Lock up your doors, close your shades, phone in sick. You’re about to disappear, pulled down by the rapturous embrace of another internet fic. It will keep you up late, and get you up early. For those of you with a hankering for excellent stories and an intelligent treatment of what happens when the superhumans come home to roost, I have to share the new drug in town. As with all good drugs, the first hit is free. Unlike most, the other hits are free too.
I was jonesing for more Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality yesterday (you know, that fic that I liked so much), and thought I’d check in to see whether there was a new post. While I was out of luck on that front, the author, Eliezer, did post a new note on November 1st. Better yet, he recommended another piece of internet-based fiction: Worm. The name isn’t much, I know, but bear with me.
Worm is excellent. As I write this, I’ve just lost an hour and a half of my afternoon to its charms, and I’m only pulling myself away because I absolutely have to force myself to write something. As soon as I have enough of this written that I can put off finishing it until Wednesday morning, I’m certain I’ll dive back in. It is compelling and appealing, and I really don’t want to stop. I don’t want to write my own material, I just want to read more Worm.
Whew, ok. That was all I got down before I fell back into the fic. If you want to know more about the story that’s grabbed me, read on.
As per usual, I’ll try to avoid dousing everything in spoilers and setting it on fire. But I will ruin just a bit of the start of the story for you a little further down, after I’ve waxed rhapsodic about how well this story has caught my attention. No worries, I’ll warn you before I say anything too revelatory.
So, first off, here’s the opinion from Eliezer that caught my attention in the first place:
Worm continues to be awesome (I’m up to Vol. 13). I didn’t even notice until I was halfway through what I’ve already read that all of the characters were using their superpowers intelligently, that none of the supposed geniuses were behaving like idiots, and that the flying bricks who would be the central Powers of other tales were properly taking second place to the real movers and shakers, namely anyone with any sort of informational, cognitive, or probability-based talent. Doing this so smoothly that I don’t even notice because my brain considers the resulting world to be ‘normal’ really ought to deserve some kind of epic bonus points. For many readers, though not all, Worm should be a strong candidate for treating HPMOR withdrawal (the author updates very quickly and regularly).
That, in my mind, is about as ringing an endorsement as you can get from the author of HPMOR. Heck, I’m not really sure what more I should say. Maybe a brief introduction of the premise?
From what I’ve read thus far, Worm is the story of a high school girl named Taylor. She lives in a world with recognizable culture and geography, one very much like our own but with the addition of supers. The technical term used to describe them is parahumans, heroes and villains alike, but most people just call them capes. They are people with abilities that are beyond human, and the setting feels very comfortably familiar to anyone who has enjoyed reading a superhero story or two.
Well, maybe comfortable is the wrong word. There are very few things about this setting that are comfortable. Discovering this for yourself is part of the joy of the piece, specifically because of how well the author, Wildbow, constructs a believable reality without airbrushing over the failings of our various heroes. Or, you know, anyone’s failings. Many of Wildbow’s characters are sympathetic, but few of them are without flaws of their own. In that way this story is very similar to Watchmen, but its focus and interpretations make it wholly its own.
I don’t want to actually ruin anything for you, but if you want to read a bit more about how and why this story is so gripping and believably uncomfortable… well, there’ll be some *MILD SPOILERS* involved. Or you could just read the first chapter and find out for yourself. After you’ve read the first arc or three, feel free to come back and read the rest of this.
Right, I presume that if you are reading this, you’re ok with learning a little more about the story. If you’re just lazily reading on after the warning, seriously, click that link above and start reading Worm. Wildbow’s skill with pacing and presentation is something best seen for yourself.
I mentioned Taylor earlier, our high school protagonist. She is a fifteen or sixteen year old girl, tortured by her school’s bullies and living as a social pariah. Though she has powers, she steadfastly refrains from using them on any of her tormentors because, you see, she wants to be a hero. And she’s pretty certain that a heroine wouldn’t use her powers to get revenge on some high school bullies, no matter whether or not they made her life a living hell. Honestly, reading about her struggles is painful and harsh.
As Taylor grows and sees more of the world, high school comes back to nag her again and again; in many ways, we see the struggles she faces in school foreshadowing or mimicking her other difficulties in life outside school. The system, it appears, is simply rigged against her, and those who have power do not want to listen to the honest pleas of those with less. Like I said earlier: perfectly believable, not comfortable.
So why the hell am I reading something that looks like it’s going to be a total downer, at least for a good deal of the time? It’s really good. Regardless of whatever poor choices our heroine makes, I want to see her do well. I want to see what she does next. She’s smart, she’s sympathetic, she’s … good, for lack of a better term. She’s a good person. Even if she did things that were despicable, I think I’d still sympathize with her. I’m only on the sixth arc at the moment, so we’ll see. I understand that things could get worse pretty soon. I might recant my love for this piece, but I doubt it.
So, uh, yeah. Look, I’m distracted because I just want to go back and read more. I think you should do the same.
Wow, I’m so distracted that I forgot to mention how much I admire Wildbow’s skill. Wildbow, if you read this, I just want you to know that I’m totally a fan of your story-telling. You’re really good at this.
