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WORM

Tensile strength, toughness, elasticity; thinner when stretched.

By Fibi, member

Jun 28, 2015: Worm is an eloquent 1.7 million word argument in favour of mandatory grief counselling. Interesting, intricate people interact, conflict and compete while remaining relatable, sympathetic, abhorent or terrifying. And through it all you will want to scream that if these damn characters sat down and talked honestly about their desires instead of hiding behind masks real or figurative for five minutes then all of this mess could have been avoided.

Wait, let me start over.

Worm is a fascinating 300 chapter investigation of the properties and utilities of spider silk. This biological wonder can find application in industry, in construction, in insulation thermal or electric, in communication, in search-and-rescue and in inertial confinement fusion. Hell, it’s a crimefighting tool, a fashion asscessory, a personal ballistic protection solution and can even be used for urban exploration. I have to applaud the author, Wildbow, for making a protein fibre one of the main characters, and then proceeding to demonstrate inventive use again and again. I sympathize with spiders after reading Worm and look forward to the day science helps unlock the properties of said silk. Preferably they do so in some remote, secluded research facility under the Earth’s crust since I have serious arachnophobia after reading Worm also.

Wait, no. The above tells you everything about Worm without telling you anything about reading Worm. Let me try again.

Worm is at the core an exercise in serial escalation. Events lead to other events in a chain reaction of pain, pride, power and personal principle. It’s not a "rollicking thrill ride" or "unputdownable", to use buzz because its not really the case that the overarching plot always escalates, picking up pace towards a given set end-point that was visible from the start. Rather, imagine a kind of experiment of constantly asking: "And then what happens?". Plenty of things happen and are concluded. Essentially each individual arc of 1-14 chapters is to some degree self contained, serving up a series of situations. But in doing so they lead to other, different issues that threaten to spin out of control and eventually you look back and wonder how you came to be where you are at the end of it all. The chain of cause and effect is at all times quite clear, yet you also wonder what could have been and how much was inevitable from the start.

That’s the strength of Worm and the reason it’s compelling and worth a read. It starts with a bullied youngster in a public restroom at ends with, hm, well, that would be telling. Let’s just say it A) ends beautifully, a million-billion miles metaphorical and literal away and B) you can look back and see the inexonerable logic of each step. That, if nothing else, is an achievement of quite some scale. Oh and there’s like super-powers and stuff. If you wanted to know. Probably should have started with that.

Worm isn’t really a story about superpowers, though. Or about bullying. Or about politics in dealing with ordinary people who can do extra-ordinary things. Or the importance of HR. Or about why you need second opinions to reality-check your business propositions.Or about spider silk or grief counselling. It’s a story with those things, yet no part individually eats and overtakes the other. It’s an incredible balancing act to have so many individual elements work together in a cohesive whole and you should go read right now how grape-juice is involved in the business of villainry. Some stories read as if the author is asking questions along the lines of: "Say, what would happen if I could kill someone by drawing with chalk?" or "What if, like, y’know, life was magic?" and then answering that question only, using the story to explore the ramifications that whatever would have on the world. That works very well in many cases but if you catch on to it, iit also leads everything to be somewhat stridently formulaic. The tale becomes about "the thing", and the story shapes itself to showcase ‘the thing’ at all instances. People stop during their routines to elaborate, just out of the blue, on why linear application of thaumaturgical principles is important because so and so and so. Fibbing, you can sum up a lot of stories with powers of some kind as being: "Hey! Check out my awesome magic system!". Take that out and you’re left with a subpar morality tale. Worm avoids doing that for the most part.. Powers exist, and they’re varied and integral to the plot, they drive and shape it, but it never collapses into just being "about" people with superpowers shaking their fists at the heavens and wondering: "What measure is a man? Is it RIGHT to use my X for good?". In Worm it turns out some people can turn into actual dragons. And then kill you. Kill you with infinite fire. But the story is about what those people do, not as inhuman unstoppable dragon-monsters, but as people with various ambitions. They just happen to have slightly more options than us non-behemoths who find our existences sadly bereft of the ability to breathe fire. If I only notice four or five times in 1.7 million words where people stop the plot to explain the plot then that is quite impressive.

