Home > Clement's Game > Superheroes Round 13: Worm

Superheroes Round 13: Worm

Worm is an online superhero serial novel.  It is complete.

It is also long — the equivalent of several novels, really.  And complex.  And deep.  I’ve been working on reading it, on and off, since before Christmas of last year, and only recently finished the monstrosity.

It is well written.

It is also extremely scary.

I am not kidding.  This is probably the darkest written material I’ve ever actually finished reading — largely because the swearing, gore, horror, etc., is not presented in a gratuitous manner.  Nonetheless, if there is any material that you could possibly find triggering — and I do mean anything — you should think very carefully before reading Worm.

If you think you can handle it without giving yourself impressively horrific nightmares, I do recommend the read.

As ever, spoilers follow.  Big spoilers.

A Plethora of Superpowers

I think one of the most fun parts of the story is how the different superpowers are crafted and used. They generally include appropriate limitations and required secondary powers… which are sometimes even more useful than the primary ones.

Let’s consider Taylor Hebert, our lead heroine. Her superpower is bug control. She can, effectively, precisely control any arthropod within a certain range, from spiders and wasps to butterflies, mosquitoes, and crabs. That’s her primary power. Her secondary one? Superpowered multitasking that enables her to manage all the bugs she can sense within a several-block radius.

Oh, yes. Even better, powers are exploited to maximum effect. Consider Taylor: she uses her bug control to produce spider silk to weave her own bullet-proof costume; she uses swarms of insects to communicate information to allies, warn away civilians, or prevent opponents from being able to see; she uses other swarms as decoys, to avoid getting shot at in the first place; and she strategically uses venoms and poisons from her insects on “harder” targets, like those with a serious healing factor. She can read a book or plan an attack while simultaneously doing surveillance with her insects. She uses insects coated in pepper spray, when she doesn’t want to risk people going into anaphylactic shock from a bad allergic reaction to bee stings. She carries epi pens just in case, as well as pepper spray, a knife, a gun…

Yeah. Other superheroes do similar things, depending on their resources and degree of cleverness.  One character explicitly covers the useful secondary powers trope, allowing said character to touch things and make them invincible… which lets them use their super-strength on objects without destroying them (or the pavement they’re standing on).   Power perversion potential shows up everywhere as well, as you might expect from ordinary people given extraordinary powers.  This includes a sadist who likes to rape and torture people… in a parallel world that he can destroy on a whim, so that no one ever knows.  Speaking of which…

Nothing Is Scarier

I think Worm manages to handle this trope in the scariest way possible: by trying to prove it wrong.

The cute little blond girl who’s a medical tinker (read: gizmo superhero who does medicine) is utterly evil and specializes in the worst imaginable forms of body horror. No, you really don’t want to know.

The villain Night who has powers like those of the Weeping Angels: she’s a scary, insectoid invincible monster whenever you’re not looking. She carries smoke bombs and flashbangs and works with another appropriately named villain, Fog.

There’s Nice Guy, whose superpower is such that you always assume he’s a nice guy… even when he’s coming from an area filled with bad guys. You’ll assume he’s an escaped hostage, you’ll follow his suggestions without thinking them through, you’ll let him stab you or your friend in the back and never associate the action with him.

And that’s just the superpowers. There are other horrors as well – the bullying Taylor endures, the hazards of a badly damaged city, the corruption in various organizations, the giant unfathomable worse-than-Godzilla monsters… I didn’t get nightmares from reading this, but that’s probably only because I almost never get nightmares. The descriptions are not gratuitous, but they give enough details to send shivers down your spine.

 Managing the Scale of Epic

This is something of a difficulty.  It is sometimes pulled off well in Worm, although there’s a time skip section where the story drags a bit in the middle.

In essence?  The issues encountered by the characters run the gamut from drama with friends to bullying to city-level conflicts to Godzilla type attacks to massive attacks across multiple parallel universes, where half a billion casualties on one parallel Earth is considered a low body count.

And yet (for the most part) we remain engaged with the characters, and can see the issues they’re confronting as an appropriate challenge.  We also get to see what happens when those scales collide — people who won’t work together in larger conflicts due to smaller personal ones.  Or the look on one teen’s face when she realizes the student she’s been bullying is also the supervillain who’s been running the city.  Oops.

The Explanation

If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read part this part.  Because I’m going to blow everything.

