We need to talk about Worm

Great news! I finally realized that I should just underline my links like a normal blogging human. Look, here’s an easy-to-follow link to a Wikipedia article about underlines! Usin’ that degree.

Recently some people who know who they are tricked me into a reading a book that is longer than the entire Harry Potter series, and is, I learned after finishing it, actually the length of 22 average novels being published today. Not that its length is its sole defining characteristic–it’s just the first thing that wallops you in the face when looking at it. This novel is Worm. It’s part of an emerging genre of web serials that is catalogued in a number of places. This medium is essentially the author blogging out a story: posted chapters form into story arcs that form the whole serial, much like a webcomic without the artwork.

The author of Worm, who goes by Wildbow and makes a living from his writing, is a crown prince in the web serial world. It’s hard to overstate how much he’s invented his own genre. I read Worm in pieces, but powered through the last third in a binge, and, whatever else I’m going to say, I want to preface it with the fact that I respect it enormously. It’s clearly a labor of love, quite a bit of labor, by an author doing it out of the joy of creating (Joy is in short supply within the narrative, but I’ll get to that later).

This post is not to review Worm. It’s more for me, to deal with the residue of 22 books of stuff and to see what lessons can and should be learned. With that in mind, anybody who plans to read this gateway web serial should beware of spoilers everywhere.

The plot is simple on the surface: around thirty years ago, superpowered individuals called parahumans begin surfacing on Earth, gaining various types of powers after undergoing traumatic experiences. In the present, a high school student named Taylor gains a seemingly weak power–the ability to control insects. Intending to use it to fight crime, she instead, through a series of unexpected events, becomes a crime lord. It all resembles nothing so much as The Incredibles directed by Stanley Kubrick: a sincere attempt to figure out what a world with superheroes and villains running around would actually look like. As you might expect from a severe deconstruction, it’s not great.

Like I said, it’s ambitious and impressive. But the fact, for me at least, is that every exhilarating strength of Worm is matched by an infuriating flaw. I’ll try to run down a few of those here.

Good: As I’ve said before, for a million-word story, this thing is really readable. Each of the arcs is paced well, and the characters are often compelling enough to make them sufficient reason to keep reading. Cliffhangers can feel manipulative sometimes, but they felt like natural consequences here.

Most importantly, the book deftly manages its escalation of scope from high school sucks to guys, we have to kill Dr. Manhattan. When considering the whole, I never thought, “Dear Lord, when is this going to end?”

Bad: Unfortunately, I did think that during several individual scenes. Maybe not surprising by now, but Worm badly needs an editor. If it’s not a fight scene running way too long, it’s a conversation running way too long, an inner monologue running way too long…the point is, Wildbow has my problem of being unable to write anything short, times 100.

His bigness fixation extends in other directions as well, especially to the cast of characters. Also maybe not surprising, but there are way too many. For every fleshed-out, three-dimensial Taylor, Tattletale, Defiant, Rachel, or Imp, there’s a Foil, Parian, Golem, Grue, Trickster, or Clockblocker whose development just gets dropped after a certain point, and, below them, whole armies of c-listers like Exalt, Revel, Hoyden, Wanton, Grace, Laserdream, Orbit, Skinslip, August Prince, Citrine, Jouster, Felix Swoop, Topsy, Strapping Lad, Cricket…the list goes on, and none of them make a difference, save for their powers providing a twist on a fight scene.

There was an unintentionally hilarious scene toward the end of Le Morte D’Arthur, concerning Sir Urre, a knight cursed with magic wounds that will only heal when the world’s greatest knight searches them. We know the cure is Lancelot, because it’s always Lancelot, but first we get to see literally a hundred different dudes shove their fingers into Sir Urre’s festering sores, including knights who do nothing else for the course of the entire story. This is also, jarringly, where we learn of the death of Sir Tristram: “He’d be here sticking his fingers into this guy too, but he’s dead.” Several characters get taken down this way, in fact, but that’s something else I’ll get to later.