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Like Henry, I started reading this on Elizier Yudkowsky’s recommendation. Unlike him, I did not continue reading for long, because I didn’t find the world believable.
This is probably in large part because I have been spoiled by the Wild Card Series and cannot accept any superpower-containing world that doesn’t deal with the problems of availability and self-preservation. 1) If superpowers are common, there must be at least one common method of acquiring superpowers. Why hasn’t every government in the world devoted their resources to reverse-engineering this method and making as many superheroes under their command as possible? 2) Why the hell is it considered normal for capes to enter a profession (viglantism or villainy) where, if everything goes according to plan, you are still guaranteed to be engaged in combat with people whose bodies constitute deadly weapons frequently? The lesser problems of Spandex and sidearms (there’s no discernible reason that it is the norm to have the first and not the second) also play a role.
It’s not that I can’t suspend disbelief for superhero stories. It’s that, if you’re attempting to portray things in a realistic manner (which it’s abundantly clear Worm strives for), I’m not going to take your world seriously
unless you at least nod toward the basic stupidities inherent in the practicalities and geopolitics of traditional superhero stories. I’ve been told that some of it is partially dealt with later (‘Rogue’ capes who make legal money off their powers and some plot things related to the source of powers), but I gave it a shot (until the message board dead drop from the villain) and didn’t find anything that grabbed me enough to overcome my basic disbelief of the premises of the world.
Taylor did seem solidly written, though. I cared about her, just not enough.
Worm actually does get into the subject of the source of powers and reverse engineering it, and as you stated, it does get into the lack of what the setting calls ‘rogues’ (a term for capes who choose a civilian path rather than superheroics) but the perspective of the main character is one of a person on the ‘ground’, and I took a stance of ‘this stuff will come up when it comes up’.
In terms of the guns, this is discussed in more depth later; there are unwritten rules, and carrying a gun, even if you don’t use it, broadcasts something along the lines of ‘If it comes down to it, I’ll use lethal force’. The guy with laser beams that can punch through people is always armed, but he didn’t make a conscious decision to bring those powers with him, and the authorities will interpret their calls. This stuff, in turn, makes up the difference between that pyrokinetic hero using fire to corral you and smoke to blind/disable vs. him calling his superiors and getting the go-ahead to burn you alive.
All in all, I made a conscious decision to not burden the reader with exposition, instead inserting setting details over time. Pacing benefits (though I acknowledge that the opening chapters need a rewrite) and the world feels less artificial in the long run, but that’s at the cost of people making snap judgements on the world and whether they buy it – I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s a fact of life that some people will read the first page/first 25 pages and then decide whether or not to keep reading based on that.
Very kind words. Thank you, Henry.
Worm isn’t without its flaws. I was a novice when I started, and the writing’s maybe a bit stiff or clumsy early on (I improve, as anyone will, as the story stretches on). It’s long enough that people who have a breaking point for ‘too much action’ or ‘too much dialogue’ or whatever else will reach that point and start to get frustrated. There’s definitely one weak point (A story arc I wrote when I was distracted IRL) in the story that sort of pains me (a little rushed, you’ll know it when you find it), and readers are still beating that horse well after it’s dead.
All in all, what I’m getting at is that it’s not perfect. But an awful lot of people are still enjoying it, as it wraps up. I’m writing the kind of thing I’d want to read, and that apparently works pretty well. Hopefully I can get it closer to perfect if and when I get it ready for release as an ebook or series of novels.
I’m quite aware that it’s not perfect, but it seems to me that you’ve done an excellent job of telling the story that you want to tell. I continue to enjoy the layering, building, and release of tension that you’ve so carefully constructed; reading your story is frighteningly similar to watching a trainwreck in slow motion.
I’m not sure I’ve found the arc that you mentioned previously, but your mention of plotting issues leaves me curious as to your process for outlining a new arc. Have you already written about this elsewhere? I find that my own processes change dramatically from project to project, and can be derailed far more readily than I would like by unresolved story issues.
I’m still enjoying it, and I’m quite tickled that you read my review. Good luck with edits and the Icarus-esque attempt at perfection.
My arcs, like my chapters and overarching stories, tend to be written with a general sense of how I want it to start and how I want it to end. When I write, though, I like to let the story unfold organically, with characters acting how they want to act and events naturally flowing as a result. With fairly well realized characters and enough underlying conflict, it pretty much writes itself, and it’s a question of keeping things on track.
Keeping details straight and managing the tempo/tone are the key thing, and these are things I struggle with when I don’t have the down time or proofreading time to turn things over in my head. The arc I talk about is a casualty of me being distracted – going away for 2 weeks with family, rushing out two chapters in 24 hours (pulling an all-nighter for the second) and then coming back to write the last few. At that juncture, I was distracted, I couldn’t chill without the family members that were staying with me wanting to go out or interrupting or making noise. I couldn’t find my stride, and while the chapters themselves were okay standalone, they didn’t flow together well, and I didn’t stick the landing at the end of the arc.
You say “fairly well realized characters,” but I’m not sure you give yourself enough credit. Do you have a preferred process for developing your characters and learning their personalities?