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It grows on you

By G.S. Williams, author of No Man An Island

Mar 10, 2012: I very rarely review "popular" stories lately—I tend to try to write a review for authors who haven’t received one lately in order to balance things out a bit. Every story deserves a look. "Worm" has received a lot of praise, so I’ve actually been avoiding reading it.

Well, this March I’ve spent a lot of time in the hospital as my wife gave birth to twins, and I needed a distraction whenever there was a quiet moment. I checked out WFG and decided on Worm to pass the time—because it didn’t need a new review and I wouldn’t have to give it in-depth thought. I could maybe just enjoy a story.

Well, we’re home safe and healthy from the hospital, and I read the entire series thus far. And it’s worthy of its popularity and praise. I’m also reviewing it because there’s even more going on than other reviewers have mentioned, and even my review will only scratch the surface of the story’s depth.

First, the title is aptly chosen. A "worm" can be defined as any of numerous small creeping animals with more or less slender, elongated bodies, and without limbs or with very short ones, including individuals of widely differing kinds, as earthworms, tapeworms, insect larvae, and adult forms of some insects.

In the superhero fiction "Worm," the protagonist, Taylor, is a girl with the odd power of being able to control worms, insects, arachnids and other simple lifeforms. She can sense and hear what they do, communicate with them, and give them orders.

In a world where "capes" are increasingly prolific, with every major city having several teams, it’s natural for Taylor to consider becoming a superhero once she trains herself to use her powers. It makes even more sense as the story fleshes out the mythology of this reality, as the every-day functionality of the capes is explored. Some are government operatives, others have corporate sponsors. There are mercenaries for hire, entertainers and healers. Some post their adventures online and make money off the advertising, like a good Youtube channel.

Bugs are often considered lowly, overlooked animals. As a new cape, with bizarre powers, Taylor has a lot in common with the creatures she associates with—she’s unknown, and so her perspective on her reality makes the story more accessible for readers. As she meets and is introduced to more heroes and villains, we learn along with her how rich the world of the capes is.

Her ability to sense what her bugs see and hear gives a broad view of her surroundings and other characters, and her observational skills help to show all the details. A more traditional, established hero character, along the lines of Superman, Batman or the Avengers, would be able to show noble battles, but not this nitty-gritty level of detail. As an inexperienced rookie, we get to share in everything with Taylor as it emerges.

However, a "worm" is also a groveling, abject, or contemptible person. Taylor’s peers treat her this way at school, as she becomes the target of bullying. She refuses to use her powers to defend herself, working on the assumption that a real hero wouldn’t hurt ordinary people, and lashing out in anger at the bullies will just make her as bad as them. She suffers in silence. Overlooked, like her bugs, everyone bigger tries to step on her—Taylor’s bugs are metaphorically a lot like her.

While bugs seem small and irrelevant, they can hold a lot of power. Black widow spiders, which Taylor uses to make a super strong costume out of their durable silk, are also known for the potent poison. Bees and wasps might be everywhere, but their venom can kill. Bugs shouldn’t be underestimated.

Over and over, Taylor proves the same thing about herself as she goes out to be a cape—she uses ingenuity and small ideas to make big victories. The creativity and action in those scenes is a thrill-ride worth getting a ticket for. Without giving too much away, at one point she covers her entire body with a swarm of insects and then ducks down, so that when opponents shoot the swarm’s "chest" thinking it’s her, she can convince them that she has taken on a new bulletproof "form"—intimidating the heck out of opponents.

That ingenuity is a gift of the writer’s—I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have a background in comic books, having grown up with access to my dad’s 40 years of collecting. The thing with a bias is that it can skew both ways—a bad superhero story will leave me shaking my head at the flaws, while a good one will hit all my fan-boy rave buttons. This is a story I can rave over as the author, Wildbow, consistently comes up with new superpowers to top the traditional stand-bys.

There’s Lung, an Asian villain who gets tougher as you fight him—so he starts out human and gradually shifts into an armour plated dragon as he gets hurt. The Tinkers are inventors who create advanced devices, but each one has a unique twist—Leet can create anything once, but a second iteration will backfire. Armsmaster can compress multiple devices into one small space, sort of like a futuristic Swiss Army knife. One Tinker can create black-hole bombs, and another can super-charge his devices a little bit each day, so that next week he’s 7 times as powerful as today. Those are just some examples, when every cape has some original twist or other.

To "worm" is to achieve something by insidious procedure (usually followed by into ):ie. to worm into another’s favor. Taylor sets out to be a hero, but her bizarre power and appearance makes some people assume she’s a villain. Initially she joins a villain gang, the Undersiders, to learn their secrets and then hand them over to the authorities. She’s literally a worm on the inside.

However, the plot thickens as she develops relationships within the team, and begins to question the line between hero and villain. The idea of remaining a villain insidiously permeates her decisions as she does whatever is necessary to win battles, even if it means crossing the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not. The Undersiders mysterious boss seems to have a hand in her slide into villainy, and it remains to be seen how much is Taylor’s decision and how much her destiny is being manipulated.

Peter Parker’s uncle once famously told him that "with great power comes great responsibility." Too bad Ben Parker never met these capes—even the heroes seem more interested in reputation and fame and thrills than doing what’s right. The most interesting thing about the story is how good and evil are portrayed, as everyone is certainly painted in shades of gray.

More than that, the story subverts the hero role: Taylor is bullied because school authorities don’t have the resources, time or interest to protect her. Villains and gangs run certain parts of her city while authorities turn a blind eye because everyone respects the code of protecting the tourist friendly areas, ensuring the city makes a profit. When everyone on the "right" side of the law is crooked, it becomes increasingly easy for Taylor to go wrong, because her friends strive to not hurt anyone and are defending those they care about—one team member is robbing banks to provide for his younger sister, another is saving stray dogs from gambling rings and poorly run shelters. There’s a definite undercurrent that, in this story reality, sometimes you have to go outside the rules to do the right thing, even when the wider world portrays it as villainy.

In short, nothing in this story is quite what it seems, and it will worm its way into your affection and imagination.

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