In 1985, Earth is attacked by an alien horde, sent by a giant biomass floating through space that spawns tens of thousands of vicious children. In the Northeastern United States, wild carders help contain the horde’s first attack, although human casualties are high. Meanwhile, the arrival of the Swarm Mother is connected to a cult of Egyptian Freemasons controlled by wild card villains, headed by the reprehensible Astronomer; the members of this cult hope to bring the Swarm Mother to earth. You’d think things couldn’t get much worse, but suddenly the Takisians (the alien creators of the wild card virus) show up in the form of the Tisianne family. The good-guy wild cards must unite to fight off the Takisians, to overthrow the Masons, and ultimately to defeat the Swarm Mother by merging her with a more benign ace personality.
Aces High, the second Wild Cards novel, was published in 1987. The first book in the series related the origin and history of the wild card virus and provided worldbuilding via somewhat discreet stories covering a 40-year period. Aces High, in contrast, focuses on a unified storyline to which each author contributes, with many of the characters’ paths interwoven throughout. Nine authors wrote for the volume, which includes full chapters and interstitial segments to link them together.
Although Aces High’s first chapter begins with Fortunato in 1979 and the Turtle flashes a decade back, the bulk of the novel takes place in 1985 and 1986. We come across friends familiar from Wild Cards I, who’d been full POVs (Croyd, the Yeoman, Tachyon, etc.) or minor background characters (Jube), as well as completely new characters (Water Lily, Demise, etc.).
Aces High has two major storylines that vacillate between the realm of science fiction and the uncanny. The Swarm Mother plot is a standard alien invasion story, yet it is tied to a Lovecraftian tale of the occult. Sure, Wild Cards I began with alien first contact and its aftermath, but the extraterrestrial element played a very limited role throughout the book itself. Aces High, however, reflects the science fiction leanings of so many of its authors; in this second volume, the aliens arrive front and center. First, we learn that Jube, the walrus-looking, newspaper-selling joker, is actually an extraterrestrial observer who’s been watching humankind for some 30 years. Our known alien encounters then rise to three, with the unfortunate grasshopper-man Ekkedme added to the ranks along with Jube and Dr. Tachyon. At this point we learn that, in fact, there are hundreds of alien races flung across the stars; many are part of the capitalist Network, which is run by Master Traders. The most dangerous of all is the Swarm, the species feared by all other alien races. Later in the book we’ll receive a more intimate introduction to Takisian society, as well. For us, it’s a family affair, thanks to the appearance of Tachyon’s great-gram, numerous cousins, and their sentient space ships. The Takisians bring our wild carders to space for the first time in a legit alien abduction.
As for the Swarm Mother, she might’ve fallen into the trap of being just another insect-like horde of bug aliens, following in the insectoid footprints of Heinlein’s Bugs (and, of course, Ender’s Game had come out in 1985, just two years before Aces High). But this Swarm is more floral and faunal than insectoid: the Swarm Mother is a yeast, reproducing on her own in a sort of parthenogenesis.
Modular Man and his creator Travnicek represent another ode to traditional science fiction storytelling, highlighting an android’s exploration of his own humanity, as well as his search for independence from his creator. ST:TNG brought us the android Data at the end of that same year, 1987, but here the genre’s love of the machine-man trope is explicitly cast in terms of Victor Frankenstein. As with Frankenstein, Modular Man’s creator is truly the inhuman one, while the creation seems to have the more human soul.
Whereas the android is a machine made into man, Aces High also includes a reversal of the trope: the human become machine. In this case it is Ellie, the wife of Roman, one of the Astronomer’s henchmen. Roman seems shifty and smarmy as hell—until you find out that he’s with the Masons in order to protect his wife, whose wild card turned her into an organic computer, of all things. The notes of love typed back and forth between the pair feel eminently modern; did Wild Cards inadvertently predict love-affairs-by-instant-message, so familiar to our own contemporary world? ICQ, anyone? In contrast to an android, Ellie has a human soul and a woman’s insides, encased within a machine’s shell: “Jane could see the circuitry pulsing, could see the texture of the boards and the moistness there, the living flesh mixed with the hard, dead machinery.” Ellie is a joker I’d have loved to see again in the series, but alas, she gets zapped. Thanks for nothing, Astronomer.
The occult features prominently in the second major plotline, which follows the Egyptian Masons. There’s a hint of the genuinely supernatural in the Masons background story, but the true believers of the group are ousted by the wild cards, who adopt the spooky, creepy cult elements (as well as its rank-and-file disciples) but replace any “magic” with more explainable wild card powers. The Mason upper echelon is a nefarious bunch, exhibiting some truly evil traits that manifest as murder, mayhem, the quest for power, and joy in the suffering of others. Their leader the Astronomer hopes to bring the Swarm Mother to Earth in fine Cthulhu fashion.
Beyond their more ghastly crimes, the Freemasons excel at taking advantage of those who are alone, with Water Lily, a small town girl new to the big city, being a prime example. Her power allows her to draw the liquid out of a victim, leaving behind nothing but dust, yet she finds herself trapped by her own inexperience and the manipulations of the Masons. Before things get too dicey, a combined force of superstar aces destroy both their homebase at the Cloisters and (for the most part) the Masons in an Indiana Jones-worthy explosion of antiquities. Although the Astronomer escapes, the Great Cloisters Raid features a number of wild card personalities in a pretty fantastic and thrilling episode.
And the Swarm Mother? Another group of aces tackle her, along with Vietnam vet and vigilante Yeoman as the lone nat hero representing at the Swarm Mother’s defeat. The Swarm Mother is transformed into something new after mind-melding with the quiet Mai Minh, an ace with incredible healing power who sacrifices herself to save humankind. It’s an interesting concept: the infinitely powerful, biologically prolific, mindless Mother, combined with the consciousness of a human girl, cruising through space. The Yeoman wonders “what philosophies, what realms of thought, the spirit of a gentle Buddhist girl melded with the mind and body of a creature of nearly unimaginable power would spin down through the centuries.” Now that’s a character duo I’d like to see more of! Bring them back!
