Worm (web serial)
Worm is a self-published web serial by John C. "Wildbow" McCrae that subverts common tropes of superhero fiction. It is one of the most popular web serials on the internet, with a readership in the hundreds of thousands. It was McCrae's first novel.
|Author||John McCrae, a.k.a. Wildbow|
|Genre||Superhero Science fiction web serial|
|Pages||7,000 (1,680,000 words) |
|Text||Worm at Wordpress|
Worm features a bullied teenage girl, Taylor Hebert, who develops the superpower to control worms, insects, arachnids and other simple lifeforms. Using a combination of ingenuity, idealism, and brutality, she struggles to do the right thing in a dark world filled with moral ambiguity.
Worm was first published as an online serial with two to three chapters released every week. It began online publishing in June 2011 and continued until November 2013, totalling 1,682,400 words.
The story was written at a rate of up to 11,000 words per day, comparable to a traditional book being published every month. It followed a strict publication schedule, with new chapters released every Tuesday and Saturday, and bonus chapters on Thursdays as rewards for donations. The site's reader base grew entirely by word of mouth. McCrae originally assumed it would attract only a small readership, and never advertised. It maintains a very high level of readership which peaked at over 80,000 unique visitors in June 2015, nearly two years after it had been completed.
Worm is set in a fictional universe known as 'Earth Bet'. In 1982, a golden man appeared, floating above the ocean. Following his appearance, a fraction of humans developed the ability to gain superpowers when placed in an incredibly traumatic and stressful situation, known as a 'trigger event'. For example, Taylor 'triggers' when bullies lock her inside a locker stuffed with month-old used tampons. After being left there for several hours, she snaps, and gains the ability to control simple macroscopic organisms.
The arrival of 'parahumans' led to a golden age of heroism, where most people with powers, often referred to as 'capes', did their best to work for the public good. Unfortunately, this was not to last. In 1989 a cape suffered a fatal embolism from being hit in the head while trying to prevent a riot. Disillusioned with heroism after seeing the potentially fatal consequences, many capes turned to villainy. Superpowered serial killers, thieves, cults, and gang members began to threaten the safety of the public. Worse, villain numbers increased at a far greater rate than heroes, as trigger events predisposed parahumans to resentment towards the system that failed to protect them. In response, the government formed the Parahuman Response Teams, or 'PRT', a combined military and police force tasked with protecting the public from supervillains.
Shortly after this, in 1992, a giant monster later to be called 'Behemoth' launched a devastating attack on the Marun Field in Iran. To adequately prepare for future attacks, and to manage the growing villain population, four prominent heroes formed an organization dedicated to superheroes working in groups. This group, called the Protectorate, was designed to be subordinate to the PRT as a sign that heroes would be willing to accept nonpowered oversight. As time went by, two more monsters appeared and began to attack random locations across the planet. In time, these monsters, named after the mythical creatures Behemoth, Leviathan, and Simurgh, were collectively referred to as 'Endbringers'. Their attacks lead to millions of lives lost, and catastrophic geographic damage. Both Newfoundland and Kyushu have sunk into the ocean, and several cities, such as Canberra and Madison, have been quarantined to prevent aftereffects from spreading.
All of these events have led to a grim atmosphere. The threat of Endbringer attacks constantly looms over the PRT and Protectorate, forcing them to use restraint in combating parahuman crime in order to ensure as many volunteers as possible at the next attack. Mired in bureaucracy and politics, the PRT is increasingly unable to cope with the growing frequency and brutality of parahuman crimes.
The story is set in Brockton Bay, a formerly wealthy port that has declined since the collapse of the shipping industry. Due to the poor economic conditions, it has a higher rate of parahumans per capita than most other American cities, leading to a number of powerful superhuman gangs vying for control of the city's criminal enterprises.
Powers are described using one or more of 12 categories developed by the PRT, along with a number from 1-12 describing the potency of the power and level of response needed in that category.
|Mover||Powers such as flight, teleportation, and super speed, and other related to inhuman mobility|
|Shaker||Powers that manipulate their surroundings in some way|
|Brute||Powers that grant enhanced strength, durability, regeneration, or similar|
|Breaker||Powers that alter the user to a different state in which they maintain different abilities. In addition to this breaker powers include anything that has a primary focus on interfering with the fundamental forces of the universe, such as powers that affects states of matter, anything that affects time, or anything that alters friction|
|Master||Powers that exert some form of mental control over others. Many can create minions or projections of some sort, while others are limited to only humans or other "natural" organisms|
|Tinker||Powers that create technology that is beyond current human knowledge or capability. Notably, tinkertech is nigh-impossible to mass-produce, and can only be maintained and understood by the cape that built it|
|Blaster||Powers with ranged attacks|
|Thinker||Powers that improve mental function, via increased planning ability, various forms of precognition, inhuman deductive reasoning or enhanced perception and awareness|
|Striker||Powers that create an effect with a touch or other close contact|
|Changer||Powers that transform the user into another shape, material or organism. This organism may or may not actually exist outside of the power|
|Trump||Powers relating to powers, mainly granting, altering, copying, or removing|
|Stranger||Powers relating to deception and stealth|
There is also an in-universe term called the 'Manton effect', which states that a cape's power can very rarely affect both organic and inorganic material, and that a cape's power can very rarely affect both themselves and others. Healers cannot heal inorganic objects and powers which create, destroy or transform objects fail to target organic beings. Powers which are exempt to this rule can be particularly dangerous as they can directly alter someone's physiology.
When placed under extreme stress, parahumans can trigger a second time, expanding and refining their powers to increase the odds of survival. Such events are rare and virtually impossible to bring about intentionally.
