Image Credit: geekysoundcat
You heard it here first: web serials are the new hotness.
Charles Dickens wrote most of his novels as serials. This means he published them in monthly or weekly installments and people read them as they were published. It was only afterward that the installments were collected and bound into books. Serialized fiction has always been a thing, but for the last century or so it’s been more economically favorable for content distributors to publish books rather than serials. Now, with the Internet and all its incipient economic ramifications, serial fiction has become a big deal again.
It is difficult to talk about Worm without talking about the fact that it is a web serial – a story published online in installments twice a week for about a year and a half. At 1,680,000 words, Worm is very long. This writing pace and consistent quality accomplished by its creator, J.C. McCrae (pseudonymously “Wildbow”), is astounding. By comparison, the entire Song of Ice and Fire series (known as the Game of Thrones series to philistines) is 1,770,000 words and has so far taken twelve thousand years to be written.
An introverted teenage girl with an unconventional superpower, Taylor goes out in costume to find escape from a deeply unhappy and frustrated civilian life. Her first attempt at taking down a supervillain sees her mistaken for one, thrusting her into the midst of the local ‘cape’ scene’s politics, unwritten rules, and ambiguous morals. As she risks life and limb, Taylor faces the dilemma of having to do the wrong things for the right reasons.
Worm is a treat, for many reasons. If you’re interested in finding out more, read on.
Worm is extremely long. This is a good thing if you want something that you can become absorbed in for a good length of time. A world and a story that immerses you for days or weeks. Sometimes you want a book that you can read in two days. There are lots of those. There aren’t many works that are both extremely long and worth reading. Worm is like a nice, long vacation. When you’re on this vacation, you’re not thinking about anything else, and when it’s over, you’re refreshed and happy you did it.
Making your way through Worm feels more like binge-watching a great TV show than reading a really long book. This is partly due to the way the story is structured – the story’s arcs are like seasons, narrative chunks with their own internal beginning, middle and end, yet each arc smoothly leads to the next. The TV-like tone is also partly due to the abundance of chapters ending in cliffhangers and the overall intense pace. My only lament concerning this story is that I only discovered it after it had been completed. I imagine it would have been even more fun if I were reading along as it was being written.
If You Like Superheros … Or If You Don’t
It is a story about superheroes. And I’m afraid that after reading that sentence, you’ve already made up your mind regarding the story’s value. If you don’t care for the superhero genre, I would encourage you to suspend judgement and perhaps read the first few chapters. I’m not going to say that the superpowers don’t play a major role in the story. Au contraire. But I’m definitely going to say that it’s not just a story about superheroes.
All that said, if you do like superhero stories, then you will very probably like Worm.
Worm contains an excellent explanation for the origin of the superpowers in the story. The explanation is great on two levels. One, it’s awesome, and very original, as a science fiction concept all by itself. Two, it’s inextricably bound up in the themes of and conclusion of the story, which makes its ultimate revelation utterly satisfying.
Basically, it’s the opposite of how Lost handled its mythology.
Because this is a spoiler-free review, I’m hesitant to explain any more about Worm’s superpowers. Instead, I’m going to contrast it with a bad example of a superpower origin story: that of the X-Men universe. According to the scriptures, the mutants in X-Men were created by genetic seeding of the human race with the Mutant Gene thousands of years ago by aliens. In my opinion this is a lazy and boring explanation in the Science Fiction sense because, well, it’s not original or creative, and also it doesn’t actually explain anything. It just moves the mystery to a different box.
Okay, the Mutant Gene – how does that work, then? Why would it lead to the stable yet varied mutations that it does? Marvel doesn’t care. “Mutant Gene” is code for “magic plot thing.” Marvel isn’t doing Science Fiction, they’re doing Superhero Fantasy. Worm on the other hand is doing Science Fiction. In the end, that may be why it appeals to me so much.
Worm takes is premises seriously and draws out the plot- and character-ramifications of those premises. If thousands of individuals around the world – many of them criminals – suddenly gained superpowers, what would happen to the world’s institutions? To society? If you like comic books or comic book-movies, you may think you’ve seen this territory explored before, but in fact you haven’t. The standard Marvel/DC treatment is totally uninterested in a really thoughtful analysis of questions like these – they just want to show people punching each other. In a sense, Worm is in the same subgenre as Watchmen.
Worm has a good, satisfying ending. Christ, I don’t remember the last new book or movie that had a good ending. The art of it seems to be lost. (Scott has reminded me that Breaking Bad also had a perfect ending, as well as a perfect every-other-aspect. But the list of modern properties with decent endings is a short one.) Worm‘s conclusion wraps up every thread and brings emotional closure to all the characters’ struggles. And it’s intense. The whole story is a master class in ratcheting up tension and intensity higher than you believe possible, and then ratcheting it up again.
A good, solid ending carries a lot of weight with me. If you tell me that a story is about a robot clown from the future who has to steal alien eggs from Fort Knox to stop Ron Paul from marrying the wrong woman in the past, but it has a really good ending, I’ll read it.
My brother recommended Worm to me over a year before I got around to reading it. This is partly because he warned me about its length, and I felt apprehensive about getting into something so huge. In a sense, I was right to be apprehensive, because the pacing and serial structure of the story make it very difficult to stop reading once you’ve started. This story consumes you until you’re done. If you’re a reader, then you understand that this fact makes Worm a rare jewel indeed.
And if the idea of keeping up with a web serial in progress sounds appealing to you, Wildbow is currently writing another one: Twig.