It’s lovely to revisit some wild card favorites during this reread. There are Croyd’s antics as he chases a grasshopper corpse and a singularity shifter around town (disguised at one point as a sheepish Teddy Roosevelt). Or the wonderful interstitial about the dedicated comet-hunter Mr. Koyama, who sadly only discovers a bunch of yeast in space. Special mention goes to Kid Dinosaur, the teenage brat ace who shifts into various dinosaur forms: T. rex, pterodactyl, ornithosuchus, allosaurus, hypsilophodon, stegosaurus…the list goes on. Every time he flits in and out of the story I do a frenzied Kid Dinosaur dance inside.
Seeing Jube again and again is pretty wonderful, too. While he doesn’t inspire dancing, I’m particularly fond of him. For me, it’s not his Hawaiian shirts or lame jokes, but rather the fact that he is an alien anthropologist, a xenologist. Arriving on Earth in the 1950s, he spends his life studying human behavior and culture in the heart of wild card country, NYC. He’s written treatises on several topics, with his long-term project being a study of humor in human society. My inner archaeologist recognizes Jube’s obsession with backing up his notes and his primal fear that anything might happen to his life’s work; it’s the academic’s time-honored nightmare of “losing the dissertation,” and Jube knows it well.
His story brings the anthropologist’s ultimate dilemma to the fore: are you a dispassionate observer divorced from your object of study, or do you step in and act on their behalf? Jube encounters this problem when he realizes that he is the only one who can stop the Swarm Mother by calling in the Network to fight her off. He crosses that invisible line-in-the-sand and decides to be not just an observer but an actor, a member of the group he previously stood apart from. Worse, he knows that his loyalties should lie with the Network, but he also must confront another problem connected with Real Life anthropology: the quandary of unequal power dynamics. Historically anthropologists represented Western, colonizing powers that subjugated indigenous groups that they perceived as less-civilized, and often sub-human. Jube knows all too well that the Network will enslave Earth as a condition of destroying the Swarm Mother. He tells Red, “I thought we were better than that. We’re not. Don’t you see, Red? We knew she was coming. But there would have been no profit if she never arrived, and the Network gives nothing away for free.”
He must decide: is he on the side of those he studies, or the outside group he represents? Jube is a virtual Lawrence of Arabia, that British archaeologist and expert on Arab cultures, who found himself caught between the Arab culture he’d adopted and the colonial empire that controlled him during WWI. Following Lawrence, Jube comes to the realization that he was “more human than he would ever have guessed” and had “come to love these humans and to feel responsible for them.”
Other characters, though, I could live without: Captain Trips (and company) are, for me, as annoying as ever. Fortunato, who was a tolerable character in Wild Cards I, becomes increasingly unsympathetic. A pimp, he may label his girls “geishas,” but he seems to have no respect for them whatsoever. He calls them “acquisitions” and continuously evaluates them on their appearance (and yet laments the fact that Caroline is so insecure). His affection for Eileen is unconvincing, and he thinks about women as if they are another species, inherently different from men. His treatment of Caroline is downright loathsome. Just as Fortunato’s customers use his “geishas” for sex, Fortunato uses them, too, but for him they are a source of power rather than sexual pleasure; Fortunato is a shakti leech. Although Lenore laid out this idea in Wild Cards I, there is little articulation or development of this issue in Aces High.
As in the first volume, there are very few roles for women to play in this book. They are more often than not prostitutes, wanton mesmerizers, bag ladies, unrequited fantasies, or victims of male violence. Of the many murdered women in this volume, several have the distinction of being actually sacrificed on an altar, with the pièce de résistance coming in Demise’s chapter, which ends in rape and snuff porn. It is only in the second half of the book that we get female characters performing a more active role, with enough dialogue between them to try the Bechdel test.
We do get brief glimpses of what could be some kick-ass women, such as Mistral and Peregrine, but their screen time is fleeting. Kim Toy develops some depth and ends up a POV character I’d like more of, one of those sympathetic bad guys you can’t but help root for. Water Lily is our main female POV, with all the hallmarks of an awesome ace hero in the making. Kim Toy thinks of her as one of those “innocent ones…their strength and their sincerity made them lethal.” Cross your fingers that we’ll get a strong female hero POV outta her in later books…
New York City continues to be a character in its own right, as the authors explore its urban topography. A favorite series of landmarks are the nightclubs of NYC and the personalities that haunt them: the Funhouse, the Chaos Club, Joker’s Wild, the Twisted Drag, Freakers, and, of course, the Crystal Palace, run by Jokertown’s mistress of secrets, the shrewd Chrysalis. NYC is also overrun with eccentric gangs of both jokers and nats, from Chinatown to Harlem, evocative of the 1979 cult film and gang extravaganza, The Warriors. I can practically here the Demon Princes chanting “Warriors! Come out to plaaaay-yay!” The Jokertown streets are filled with crime, crooked cops walk the streets, and the alleyways are filled with garbage. And Croyd. And for some reason, a black bowling ball…
 For more on this, check out the essays in George Stocking’s (ed.) 1991, Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge (University of Wisconsin Press).
 Note that Lawrence did indeed lose his ‘dissertation,’ the final copy of his epic tome Seven Pillars of Wisdom; he left the manuscript on a train in 1919 and had to rewrite the entire thing. Jube was right to be terrified of losing his work!
Katie Rask is an assistant professor of archaeology and classics at Duquesne University. She’s excavated in Greece and Italy for over 15 years.