been the late 1980s when the book was written) but Waldrop refused to budge on the issue.
Ultimately, Martin decided that he wanted the Jetboy story in the book and significantly altered the scope of the novel. Instead of taking place in modern times, the stories in the first book would take place in chronological order, exploring the history of the world, spanning from the late 1940s to the present era. This works to the novel advantage as the history of super-heroes in the Wild Cards universe was the able to mirror the history of comic books in the real world. Pulp adventurers like Jetboy give way to superheroes like the Four Aces. This is followed by a period in the 1950s what the heroes are gone or operate outside the public eye before the return to prominence in the 1960s. Someone familiar with the history of comics will recognize the metaphor for how super-hero comics rose to the prominence in the Golden Age of Comics and then suffered a decline in popularity before resurging as the dominant force in the medium during the Silver Age.
The story itself works as a good starting point for the series. It starts of as a deconstruction of pulp adventure stories. Sure, Jetboy is a remarkable pilot but his adventures have been exaggerated by the media. (At one point, he complains that his comic book series has crafted fictitious super-villains for him to fight.) However, as the story progresses, the Wild Card virus eventually turn the story into a straight example of an adventure story complete with a real super-villain for Jetboy to fight. This sets up the greater theme of the series that the mere existence of the Wild Card virus quite literally transforms a previously realistic world into one where the tropes of fantasy and science-fiction are part of everyday life. Plus, it's a fun story with a great final confrontation scene on Dr. Todd's blimp fortress.
The next story in the book is "The Sleeper", by Roger Zelazny, which focuses on one of the first victims of the virus' release, 14 year old Croyd Crenson, the titular Sleeper. Caught in the initial outbreak of the virus, Croyd falls into a coma and awakens transformed into an adult man with invisibility powers. Croyd soon discovers that every time he goes to sleep, he awakens months later with a new appearance and Wild Card power. Sometimes he awaken as a powerful ace, other times as a hideous joker. Croyd turns to crime to support his family and, fearful of the changes that come when he's sleeping begins abusing methamphetamines.
At the time the story was written, Roger Zelazny was portably the most popular writer working on the Wild Cards series. (In fact, when the book was written in 1986, Zelazny was more well-known than Martin himself). Furthermore, Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, would become a mascot for the series often appearing in the stories of the characters. This makes sense given the characters versatile nature: Though he was generally a lovable outlaw, if he took to many amphetamines, he would become a paranoid lunatic who could serve as a formidable antagonist.
And yet the stories with him as the protagonist tended to be pretty weak. In fact, I would say that "The Sleeper" is the weakest story in the whole anthology. It just kind of meanders from plot point to plot point. Croyd gets his powers and commits some robberies. He accidentally kills a security guard while high and feels kind of bad about it but the thread is dropped and goes nowhere. He commits more robberies and ruins a wedding and that's about it. The story doesn't end so much as it just sort of stops. When the character's cameos in other stories are more compelling than the character's own stories, you know there's a problem.
The book begins to shift into high gear with "Witness" which introduce Jack Braun, a.k.a. Golden Boy, the fallen Superman of the Wild Cards universe. A war veteran like Jetboy, Braun is a young aspiring actor who finds that he can generate a golden force field that renders him bulletproof, super strong and (eventually) ageless. The handsome Braun is soon recruited into the organization known as the Exotics for Democracy, popularly known as the Four Aces, a group brought together to overthrow dictators and impose democracy worldwide. At first regarded as heroes in America, the Aces are accused of having Communist ties after a bungled mission to China and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Braun, desperate to preserve his burgeoning Hollywood career, names names with disastrous consequences for the rest of the Four Aces.
"Witness" was nominated for a Nebula award and it's easy to see why. The story is by far the best in the book. Superheroes opposing HUAC is not a new idea but usually the heroes stand fast and re-affirm their integrity against the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. As nice as that might be to believe, the truth of what would happen is probably closer to what happens in this story. Under the pressure to conform or be labeled Un-American, even the best people can crack and wind up doing damage to those closest to them. (A message particularly relevant to those of us living in the Trump administration). The story is a tragedy where heroism vies with self-interest and looses.
We see the other side of the story in "Degradation Rites", by Melinda Snodgrass, where Dr. Tachyon, having been deported to Europe by HUAC, takes the lead for the fist time. Having become an alcoholic drifter, he finds an American newspaper announcing the death of Blythe van Rensaeller a.k.a. Brain Trust of the Four Aces. Gifted with power to permanently copy the minds and personalities of others, Brain Trust meets Dr. Tachyon in early days of Wild Card outbreak and she leaves her abusive husband for the alien. Their affair is passionate but she becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the other personalities in her head, a situation that ultimately comes to a disastrous resolution at the HUAC hearings.
No two ways about it: This story is bleak. Tachyon begins the story and ends it as a street person. As result, you know from the beginning that the story is going to end badly: there is an air of melancholy even during the happy parts. It does bring up a problem with the early Wild Cards novels in that there are not a lot of female perspectives. Importantly, the first female "hero" in the Wild Cards universe exists entirely to be killed off, giving Dr. Tachyon angst and provide a motivation for his rivalry with Golden Boy. On it's own merits, the story is another strong tragedy: I just wish it's portrayal of female characters had aged better.
The story is followed by an interlude which provides further background prosecution of Wild Card victims during the HUAC era which eventually leads to the formation of the Senate Committee on Ace Resources and Endeavors. The unholy lovechild of HUAC, Marvel's SHIELD, and the Avengers, SCARE initially drafted Aces and forces them to use their abilities, in secret, on behalf on the US Government. By the end of the book, the organization has become more public and morphed into the closest thing the Wild Cards would have to a superhero team for a while but its history lent its activities a vaguely sinister cast throughout the series.
Public heroes will not return until the 1960's with the story "Shell Games" by Martin himself. Having been allowed back into the country by President Kennedy, Tachyon has remained a drifter. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, a powerful telekinetic Ace named Thomas Tudbury decides to use his powers to fight crime. Hiding his identity inside an armored shell propelled by his telekinesis, he dubs himself the Turtle and begins fighting crime. When a Joker bartender who has befriended Tachyon is kidnapped, Tachyon is forced to team up with the Turtle to find her.
This story is a fun little adventure story. The Turtle makes a good twist on the armored superhero, concealing his identity with a mobile assault vehicle rather than a suit of armor but he's not as developed here as he is in later stories. "Shell Games" is slight if read on its own but if read in conjunction with "Witness" and "Degradation Rites", the stories work as a mini-trilogy detailing the fall and ultimate redemption of Dr. Tachyon. Along with an brief interlude, establishing that Dr. Tachyon ultimately opens up a clinic in Jokertown designed to treat Wild Card victims, these three stories contain the closest thing the first novel has to a narrative arc, one which ultimately comes to a satisfying conclusion. The remaining stories in the book will be devoted to setting up plot threads and characters explored more closely in future books.