Worm: A Deconstruction of Superheroes

Worm is technically not a book. It was released as a series of blog posts in a similar style to the old newspaper serials. The author (J. C. McCrae) refers to the story as a “Web Serial” in reflection of this format. However, at 1.68 million words it stands as a longer story than most book series and the author clearly put the same level of careful quality into the story that you see behind many more traditionally published stories. A dark take on the superhero genre, it isn’t a story for everyone but, for the right audience, it is a must-read.

In terms of structure, the story is organized into 30 Arcs with each Arc being made up of several chapters.  3 or 4 of these Arcs typically make up a distinct section of the story and I would expect that if the full story is ever published in a more traditional manner, the Arcs will be grouped together in such a manner.  The bulk of the chapters are told in First Person from a single character’s POV but will be occasionally broken up by chapters told from a different POV in Third Person.  These chapters are referred to as Interludes.

Addressing the Genre

At first, Worm places itself firmly as a classic Soft Sci-Fi take on the superhero genre.  Early on, it establishes itself in a world where many people have powers and it is common practice for them to dress up in costume as heroes and villains.  However, as the story progresses it subverts the standards of the genre more and more.

The deeper the story runs, the more it becomes obvious that even the best heroes have flaws and most of the worst villains have redeeming qualities.  There are a few villains who are never given a chance at redemption, but many of those are at least given a tragic enough backstory to make the reader feel sorry for them.  At the same time, no hero is shown to be completely perfect with even the best of them occasionally slipping in visceral human ways.  

Not only does it make full use of shades of grey morality, but it also does a good job showing characters moving both directions on the scale. Some villains turn from crime lords to omnicidal maniacs, some turn into heroes. Some heroes descend into madness, some recognize their faults and grow into better people. There are even a couple of cases of omnicidal maniacs redeeming themselves to some extent or another and cases of paragons of justice succumbing to corruption or hubris and being reviled as villains. 

While all of that is happening, the story slowly slides from Soft Sci-Fi to Hard Sci-Fi.  Some aspects are Hard from the start but as more worldbuilding is provided to the reader, more things that are generally written off to Willing Suspension of Disbelief in superhero stories are given detailed explanations.  Both of how they happen and why they happen.  By the end of the story, almost every cliched trope common in superheroes has a reason behind it in this story.

The story touches on almost every field of science through the course of the story.  The details of how people get powers is firmly rooted in psychology and I have heard one psychologist refer to the powers in the story as PTSD made manifest.  As the story progresses, it gets more and more into how powers work until it becomes almost a treatise on theoretical physics.  In between those extremes, it touches on everything imaginable with different powers being grounded in different fields.  

The end result is that once reading this story, it is difficult to view any other superhero story except through the lens of Worm.  In particular, the in-universe power classification system seems to be able to be applied to any setting.  Because at the start of the story no government organizations understand where powers come from, they classify powers by what they do and how to respond to them.  As a result, they have a system for describing powers that can be used for any set of superpowers no matter the source.  Since reading Worm, I have found myself using the system to describe characters from nearly any story I consume in any setting.

The Use of Interludes

Many stories that chose to use the First Person style suffer some drawbacks from the choice.  There are advantages in how First Person allows for a better ability to show mental state and train of thought, but there are trade-offs in the greater difficulty showing characterization in other characters and wider worldbuilding.  Some authors have different ways of counteracting this problem, but for Worm, the Interludes work perfectly.

Because each interlude switches the POV, it gives an opportunity to show a perspective that the main character is missing.  This serves to give critical insights to the worldbuilding and in some cases turns a side character that is barely mentioned into a fan favorite.  In some cases, the use of a single interlude completely shifts how the reader sees a character.

Because of the shift in narrative style from First to Third Person, there is little chance of the reader becoming confused by these Interludes.  There are also some other subtle changes to the narrative style that plays into each character’s way of thinking.  The result is that instead of them being a sudden jump, they are instead a quiet breather while a light is shone on the wider world.

