Worm (web serial)
Worm is a self-published web serial by John "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||Science fiction web serial|
|Pages||7,000 (1,680,000 words) |
|Text||Worm at Wordpress|
Worm features a bullied teenage girl, Taylor, 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. Beginning online publishing in June 2011 and continuing until November 2013, 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.
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. Unusually, the site's reader base grew entirely by word of mouth. McCrae originally assumed it would attract only a small readership, and never advertised.
Worm is currently being edited, and the author hopes to produce both an eBook version and a physical book via traditional publishing. He plans to release a sequel to Worm when his current work, Twig, is completed.
Worm is set in a fictional universe known as 'Earth Bet'. This universe differs from reality by a point of divergence. In 1982, a golden man appeared, floating in the air over the ocean. 5 years after 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'. As an 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 at Moscow. 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 were referred to collectively 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.
Worm is specifically set in the city of Brockton Bay, a formerly wealthy port that has declined since the collapse of the shipping industry. Due to the poor economic conditions, Brockton Bay has a higher rate of parahumans per capita than most other American cities. This has led to a number of powerful superhuman gangs vying for control of the city's criminal enterprises. The 'Azn Bad Boyz', or 'ABB', is a gang formed of immigrants from Asia, brought together and forced into line by a particularly powerful parahuman named 'Lung'. The 'Empire 88', or 'E88', is a neo-Nazi gang that carries out hate crimes against minorities. The 'Archer's Bridge Merchants', or simply 'The Merchants', are a gang of drug addicts that are particularly disorganized. There is also a group of mercenaries managed by a mysterious man known only as 'Coil', and a team of exclusively parahuman thieves known as the 'Undersiders'.
Powers are generally described using 12 categories. Each parahuman's powers are described by assigning one or more category, and a number from 1-12 describing the potency of the power to be used for that category.
Mover: A mover rating means some ability that relates to more efficient transportation. Flight, teleportation, and super speed all fall under this category.
Shaker: Shakers have an ability that allows them to manipulate their surroundings in some way. Some shakers can massively alter or transform the environment into something else entirely. Vista, a Brockton Bay cape, is a shaker that can fold or stretch space.
Brute: Brutes have some form of enhanced strength, durability, and/or regeneration which makes wounding them in combat more difficult.
Breaker: Breakers have abilities that allow them to overtly defy the laws of physics. Anything that has a primary focus on interfering with the fundamental forces of the universe is a breaker power. Examples are anything that affects states of matter, anything that affects time, or anything that alters friction.
Master: Masters can 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: Tinkers can 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: Blasters have some form of ranged projectile attack such as lasers, compressed air, acid, telekinetic projectiles or self-made chemical bombs.
Thinker: Thinkers have some form of improved mental function. Examples are improved planning ability, various forms of precognition, and vastly improved deductive reasoning.
Striker: Strikers have a power that can be used only when in physical contact with the target. The effect of this power can vary wildly, ranging from freezing an object in time to manipulating the biology of an organism.
Changer: Changers have a power that allows them to transform into another shape, material or organism. This organism may or may not actually exist outside of the parahuman's power.
Trump: Trumps can alter the powers of other capes, or their own. Trumps are particularly feared, as they can sometimes easily neutralize enemy capes.
Stranger: Strangers can hide their presence in some shape or form.
There is also an in-universe term called the 'Manton limitation', which states that a cape's power can very rarely affect both organic or 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 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 young girl, 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.
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. Fan art relating to the novel has been published on DeviantArt, and a large amount of fan fiction of the work has been produced, particularly on the SpaceBattles forums. 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 4.69 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, with over 2000 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.
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