A Chronology of the Online Wild Cards Stories

Since the release of the first volume in early 1987, George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series has expanded to a total of 29 books and counting. Fortunately, the books are numbered, so it’s not too hard to figure out which ones to read and in what order.

But here’s an interesting wrinkle: Since 2013, online-exclusive Wild Cards content has been appearing on Tor.com, one short story at a time. There are 21 tales currently available to read on the website, and more are published all the time. Some fans might be curious as to how those tales fit into the overall Wild Cards book chronology. Well, let’s have a look and see if we can make some sense of all this. Since some of the Tor.com entries are much trickier to place than others, I suggest we start out easy, and slowly work our way up to the more challenging pieces.

 

Level One Chronologizing: Easy

The first thing to establish is that the WC timeline essentially starts on September 15, 1946 – the day that the world was infected with the Takisian “wild card” virus.

The second thing to know: the books move along roughly in real time, and since the series debuted in the 1980s, it is in that decade that the chronology gets very dense with incident. But from 1946 to 1985 or so, in-universe, things aren’t too complicated. Only one or two stories tend to be set in any given year, and so even when a new book comes out like 28: Joker Moon, with stories taking place at different points along the WC timeline, it’s easy enough to slot material in, so long as it’s set pre-1980s.

That holds true for the Tor.com material as well. As an example, Cherie Priest’s fantastic “The Button Man and the Murder Tree” is set in Chicago, in the autumn of 1971. The stories bracketing it on the WC timeline take place in New York City, with no shared characters, so exact placement doesn’t have a large effect on the narrative at any rate. However, for the sake of precision, “Button Man” falls between a couple of pieces published back-to-back in the original Wild Cards volume. We have, just before Priest’s tale: “Wild Card Chic,” an interlude detailing a dinner in the posh restaurant Aces High in June of 1971, attended by beloved famous aces along with a host of real-life celebrity cameos. Just after it: “Down Deep,” a story whose allusions to both Watergate and the theatrical release of The Godfather place it smack in the middle of 1972. The juxtaposition may or may not be deliberate, but “Button Man” reads very nicely just before “Down Deep,” as both pieces happen to involve Mafia violence and intrigue. (“Button Man” is also an awesome stand-alone entry, by the way, if you’re only first dipping your toes into online Wild Cards content; it’s one of my absolute favorites from amongst the Tor.com offerings.)

Some of the other stories make for fun little chronological puzzles, because they don’t necessarily have a lot of allusions that force a specific placement on the timeline … and yet, there are subtle clues that can provide an answer. I was quite pleased with myself, for example, when I cracked the code for Carrie Vaughn’s “The Thing About Growing Up in Jokertown,” and was able to place it with 90% certainty in the summer of 2002.

But let’s take a look at some tales whose chronological placement has to be much more precise, because of how the content interlocks with the material in the books.

 

Level Two Chronologizing: Intermediate

When We Were Heroes” by Daniel Abraham stars the characters Bugsy and Curveball, and alludes to the events of what’s considered the “Committee Triad,” which spanned from 18: Inside Straight to 20: Suicide Kings. Later, a story by Carrie Vaughn in 22: Lowball, makes explicit mention of Curveball’s experiences in “When We Were Heroes.” So, I place Abraham’s online offering just before Lowball, and think of it as that book’s unofficial prologue.

Speaking of Vaughn and prologues, her “Nuestra Senora de la Esperanza” starring the ace Earth Witch, is very clearly set in between Straight and its follow up, 19: Busted Flush. This is another one that works as a kind of prelude, a perfect piece to read just before diving into Flush.