However, because of the shift in style, there is also a shift in quality.  Some of the interludes are good enough that with a little bit of editing to take out hooks for the wider story, they could stand strongly on their own as great short stories.  One interlude, in particular, could cut out the last thousand words or so and I would count it as one of my favorite Sci-Fi short stories.  Not all of the Interludes hit this kind of quality.  Some of them came off as rather boring.  Not bad to the point that I recommend skipping them, but they aren’t parts I’ve felt the urge to reread.  

I should note, though, that in talking with other people who have read the story opinions on which Interludes hit stronger than others differ.  I have seen one of my least favorite Interludes held up as a favorite of other people often.  This tells me that it is likely not a quality problem with the Interludes, but rather the author is hitting so many different styles with them that some of them click with some people and not others.

The Darkness of Storytelling

I do not think it is possible to understand how dark the story can get.  This is the main reason I call this story a “read with caution” instead of a “must-read”.  As I stated before, the powers are effectively PTSD made manifest and many characters have the traumatic moment that gave them PTSD shown in detail.  Also shown in detail is how that moment continues to affect them and how for some of them their powers are a constant reminder.

Beyond that kind of trauma, many characters turn very cruel once they get their powers and a few are further traumatized by the life they live while wearing their costume.  This leads to people with a great amount of power that want nothing more than to hurt the people around them.

The story does not shy away from graphic descriptions of what follows.  Many characters have final fates that would not be out of place in horror movies.  As I mentioned before, there are omnicidal maniacs in this story, and the story follows the idea of “show, don’t tell” with regards to their crimes.  For people who are okay with that kind of horror, gore, betrayal, and other affronts to polite company the story can be a fantastic ride.  For those with weaker stomachs, it may be too much for them.

Flaws

With as much praise as I am heaping on this story, it is not without its flaws.  I’m not sure any story can be completely flawless, but in this case, there are a couple of things that particularly stand out.

Early on in the story, the author seemed to not have the best grasp of dialogue.  Many characters speak very formally in places that it doesn’t make sense and often become too verbose.  This is especially bad in a few scenes that have teenagers speaking like they are delivering a soliloquy but in a conversational context.  It is something that improved as the story progresses and by the end, it has vanished as an issue.  The early parts of the story stood out to me enough to be memorable.

Another issue is the pacing.  A large portion of the story takes place over only a couple of months.  This portion of the story contains enough dramatic events that it feels like it should instead have taken place over years.  It is largely saved by the level of detail that goes into describing everything.  A day of relaxed downtime for a character can end up feeling like weeks due to the way it is described.

There is one part of pacing that isn’t saved by this.  The dramatic tension and scope of threats raise continuously throughout the story but there is one Arc that raises both so quickly that it feels out of place.  After completing the story, I did realize how important that Arc was in retrospect to foreshadow future events and provide context to the scope of later threats.  In the story, it has important worldbuilding reasons for why the jump in threat level happens so suddenly.  However, while realistic it causes such a sudden swerve for the reader that it threatens to break immersion.

Instead, it would have benefited more from reordering some of the Arcs so that the rise in tension was a more steady progression.  As it is, there is a sharp spike of tension that then drops back down and slowly climbs back to the height of the peak.  I have heard some people say that they think the story benefits from this, but I disagree.

None of these flaws ruin the story.  They are minor issues within an overall masterpiece.  While the dark subject matter is a legitimate reason to not read this story, these flaws are not.

Conclusion

I think every fan of Sci-Fi or superheroes should at least be aware that this story exists.  It contains groundbreaking ideas for both genres.  Anyone who wants to write in either genre would benefit from giving the story a close look.  However, the darkness of the story means it is not for everyone and certainly should not be read by children.  Only read this if you are prepared to handle how bad it can get, but if you are prepared I urge you to add it to your reading list.

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