Semi-Spoilers and complete story thoughts here

Worm has a few issues that mar it, though. It can be difficult to grasp when dialogue is intentionally awkward between character’s whose textual voices are changed and constrained by inner and outer circumstance and when the dialogue is just plain awkward. Many instances of what should be the former is the latter. There’s a general reliance on description of emotion rather than emotion being felt by the character which works very well coupled with a lack of on-going visual descriptors  . . . Except when it doesn’t and leads to a mild confusion as any anchoring point falls away, turning entire paragraphs into mechanical movements. He moved there. Did a thing. There was that. Explosion. Yes, well, to get back to the grief counselling – " . . . and how do you feel about that?" Nothing? Okay, that’s great, but it’s less great for prolonged periods which the story slips into it.. If you don’t care, protag, and you’re my perspective on this world, the broken parts of my brain finds empathizing with other characters harder too! Not because they’re not interesting characters I want to read about, but because your emotional reactions to their interesting, varied and deeply humane lives keeps being: "Oh. okay". Trilling excitement. Yeah, I guess that guy did turn into a dragon. Huh. Tuesday, really. Coupled with the serial nature of escalation, it escalates dangerously close to emotional burn-out. It helps when other characters occasionally break down to point out just how utterly horrible everything is, so there’s some balance there, but be prepared for long stretches of "Go. Run. Hit. Bam.".

The last 5 arcs induce a kind of dissonance between written word, description, character action, implication and reader take-away. That could be intentional (how much of the character is actually the character and how much is something else?) and is a brilliant effect even if not. Second or third guessing casual statements to find out if it’s really one thing or the other is at least the mark of someone who can make a reader invested. Alas, it does hint at Worm’s kind-of sort-of underlying problem.

There’s a structural issue at play where individual arcs and chapters often end up stronger than the collective whole. Reading it as a serial where each chapter flows into the next and there’s a wait between reading, that works. Read as a whole novel now that it’s complete, over a shorter period of time, you noticed more easily some issues. A reliance on character introspection along the lines of: "can I do X? Can’t do X! I did X . . . Oh god, I did X, who am I?" leads to a problem where the protagonist does things, questions herself, replaces parts of her identity with the knowledge of being able to do some new things. That’s wonderful and interesting character fragmentation under pressure. Wait I’m almost sure I mean development. Yeah, character deformation. But then, wham, the next over-arching plot have her repudiate the previous sacrifice or changes. But then! Proceed straight to repeat them. Coupled with the crisp, clear writing style and understated emotions, it gets gradually harder to share the perspective of the protagonist. That works when you (think you?) know who the character is, less so when it’s been repeatedly demonstrated her identity is quite fluid.

Even less so when that identity is both fluid and possibly influenced by other forces. It’s interesting to read a first person perspective that’s unreliable because of possible influences, or hinted at deep-rooted problems, but in Worm the serial structure at times causes this to slip too far. And while it’s fascinating the first time that this happens in 8 arcs, interesting the next 8, exciting the next 4, then odd for 4 then repeat 2 and then, again at the end, almost tiring for 3 arcs. I look forward to Worm 2 where someone loses everything they thought they were in the first chapter.

It’s not that the writing is any less clever, rather that structural repetition fatigue coupled with the specific writing style leads you to get a certain discord in expectation from the story. It’s a first person singular perspective, sure, but, err, which of the several different individuals sharing protagonist head-space is currently offering that perspective? Wait, what just happened? Should I . . . Should I clap? The very end is a wonderful build up of everything that has preceeded, answering big great questions and awash in absolutely humungous explosions, revelations and character moments but the entire thing is also really subtly the last 5-8 arcs again, where once more the character has to sacrifice everything she (thought she?) was in the face of Stuff. Thematic echo or accident? Conscious repetition to add tone, or editing flaw? Hard to tell. It’s brilliant when that "everything" is more sharply defined, or at least, has been reduced to a null state fewer times. It’s decidedly less so when you’re not quite sure what, again, is being sacrificed here. Your [X]? You did that 10 chapters ago! And again before that! This time, something just blew up while you did it. How do you keep losing your [X] anyway? It’s a pretty fundamental corner-stone of your psychology. I think. It keeps going missing and by now I’m not sure if it is the case or not, so I don’t even know why you’re so upset.

That’s perhaps great writing, leveraging the close association with one character through the first person perspective for emotional pay. It’s also somewhat undermined by the emotional ressonance with the last time it happened. Maybe it’s a meta-textual commentary on the problems of teenage identity and defining who you really are. Maybe. It could be a perspective tool to demonstrate the slipping control of the narrator in the face of circumstance. But, I say to my imaginary therapist charicature: "I don’t feel as if it is". Like the dialogue, I’m reduced to second-guessing if something is awkward or meant to be awkward. And once you’ve started third-guessing an already unreliable narrator who is already second-guessing herself because she might not be who she is but someone else, you’ve fallen several rabbit holes too deep.

In editing, some issues are bound to re-align and get straightened out as some dialogue changes removes awkward implications and the longer connections are streamlined to slot more seamlessly together. Should that happen, Worm changes from an already extra-ordinary story about the properties of spider silk to a fantastic tale about people.

So in the end, individual segments of this Worm is fascinating and well worth reading for imagery and imagination, but as a whole it is slightly less cohesive.

But oh god is spider silk ever the industrial wonder of the biotech revolution and those individual segments so very satisfying.

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