Taylor Hebert is a “parahuman” – a person with superhuman abilities – who has developed the power to sense and control bugs following a traumatic event. She lives in the fictional city of Brockton Bay, a hotspot of parahuman activity.
Taylor is bullied at school and seeks escape as a superhero, but on her first night out in costume, she is mistaken for a villain by other villains after defeating a gang leader.
She joins a team of thieves known as the Undersiders, hoping to gain information and turn them in to the authorities. However, the heroes prove singularly unhelpful, and Taylor grows increasingly close to the Undersiders while drifting away from her father.
Following a monster attack on the city, in which a number of named characters die, Taylor – now known by the supervillain name "Skitter" – re-joins the Undersiders in earnest. She operates as a makeshift warlord in the ruined city, protecting the citizens of her territory. A girl with the ability to see the future reveals that one particularly notorious villain is going to destroy the world if not stopped.
Taylor fights a number of particularly powerful villains, some of whom reveal corruption within the hero teams. The situation escalates and Taylor's secret identity is revealed. As a result, conflicts between the Undersiders and the authorities grow ever more heated, culminating in the death of the heroes’ leader and Skitter surrendering to the authorities.
After surrendering, Taylor joins the heroes as the probationary superhero "Weaver". Soon afterward, there is a timeskip where she works her way through their ranks, and two years pass.
Weaver leads several teams of both heroes and villains to attempt to prevent the world from ending, first at the hand of the prophesied villain, and then at the hand of the world's most powerful hero, found to secretly be responsible for all other powers.
A series of epilogues follow detailing the fates of various characters, including Taylor.
Hal Wierzbicki of entertainment site C0ws observed that
If I had to identify a theme running through all of Worm, it’s Taylor wanting to make the world a better place, a safer place, for herself, her family and her friends. If I had to pick a second theme, it would be that those good intentions aren’t enough. Taylor seems to make the best decision at any possible moment, the decision that gets her out of a losing fight, the decision that saves the lives of her friends, the decision that wins a battle. Yet, in doing so, things just get worse.
Gavin Scott Williams suggested that the story contains an "undercurrent" of the idea that "sometimes you have to go outside the rules to do the right thing". Several authors have compared the story to Alan Moore's Watchmen, as well as the character of Spider-Man and his themes of responsibility, although McCrae has stated in interviews that no one author has heavily influenced him.
The title Worm has multiple potential meanings. It has been connected to the protagonist's character development, as a "lowly, overlooked" person who is nonetheless useful and dangerous; drawing a parallel with the protagonist's power to control worms and other bugs. The chapter titles also generally have double meanings.
A number of reviewers have noted the characters' ingenuity, and the original and creative use of superpowers in the narrative. Author Adam Sherman described one of the recurring themes of the story as "that powers don’t really make the person, it's the person who makes the power". McCrae has described how he would regularly write himself into corners, so that "the desperate gambits we see are echoed by my writerly desperation to figure out a way to keep things going." G.S Williams drew a parallel between the protagonist's power being seemingly underwhelming, and her being overlooked in her civilian life, and the broader theme of things being overlooked.
Worm has received almost entirely favorable reviews. It received substantial attention following a favorable review by author Gavin Scott Williams roughly six months into publication, which praised the story's themes and originality. Readership doubled when it was recommended by author Eliezer Yudkowsky on his website while the story was in its final months.
Critics favorably compared it to the similar-length book series A Song of Ice and Fire. Matt Freeman of Daly Planet Films praised the story's originality, noting that it works as a science fiction story to a degree not found in most works of superhero fiction. Media site Toolsandtoys.net published a review by Chris Gonzales, who described it as "one of my favorite stories ever written". However, he also noted that it was "dark", warning "definitely don’t hand this to a kid to read". Chris Ellis of Ergohacks.com noted that the story "managed to hit every single trigger warning we have listed", but called it "among the best books and universes I’ve ever read."
Reviewers have praised the story's realism and use of consequences, contrasting it favorably with the tendency for characters to return from the dead in superhero comic books and films. Many praised the story's originality and creative use of superpowers. Several reviewers commended the detail, consistency, and depth of the setting.
The story also possesses a sizable online fanbase. It receives 40-60 visitors a day from TV Tropes alone. Fans of the story have collaborated to create a complete audio book, as well as other projects, such as the We've Got Worm podcast, a weekly arc-by-arc podcast with a first-time reader and a Worm expert. Fan art relating to the novel has been published on DeviantArt, as well as a large amount of fan fiction There is an IRC chatroom established for readers to comment and discuss the story, which is constantly active, as well as communities of fans on a number of online forums. Worm, along with McCrae's other works Pact and Twig, are consistently among the highest-rated works on ratings site TopWebFiction, and Worm is the highest-rated work on several websites that collect serial fiction. Worm has an average rating of 4.67 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, with over 3000 user rankings. Of these users, 99% liked the book.
Several publications have discussed Worm within the context of the increasing popularity of web serials, and compared to the work of authors such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, who also wrote in the serial format. Authors Olivia Rising and Adam Sherman have credited it as a decisive influence on their work.
A number of companies have approached McCrae to discuss adapting Worm, as well as another of his serials, Twig. However, McCrae takes a pessimistic view of whether it will be successfully adapted.
In October 2017, McCrae announced on his blog that a sequel to Worm (tentatively titled Parahumans 2) would be released soon, following five to ten short interim chapters that will set the stage for the new story. The interim story arc, Glow-worm, was released beginning October 21, 2017, and the sequel, Ward, featuring protagonist Victoria Dallon, began serialization on November 11, 2017. The sequel is set after the events of Worm.
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