Worm (Wildbow, 2013)

If you’d told me a year or two ago that I would in 2014 be deeply engrossed in a web-published superhero serial longer than the entire Game of Thrones series to date — I probably would have admitted that it was a possibility, and asked where I might find such a work before that distant, fated date.

To be clear, Worm isn’t exactly a book. It’s a complete “web serial,” published a chapter at a time over a period of about two and a half years by a man writing as Wildbow (alias John McCrae). It’s free to read, but was created under a donation system. You can start here, but you may want to wait until the author rereleases it in a more portable form. Personally, I put a complete epub version on my ereader, though the length (just south of 10,000 pages) caused it to seize up more than once.

The story, and bear with me for a moment here, concerns a teenaged girl, Taylor, who has received superpowers in a world roughly analogous to our own, except that people started spontaneously getting powers about 30 years ago. Meanwhile she is being brutally bullied at school and cities are routinely being attacked and demolished by mysterious and unstoppable monsters that also appeared recently, and her power — allowing her to sense and control bugs in her general area — doesn’t seem to be much of a help in either case. The next 1.65 million words follow her as she navigates a carefully-woven world of heroes, villains, conspiracies, friends, and all the rest.

It may sound something like a cross between Harry Potter and a rather grim comic book universe, but Worm is more than that, not least of which because it outdoes both magical-youth novels and cape comics by a pretty good margin while retaining their core appeal.

The story is episodic in nature — she falls in with a group of young powers and is caught between various factions and relationships, while facing down threats of escalating scale. And like the best shows, comics, and books, the greater story is always in sight, though critical details are often kept, tantalizingly, just out of reach. And so you keep turning pages for hours on end, not just wanting to advance the larger story, but wondering how the protagonist is going to be able to extricate herself from each harrowing situation, which are initially merely life-threatening and advance quickly to apocalyptic. It helps that it isn’t just a series of fights, a freak of the week being vanquished — there are personal betrayals, bureaucracy, minion management — and a number of other looming threats.

The world and characters that make up the story are similarly well-executed; Wildbow ticks familiar boxes without being limited by them. The expected powers of flight and super strength are there, but largely backgrounded in favor of far more creative ones, with creative consequences. One guy gives off a dark fog that blinds and disorientates those around him but leaves him free to act. Another imbues dogs with temporary power and durability, riding and directing them. Another is a young, nearly autistic girl who causes her surroundings to conform to those of her imagination. Then there are reality-breaking ones, monstrous mutant ones, ones whose powers lie in probability or manipulation.

They’re incredibly varied, with new ones appearing constantly, and consequently fights rarely if ever devolve to a slugfest, the way they so often do in comics. A fight is more likely to be ended when someone bleeds out or has their family threatened, rather than the bloodless KOs that seem to end every DC fight. And further, unlike comics and young adult fiction, the threats are real and the consequences horrifying. Everyone in the vast menagerie of heroes, villains, and others you’ll be introduced to are, Game of Thrones-style, always at risk of a sudden and violent death or permanent mutilation. There’s no pulling of punches here. Fights have body counts, sometimes numbering in the— well, it wouldn’t do to give away the stakes. Suffice it to say that no one is safe, on this Earth or the next.

And no matter how grave the threat, the perspective is always the same. The world-ending threats and accompanying histrionics in comics, as much as I like them in classic arcs like “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” have the camera zoomed out too far. Worlds collide in a colorful explosion as you watch from space. Not in Worm, where every threat, be it a local gang member or a monster leveling city blocks, is viewed through the eyes of a terrified, often helpless, and usually injured teenaged girl trying to protect her friends and family; “Interlude” chapters take other views, showing heroes or side characters at work, but the plot is advanced almost second by second in Taylor’s first person narration.

Which brings us to the prose. I hope that it is a compliment to Wildbow to say that nearly the entire book is written at what one might call an advanced young adult reading level. It’s matter-of-fact writing that doesn’t bother with nested clauses or long paragraphs, but focuses on getting concrete details of what’s happening into the reader’s head — meticulous enough that nothing is left unsaid, but fast-paced enough that you don’t feel held captive by a rambling description of a room or costume. It makes reading an absolute breeze, even if you’re not going to be remembering any of it for the words used, the way anything was said. It also means that even when there are missteps, it doesn’t lapse into that worst of both worlds: bad good writing.

For there are certainly missteps, though most are easily forgiven. Despite the ingenuity with which the author crafts the situations and people in the stories, there’s always a sense of deus ex machina in the way things play out. It’s nothing on the same level as a wildcat mauling a terrorist about to pull the trigger on the protagonist, which is actually how Neal Stephenson saw his way out of a narrative tangle in Reamde (twice), but let’s just say you’ll have to be a little charitable about the physical properties of spider silk in a few chapters, and accept that Taylor has an abnormally high threshold of pain for a skinny teenager with no combat experience.

It’s also a little hard to swallow the pace of events and the changes wrought; the few times dates and durations are really referred to, I squinted a bit. Really, that whole situation there played itself out over four days, not a month? Perhaps it’s nitpicking, but it did jar.

Lastly, Wildbow could use an editor — I enjoyed the precision with which scenes were drawn and evolved during tense situations, but dialogue often drags on as characters engage in unnecessary psychological warfare and drawn-out discussions. A few nips and tucks here and there could have probably eliminated a few hundred pages at least.

But my word count grows overlong as well. Worm is so huge that it’s hard to give a sense of the plot without ruining it, and it’s so refreshing that it’s hard to write about without gushing a bit. I had a blast reading it over the last month and a half because it takes the ideas that make comics interesting to me and takes them seriously, while jettisoning the parts that so often make them juvenile or pandering. I’ve been disappointed again and again recently at a lack of ambition in sci-fi and comics, so this is as pleasant a surprise as I could expect. It’s an incredibly creative story that I couldn’t stop reading, which would be enough on its own, but beyond that, it managed to keep me enthralled for more words than any other single written work or even series I’ve yet encountered. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.

image: scarfgirl

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