The takeaway here is that there is a reason most novels are not this long. Web fiction has all the length records–a Super Smash Bros Brawl fanfic is the longest work of literature in history, three times the length of In Search of Lost Time–but it’s just never a good idea. Also like Malory, Wildbow has a disturbing capacity to forget certain characters exist. It’s not his fault. He’s got more to keep in mind than the writer’s brain is meant to handle. Homer could get away with this, maybe, but most of those characters got killed when they first appeared, and besides, I think Worm might have more characters than all of Greek mythologyAmbition is one thing, and it’s still praiseworthy, but there’s a difference between shooting for the moon and trying to visit every star before next Tuesday.

Good: The world is deeply considered and makes perfect sense. Lots of people claim Worm is excessively grimdark, but surprisingly, that’s not one of my problems with it. The darkness is a natural consequence of the superpowers, not something he shoved in there because it’s trendy. Threats in our world–serial killers, drug-dealing gangs, white supremacists–get amplified and distorted when backed up by supervillains. Refugees from kaiju attacks change the ethnic makeup of surviving nations. Because superpowers result from trauma, parahumans often have a grudge against the world, leading the fights to be imbalanced in favor of supervillains.

This works on the minor level too. One of the best characters, a teenager named Rachel who goes by Bitch as a supervillain, has the power to transform dogs into horse-sized monsters. Unfortunately, this transforms her brain as well, so she reacts to situations using a dog’s understanding of social cues. Taylor figures this out and works to relate to Rachel, forging an extraordinarily touching relationship which never compromises Rachel’s psychologically accurate characterization as a dog in a human’s body. And this is only one example of many. Little touches, like Tattletale’s superpowered intuition making her unable to enjoy sex, or Weld the metal man rejoicing in music because he can’t eat, continually blew me away.

Bad: Wildbow’s grasp on his world is solid, but his grasp on his themes is less so. One of Worm‘s central ideas is that extraordinary situations destroy traditional notions of morality like the ones we tend to see with superheroes. The Earth is threatened by monsters called Endbringers that are an order of magnitude stronger than most parahumans, and whose appearance causes heroes and villains to put aside their differences and fend them off. Same happens when one gang or another overreaches, or when “capes” attack each other’s civilian lives.

Which is well and good. Ideas of what is good and evil need to be constantly examined, and Taylor’s evolution as she unwittingly becomes a villain is compelling to follow. With all that in mind, it’s disappointing that the novel seems to have more rigid lines of good and evil than it likes to admit. One of the major enemies of the protagonists is the Slaughterhouse Nine, a rotating group of supervillains who travel the country killing for the fun of it. They are led by Jack Slash, a monster with zero redeeming qualities who loves murdering babies. Similarly, superpowered cannibal Siberian, social Darwininst bully Shadow Stalker, mob boss Coil, and several other characters are totally evil, while most things Taylor and the Undersiders do are considered to be good. For all its boldness, there are lines Worm isn’t willing to cross. I’m not suggesting it should portray infanticide and white supremacy as defensible, just that it should make more of an effort not treat evil as a malignant substance that exists independent of humanity.

Speaking of Taylor, let’s speak of Taylor. By the end, she’s just not very likable. She claims her ends justify her means, but is intolerant of anybody else who uses the same argument. Her compulsive caring for people comes across as self-flagellation, and she spends way too much time going off on bureaucrats or anybody she perceives as wasting her time. The truly troubling part comes at the end, where, to defeat the final villain, Taylor gains the power to control the minds of every other hero on Earth. The implication is that this is good: all the natural short-sightedness of humanity is squelched out by her benevolent dictatorship, proving that we could reach our potential if we didn’t have all that gosh darn individuality and free will. The fact that she goes insane as a consequence of this power doesn’t seem to condemn her actions at all–after all, she still saves the world. Why does Taylor get a free pass to be ubermensch?

Good: I’ve mentioned liking the characters, but it bears repeating that they really are the strongest aspect of Worm. Despite Wildbow’s tendency to drag far too many people along, several arcs are sketched as well as anything in mainstream superhero fiction, and in most cases better. I will never be able to watch a Marvel Universe movie the same way: next to Armsmaster, Miss Militia, Glaistig Uaine, and Lung, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Hulk look like, well, cartoon characters, and despite my above griping about Jack Slash, he’s far more compelling than Yellowjacket or Red Skull ever will be. Worm even has a heroic Ultron in the form of Dragon.

