Sunday, September 4, 2016

Worm: The End is the Beginning is the End

Full spoilers for Worm here, and every other post. Go no further if you plan to read it unspoiled.

One of the annoying things about people recommending Worm is that they say “don’t be turned off by the first few chapters being slow and short – it gets a LOT faster” and “It gets a lot less YA after the first few arcs… The high school stuff is such a minor part of the story.” to, I guess, encourage people to push through or ignore all the parts about emotional trauma so they can get to the superheroes using their awesome powers to solve puzzling situations or something. Which is possibly everything you need to know about internet critics.

So, sorry. You do have to read the early chapters. They are the prism through which the entire story needs to be read, although their themes are repeated so frequently that you’d be hard put to miss them anyway.

And the early chapters *hurt*. They are an extremely visceral description of a high school girl being bullied. And they get everything right about the bullying. While there are a couple tentpole incidents of extreme abuse (such as locking the protagonist, Taylor, in a locker with refuse), it’s by and large the everyday inescapable banal bullying that breaks her down. The way she knows she’ll be grouped with her bullies in class, how they steal her homework and claim it as her own, and how authority figures are completely helpless at being able to confront the situation, because they generally can’t intervene in small-scale harassment and the thing a bullying victim wants to do most of all is not draw attention to herself. And of course, what really hurts Taylor, is that one of the bullies used to be her best friend, and uses her knowledge of Taylor to emotionally hurt her, and Taylor never understands why.

These sections are hard to read. I certainly found them very upsetting. On one hand, they help bond the author to his audience - many of whom may have been bullied, or feel bullied by modern online culture wars. But, as the quotes above indicate, they leave many people uncomfortable. This is very important however, because they establish credibility for just how bad being on the losing end of abuse of power is. Because…

“Worm” is about power. Especially about bullying.

The thing about superpowers is that they introduce an unavoidable power dynamic over one area where human beings were fairly flat. We already see in our world what sort of oppression, psychological scarring, systemic cycles, and tragedies that normal power imbalances can lead to. Superpowers would add a whole new layer of power imbalances to that - not just your random psychotic, but now everyone being a part of a system where some people are just fundamentally stronger than others. And “Worm” always deals face-first with what those power dynamics feel like (for both the losing side, and the other side. There is no winning side.)

This is incredibly well done with the depiction of the various “good guy” superheroes. Superheroes are usually portrayed in media either as “largely good guys who have a few traitors or bad apples amongst the mix but most of them are saints who will lay down their lives to save the world” or in an edgy story, “jack booted thugs who want to use the government to take over the world.” Here, they are often assholes, but in the way that any cop with a gun can be an asshole. The heroes feel they are fighting a losing battle against the forces of destruction, and they just don’t have much time or sympathy for people standing in their way. Some of them are more ambitious than others, some are more psychopathic than others, but overall they are just “good natured but overworked.” And the story does a very good job of showing that being the targets of this sort of banal self-righteousness is absolutely horrible, in the same way that being bullied in high school was.

[She can fly and crush you like a bug. She is supernaturally smarter than you. We also need her to fight off Endbringer monsters. So at the end of the day, why are the cops going to believe you above her?]

The story also does horror extremely well with the team of psychopaths “the Slaughterhouse Nine” who use their power to inflict maximum pain. I’m not going to go into detail here, because... horror, but their depiction is much more about how they psychologically control their targets than how much violence they can wreak. You read their chapters and the bully-victim dynamic is played out again, with much more extreme circumstances.

Some of the above bullying is shown from the perspective of the protagonists, but a lot is shown from the perspective of the “superheroes” and serial killers themselves. Wildbow’s strength is not in his plotting or pacing, but in his extremely good characterization. He can take a minor character you’ve only seen once, and create a short story around them that unites their power with their personality, creates a lot of sympathy, generates interest in what happens to this person next, and ties it back into the main plot. He usually does this in his “Interludes” chapters, and I find those the best parts of the fic (I particularly strongly recommend: Battery, Parian, and The Most Powerful Man in the world, as stories readable all on their own.). We get a lot of understanding about why the bullies (or bully-enablers) do what they do, and it’s not because they are crazy (well, not all of them) and not because they are Nazis, but because they are messed up humans given an arbitrary power imbalance, and they act accordingly.

