“Worm” is a serialized web novel by an author who goes by the pseudonym Wildbow about an introverted teenage girl Taylor who gains superpowers. There is even an indestructible cheerleader a la Hayden Panettiere from “Heroes.” The characters, however, don’t have much depth. The main character is bullied “Mean Girls” style, and interactions with the bullies provides much of the relatively shallow, but still interesting, emotional dimension.
The novel reads like a comic book but without the pictures. Although the character development is not what I call sophisticated, it is acceptable. One doesn’t read comic books for the character development anyway.
One overlooked aspect of the novel is how the reader gets to explore the world of “Worm.” As the novel progresses, bits and pieces of the world slowly come together. We learn about the Manton effect, where superheroes often find that their powers either work uniquely on living organisms or on inorganic matter. Only later do we learn about trigger events and how superheroes get their powers. The author aptly leaves many things unsaid and discoverable for the reader in the future.
Often it is interesting to learn about the superpowers of the heroes and villains, as they are somewhat unconventional. Taylor can control the movement and action of bugs. Another hero is a human snail who can produce enzymes with a vast array of composition and effect.
The novel is 1.5 million words long, which is roughly 9-23 typical books in length. It begins at school. We learn that Taylor eats lunch in the bathroom to avoid the high school bullies. The popular girls find her in the bathroom, give her a swirlie and pour juice down her jacket. Why she doesn’t fight back or tell a teacher seems to be a point that is poorly justified.
As an escape, Taylor trains to be a superhero. In her first day as a hero, she picks a fight with Lung, a pyrokinetic whose metal skin hardens progressively the longer he fights. In over her head, Taylor is rescued by the Undersiders, a group of aspiring villains, who mistake her for a compatriot. With her use of bugs and some strategically deployed pepper spray, she is able to severely wound Lung and earn the respect of the Undersiders.
The Undersiders ask her to join their gang, and Taylor agrees, rationalizing that she will turn them in when she gathers enough information. I get the impression that the author is fond of thinking, “Nothing is black and white,” but the concept is still cliché. The leader of the gang, Brian, is trying to make enough money so that he can become his sister’s legal guardian and rescue her from abusive parents. Rachel, another one of the Undersiders, is against recruiting Taylor and ends up unleashing her dogs on her. We find out later that Rachel’s personality problems are the result of an unfortunate childhood. Her superpower replaces her poor ability to understand human communication with an ability to better communicate with dogs.
When the heroes turn out to be a less than ideal bunch, especially after Taylor finds out the secret identity of Shadow Stalker, she faces a difficult choice. For all of the typical tropes in this novel, the main thing that the author does best is her ability to steadily increase the tension with every fight without making it feel episodic. It goes without saying that after each fight, the antagonists are more dangerous. It’s the author’s ability, however, to foreshadow and to build up the tension that sets her apart.
In the beginning of the novel, the Endbringers are brought up as the ultimate villains, so when the heroes and villains of Taylor’s city, Brockton Bay, gang up to fight the Endbringer Leviathan, it is believable that Leviathan can take out five superheroes with one swipe of a claw and then summon a tsunami afterward. The author juxtaposes Taylor’s feelings of uselessness administering first aid and her moral guilt over having abandoned a fellow fighter to save herself from a tsunami. The author is able to draw out the battle for more than 30,000 words, which is equivalent to 60 pages.
While the novel is rather unrefined, it is thoroughly entertaining for the nerd in all of us. The text can be found at Parahumans.Wordpress.com.