I cared about these people more than I expected to, and when I hit the surprisingly happy ending, I was delighted that the ones who made it out really made it out. Even Taylor. The fact that I was annoyed she couldn’t visit her surviving Undersider friends in secret just proves how much I cared. Remember me saying that if at least one Stark didn’t make it out alive, Game of Thrones would be forgotten by historyWorm proves everything I said about darkness showing the light. In the end, I think that’s why I finished it despite my complaints about its length.

Bad: I promised to go more in depth about characters being forgotten, so here goes. That annoyed the piss out of me. First of all, the novel loves to kill people offscreen, which may be my least favorite thing authors do: if you’re going to write a story about how humans are worth saving despite all their evil, why not respect those individual lives? Same complaint as the Khepri incident, really.

One of my favorite characters was Francis Krouse/Trickster, who gets to be POV for a whole arc around two-thirds of the way through, thus spending more time as protagonist than anyone except Taylor/Skitter herself. He’s a member of a team of professional gamers from an alternate Earth who drink a suitcase full of superpower potions. One of them causes the girl Trickster loves to transform slowly into a hideous monster, causing the group, now known as the Travelers, to wander the unfamiliar Earth searching for a cure. Trickster is impulsive and desperate, not half the schemer Taylor is, far more emotional–a scene of him trying to reassure the mutating Noelle while she refuses to let him look at her is the only one in Worm to make me cry. In the end, he betrays even the other Travelers to side with Noelle against the entire world.

Trapped, in love, slightly Byronic: Trickster’s arc had everything. And yet. After Noelle is defeated and the Travelers return home, Trickster gets sent to superjail and…vanishes. He gets mind-controlled by a b-list villain, then Taylor breaks open the prison during the final battle and mind-controls him a different way. We only find out he’s there when she uses his power once and then he gets killed. I know there’s a lot going on, but I liked him. He deserved closure.

Grue is as bad, maybe worse. Leader of the group of villains Taylor joins, later her love interest, he suffers severe post-traumatic stress after being vivisected by one of the Slaughterhouse Nine. After a two-year time skip, he’s found a new girlfriend, and while Taylor seems to accept he’s moved on, the story itself doesn’t do as well. Grue has one last moment against an Endbringer and then becomes an extra. His PTSD storyline is never resolved–not that I’m expecting it to be cured, just for him to deal with his future–and he dies offscreen without Taylor trying that hard to say goodbye to him, or his own sister, Imp, even really remembering him. Why have a romance that doesn’t affect the main story? What was the point of all the time we spent on their relationship?

As is the refrain with Worm, the list goes on. Parian and Foil fall in love, a great moment in itself, but their arcs grind to a halt. I wanted more time with Golem, the son of neo-Nazis who casts off his family to become a hero, but he too outlives his usefulness and disappears. The biggest lesson I learned here was that just because the threat level has risen to the stratosphere for the final battle is no reason to let character stuff fall by the wayside.

In total: That’s about all I can think of. Worm, in conclusion, is one man’s enthralling, frustrating, bloated, brilliant masterwork, troubling in both the right and the wrong ways. I’m glad I read it. It was a great story and I learned a lot from it. I just hope Wildbow doesn’t take it the wrong way when I say I’m striving not to emulate it.

P.S.: Can anybody else who’s read this totally imagine Skitter reciting the villain’s creed from Wreck-It Ralph during the final battle? “I’m bad…and that’s good. I will never be good…and that’s not bad. There’s no-one I’d rather be…than me.”

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One thought on “We need to talk about Worm

  1. The takeaway here is that there is a reason most novels are not this long. Web fiction has all the length records–a Super Smash Bros Brawl fanfic is the longest work of literature in history, three times the length of In Search of Lost Time–but it’s just never a good idea. Also like Malory, Wildbow has a disturbing capacity to forget certain characters exist. It’s not his fault. He’s got more to keep in mind than the writer’s brain is meant to handle.

    This, incidentally, is how I felt about Homestuck around the time I stopped reading it. Andrew Hussie desperately needs an editor, because the sprawling, Byzantine plot stops being entertaining and becomes a massive barrier to enjoyment after a couple of chapters.

    Like

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