Most importantly, Wildbow expands this understanding of bullying and power to the protagonist and her closest friends. They are not saintly with power - instead they use power, and more often fear, to get what they want. What they want might be “protection of innocents” or “stability for the city” or even just “revenge at those who wronged them” but the methods are no different than what the heroes use (or even the psychopaths.) Taylor accumulates many enemies along the way, and eventually you understand their perspective.

Here’s one chain of scenes that are an example of this. Taylor was bullied relentlessly by girls at school, and eventually they all end up in the principal’s office, where she begs for justice against them. The principal largely believes Taylor, and even feels the desire to punish these girls as well, but due to various reasons (a litigious father, one of the bullies being a protected superhero, and a reluctance to use extreme punitive measures for the first reported offense) she cannot offer Taylor much closure. Taylor is furious and largely quits school.

Now, over the course of this very long story, Taylor shows she has gotten over and won out over the bullying many times in many different ways (including no longer caring about what the bullies did.) But the most powerful is when both her and her bully return to school, the bully again relentlessly harasses her… and the authorities intervene, quickly take some evidence, and punish the bully very, very thoroughly. At first we are overjoyed to see the wheels of justice finally working, if delayed. This is how things were supposed to be fixed!

But then Taylor finds out that now *she’s* the one getting special treatment, and authority came down on her side just because they politically felt they had to. Taylor realizes that there is no justice, just whoever has more power in a given situation. Sometimes it favors her, but there is no morality to it.

So we see how power imbalances are abused by the good guys, the bad guys, and the scrappers in between. A fourth category is what makes this story even more epic. Plotwise, the entire supernatural part of this story is due to ancient aliens who travel the cosmos in pairs, infecting worlds with superpowers just to watch them battle it out and collect data from that. But this cycle, one alien suffered a collision and died, leaving the other alien alone and infertile. In despair he floats around Earth for a while, wondering what to do.

It’s worth pointing out now that Taylor lost her mother when she died in a car accident, possibly while texting with Taylor. Taylor bears immense guilt for it, which is one of the things her former best friend would rub in while bullying her. (Yeah, they are super cruel.) It made her almost suicidal.

How do the heroes defeat Scion in the end, an entity with godlike power? Is it a super weapon, or the power of love, or do they reason with him and get him to leave?

No. Taylor and others repeatedly create images of Eden - who died in a travelling accident while distracted by communications from Scion - to taunt God with, until he is so depressed that he doesn’t protect himself when they deliver the killing blow. She recreates the logic of her own bullying on a theological scale!

And this was necessary to save the world. The message here isn’t that “bad people use power to bully” or “you can use power without being a bully” but just “cruelty is an inescapable part of power.”


  1. Regarding:

    (including no longer caring about what the bullies did.)

    I think that Taylor did care, that it left lasting impressions and she resented it, but she ceased caring about the bullies in the present/looking toward the future.

    Nitpicking a bit there, but just wanted to toss that out.

  2. Personally, I think for the last bit, the point during the final battle where people started keeling over from cardiac arrest from Khepri controlling them to long is a better example. Khepri/Taylor (the one in power)made a logical command decision (Keep these people fighting), and as an inevitable part of her decision people suffered and died. The way Zion died was basically forced upon everyone and also ties into the all too prevalent idea that Taylor is just as bad as the original bullies because she "Bullied" Zion.

    Still, really good post.

  3. It's funny - I agree with all of this, but I also took exactly the opposite message from it, in a way.

    Yes, bullying is often the almost accidental result of a power imbalance in the hands of mere humans - as opposed to malice. In one sense, this means that it occurs inevitably even as we try to fix it; but in another sense, it means that people aren't actively trying to make things worse, there's no intelligent force behind the words. It's just misdirected flailing.

    Emma, Bitch, Bonesaw, Khepri, Zion; again and again, we see from the villain's perspective that they're "innocent", trying to do the right thing and protect those they love.* And the right word - from a Contessa or Kevin Norton - can redirect that towards good.

    Even in a world where power dynamics are intrinsically, even supernaturally prone toward conflict and misery, there are actual heroes.

    Sometimes they look like Jessica Yamada, and sometimes they look like Valkyrie.

    *Or not. Some people are just total psychopaths, like, say Shadow Stalker - who joins our hero, at the end.