David D. Levine’s excellent “Discards” introduces us to Tiago “The Recycler” Goncalves, who joins the Committee on Extraordinary Interventions not long before the events of 23: High Stakes, set in 2012. Before that, he’s a contestant on the reality show “Herois Brazil,” Brazilian spinoff of “American Hero,” which debuted in 2007 (as shown in 18: Inside Straight). Presumably, then, “Herois Brazil” couldn’t have premiered until 2008 at the earliest. Apart from that chronological clue, “Discards” is fairly self-contained and free of allusions to Wild Cards stories outside itself. However, a reference made by Tiago in 28: Joker Moon makes me want to push “Discards” back as early as it can go. I’m placing it in 2009, sometime before the start of 20: Suicide Kings.

Elephant in the Room” by Paul Cornell is an interesting one. It’s set explicitly after Cornell’s story “More,” which saw print in 21: Fort Freak. Both stories feature the same lead character, Abigail Baker, and the events portrayed in “Elephant” seem to follow hard on the heels of “More,” such that it probably takes place sometime before Fort Freak actually concludes. The stated time-scale of “Elephant” makes the fit somewhat awkward with the internal timeline of Freak … but if you squint, it works. The chronological bumpiness is forgivable, because Abigail is such a charming and funny protagonist about which to read. The “More” the merrier, I say.

 

Level Three Chronologizing: Hard

With the Caroline Spector/Bradley Denton collaboration “The Flight of Morpho Girl,” we start to go down the rabbit hole of high-degree-of-difficulty Wild Cards sequencing. “Flight” puts Adesina Pond (the titular “Morpho Girl”) into her first year at Xavier Desmond High School. Oh, boy … ! Once you add school scheduling into the picture, things get tighter and trickier. But I think we can handle this.

The first chronological clue in “Flight” is its assertion that the events of 23: High Stakes are very recent, only weeks old. From what I can glean in 22: Lowball and 23: High Stakes, both books are locked in at 2012. So Adesina’s freshman year maps onto the 2012-2013 school calendar, and “The Flight of Morpho Girl” is almost certainly set in the fall of that cycle, sometime in late 2012.

Xavier Desmond High also employs Robin “Rubberband” Ruttiger as a guidance counselor. A bit of Robin’s first year on the job is depicted in Max Gladstone’s “Fitting In.” It’s established that Mr. Ruttiger was a contestant on the aforementioned reality show “American Hero”–specifically in Season 2, which aired in 2008 (as established in 19: Busted Flush). So “Fitting In” has to slot in post-2008. Later, he’s already working as a counselor during Adesina’s first year, so Gladstone’s narrative takes place no later than 2012. I suggest 2012, just for the pleasing symmetry of Adesina and Robin having the same first year, she as a student and he as faculty.

Both characters then show up in 26: Texas Hold ‘Em, a book set in spring of Adesina’s freshman year, i.e. 2013. Slight spoiler alert for Hold ‘Em: it ends with a romance blossoming between Morpho Girl and a fellow joker, nicknamed “Segway.”

Later still, the Adesina/Segway romance features in Bradley Denton’s “Naked, Stoned and Stabbed”. So “Stabbed” is set after Hold ‘Em, i.e. no earlier than 2013. Denton’s narrative is time-stamped December of 2018, but I think in this case and several others, the time-stamps have to be ignored. Consider the evidence: The actual text of Denton’s story pegs the events of 23: High Stakes as no more than a year earlier, and those of “The Flight of Morpho Girl” as only “months ago.” So I place “Stabbed” in the December of 2013, not long into Adesina’s second year of high school.

Indeed, despite the time-stamps that imply four or five years passing from 22: Lowball to 26: Texas Hold ‘Em, I think the actual events depicted suggest a far smaller span of time: Lowball is set in summer of 2012, and Texas Hold ‘Em in spring of 2013, with all the events between them thus packed into a single period spanning less than a year, start to finish. Meanwhile, there are two more online tales worth flagging up, which both definitely slot into this very eventful nine months.