And when I say everything, I mean everything.

One of the best parts of the series is the fact that there’s a unified reason for people to have superpowers.  It gives its name to the story as well.  In essence, there’s a breeding pair of what are effectively giant superpowered interdimensional alien worms, traveling the galaxy.  They reproduce into another pair, effectively reincarnating themselves, by breaking off “shards” of themselves, and embedding these shards into the local population of a planet.  They focus on a single reality for this project, but aren’t limited to it.  These shards may carry a given power, or related powers, which all work by drawing on parallel realities.  (For instance, superpowered intelligence from drawing on parallel minds or computers, fire powers by drawing on the sun in a parallel reality where it’s in a different location, and so on.)  These shards may duplicate, shift, and become stronger, as a part of the people they have been attached to, and are given limits so that they don’t destroy the host.  Said hosts are, obviously, superheroes.  Successful shards will be reincorporated into the entities when they leave.

To ensure the shards get enough… exercise, the entities will manifest parts of themselves to stir up trouble among the locals.  Wars, giant monsters, that kind of thing.  And then, when they’re done with the project, they will reincarnate themselves… destroying every Earth in every reality to fuel the final step.

As you can imagine, once some humans realize this is what’s going on, they don’t really approve.

Thus, superpowers and problems in a nutshell.  This unified theme starts to show up early on, which is particularly impressive: all superpowers are really just ways of manipulating more-or-less nearby parallel realities.

There’s just one problem: how do you make interdimensional portals in the first place?  … that’s a pretty big can of worms (ba-dum dum), so I won’t go into it here, other than to say, in the real world, you don’t.  Given the degree of disaster in Worm, this is probably just as well.

A Comment On Demographics

Superpowers still correlate with trauma, in “triggering events,” as happens in other setting.  (Although, in this case, it’s just the triggering of a shard in its host.)

The cool thing is that the author runs with it.  Women are more likely to be subjected to violence than men, so more women than men have superpowers.  Members of minority religious or ethnic groups, or poor people, are more likely to be traumatized, so more of them have superpowers.  Third-world, or war-torn countries with limited social support have more bad things happening… and, thus, more superheroes.

And not all the heroes are white males with identity-masking glasses.  The Superman-like archetype is Alexandria, who named herself after the library.  Of the supervillain protagonists, four of six are women, and two of six are black.  And they’re people, which is the most important point.  There’s also a white supremacist group of fairly evil supervillains, so that also gets discussed.

The Grand Finale

This was so, so well done.  A whole host of plot pieces from earlier in the story were neatly pulled in, as Taylor does what she had to do to destroy Scion.  Most of it would take too long to explain, but here’s the scariest part:

She realizes that the main reason the alien entities expected to not be destroyed by the humans wielding a lot of their powers was by keeping them divided.  Preventing them from working together in an optimal way.

So, she has one of the rare people with healing powers do brain surgery.  On her.  To change her powers, remove the limits.  Now, instead of controlling only insects, she can control people.  She controls the kid who can make portals between points in one world or across dimensions, and uses his portals to control every single potentially useful super that she can.

But, at a terrible cost.  Throughout the story, it’s emphasized that not only are powers gained during traumatic events, but they often come with mental problems themselves.

Slowly, after the procedure, Taylor loses the ability to speak.  Then, the ability to understand English.  Then to understand common gestures, or anything except the most basic form of communication, like pointing.

And, with her new powers, she’s able to make everyone work together long enough to defeat the remaining entity.

And then we see all the consequences…

Anyway, this was the scariest part of the book.  How do you defeat the nigh-indestructible entity of doom?  By wearing him down, and by taunting him with loss of his partner, and effectively committing body horror on a grand scale, to yourself and others.

And the gradual loss of Taylor’s faculties chills to the bone.

  1. michaelbusch
    2014/06/22 at 11:30 am

    A comment on length:

    Worm is apparently 1.535 million words long. This makes it longer than all but the very longest print novels (it’s longer than Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, but shorter than de Scudéry’s Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus). The length is comparable to the Mahābhārata or to all 14 novels and associated short stories Isaac Asimov wrote in his Foundation setting combined.

    Various fanfics and other online projects, unconstrained by budgets for physical printing, have exceeded Worm’s length by quite a bit. But long story is long.

  1. 2017/02/24 at 4:56 pm

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