First, “The Atonement Tango” by Stephen Leigh depicts a significant tragedy in the life of Michael “Drummer Boy” Vogali, and its first scene explicitly occurs on September 15th, an important date in the Wild Cards timeline. Since the date is crucial for thematic reasons, I don’t want to get too laissez-faire about the time-stamp. But does “Tango” have to be set in the year 2012? I’d argue that it does! S.L.’s tale is explicitly set after High Stakes, which in turn begins only moments after the end of Lowball. And Lowball is very deliberately set in the summer of 2012–another time-stamp that can’t really be ignored, because the presidential race of that year is a significant plot point. With High Stakes set in summer of the same year, “Tango” can’t possibly be any earlier than 2012.

Can it be later, e.g. September of 2013? No, because the events of “Tango” have already happened by the time we come to 24: Mississippi Roll, which refers to Pauline van Renssaeler’s election “the previous November.” So, Roll is explicitly in 2013. Besides, the events of Roll precede those of 25: Low Chicago, which precede those of 26: Texas Hold ‘Em, and we’ve established that Hold ‘Em has to be the spring of Adesina’s first year of school, well before September of 2013.

Finally, there’s Melinda Snodgrass’ delightful “When the Devil Drives“. It’s time-stamped autumn of 2017, but as with “Tango,” the actual events place it after the 2012-set High Stakes and before the 2013-set “America” triad (Mississippi/Chicago/Texas). So like “Tango” and “Morpho Girl,” I think “Devil” has to take place in the fall of 2012. So, this part of the timeline starts to lock together like a jigsaw when we properly arrange the pieces:

  • 22: Lowball (2012)
  • 23: High Stakes (2012, since it begins only minutes after Lowball ends)
  • “The Atonement Tango” (September, 2012)
  • “The Flight of Morpho Girl” (fall of 2012, Adesina’s freshman year)
  • “Fitting In” (fall of 2012, probably)
  • “When the Devil Drives” (fall of 2012, since it’s the autumn between High Stakes and Chicago)
  • 24: Mississippi Roll (spring of 2013, since it has to precede Chicago)
  • 25: Low Chicago (spring of 2013, since it has to precede Texas)
  • 26: Texas Hold ‘Em (spring of 2013, since it is spring of Adesina’s freshman year)
  • “Naked, Stoned and Stabbed” (2013, sometime post-Texas)

There, that wasn’t so bad!

 

Digression: The “America” Triad

I did consider the possibility that despite their numbering, perhaps Mississippi Roll and/or Low Chicago could actually be set AFTER Texas, since there is very little overlap amongst the books of the “America” triad in terms of incident or characters. However, “very little” doesn’t mean “none.” It turns out that fan-favorite character Jeremiah Strauss (A.K.A. Mr. Nobody), appears in both Chicago and Texas Hold ‘Em, and the latter sees him recounting the events of the former. I have a theory that actually Mr. Nobody is in Mississippi Roll too, in disguise, but the writers are very sneaky and I don’t want to commit to that theory until I can do another re-read. Still, if I have correctly read the clues, it means that Jerry Strauss is the glue that holds the America triad together, and he moves through Mississippi, Chicago and Texas sequentially. Quite the mover and shaker, that Mr. Nobody.

So that takes us through a chronology for about half of the Wild Cards stories currently available to read (for free!) on Tor.com. Perhaps we can check out the other half later, when some of the characters and events of the more recent stories start to be integrated into the books, thus providing a clearer picture of the overall chronological tapestry.

For now, though, I hope this essay sheds at least a little bit of light on how some of the excellent–and essential!–online WC content fits into the saga. And if I’ve missed any crucial chronological clues, let me know in the comments!

Jason Powell is the author of The Best There Is at What He Does: Examining Chris Claremont’s X-Men, and of several original musicals and operas. His sci-fi musical Invader? I Hardly Know Her, was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2010. On YouTube he calls himself The Man in Orange, and performs various original songs about topics such as Chris Claremont and Wild Cards (go figure). You can hear his tunes at https://www.youtube.com/user/MrDooteronomy.

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