Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Worm: Golden Idol

One problem discussing bullying and this universe is that looking at what unites the characters risks “creating a false equivalence” between bullies like Shadow Stalker and the sort of things Taylor does in the end. It’s important to identify that they are using the same methods (psychological torment through imbalanced power relationships) while also understanding that they are doing it for different reasons (SS does it to define her personal identity, Taylor does it to protect the people she cares about). Of course, different motives might not feel any better to the people on the receiving end of bullying.

So do these motives matter? Is it the consequences that define whether this bullying is ok in this universe? What sort of rules can we even use to judge the morality of an action? Or is moral action just impossible in the Wormverse?

These questions are valuable when we talk about Scion. And about Christianity.

Because Wildbow is an atheist author who has written one of the best anti-Christian works I’ve ever encountered.


To be clear, maltheism - or the perspective that god is bad and religion is bad - is pretty common in genre fiction. It usually comes in two forms

  1. Spirituality is pure, but the church is evil. In these stories, the church is a corrupt institution where the leaders of it just seek to advance their own ambitions and crush any dissent. Eventually the heroes overthrow the church, usually with assistance from the very god that feels they have been cut off from their people (FFX, Small Gods, there are tons of examples.)
  2. Gods are really like people, and not worthy of worship. In these stories, the gods have a lot of supernatural power, but otherwise are just as petty and worldly as any mortal. The heroes either have to defeat them, or convince them to be more humble and not treat human beings like their toys. (Like, every piece of fiction by Neil Gaiman. Unsong, and most other rationalist fic that deals with gods.)

A radical Christian will counter that none of these are what Christianity means. Christianity is a revolutionary religion that describes God sympathizing with human suffering, and descending to show solidarity with the weakest, and put the power of his kingdom in their hands. To them, Christianity is not about the Church, or about angels and nativity but it’s about the Sermon on the mount:

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”

Even if you don’t think the Christian church has stood for those ideals, the question still remains: are they good ideals?

(If you’ve read the earlier entries on this blog, the Star Wars movies describe this sort of sacrifice and “love for the lowliest” in expansive detail.)

And this philosophy is one that atheists and Christians alike should want to grapple with. Christians so their beliefs can get a fair test, and atheists because they should be confronting their opponent’s strongest arguments, not strawmen.

So who could argue with this revolutionary, divine ideal?

Worm does.

In Worm, God in all his power and suffering descends, and places it in the hands of the most abject, degraded person. Worm actually wrestles with the question of what would happen in this divine revelation.

Worm’s answer? It does not go well.


So this is why Scion is the best inhuman figure in Worm. Abrahamic God-symbol checklist?

  • Something greater than and incomprehensible to humanity.
  • He appears as a floating golden idol, with a beard but no clear ethnicity.
  • He adopts the name Scion / Zion. (And loves the lost Eden)
  • His power level is basically infinite, be it delivering miraculous cures or dispensing wrath.
  • He finds a homeless man and carries out whatever charitable ideas the man has.

Kevin has a great line about platonic realism when replying to a comment that Scion looks sad.

“He doesn’t,” Kevin said.  “Don’t buy it.  He doesn’t look anything.  That expression never changes.  But whatever’s underneath, that’s what’s giving you that feeling.  He looks sad because he is sad.  Except you take out the ‘looks’ part of it.”

Kevin is a great character, of course. He’s poor. He’s dispossessed. He probably has mental health issues (and certainly appears to.) He’s anti-social and can only bond with his dog. He’s been used and abused but is so low that he can’t even get the recognition of victim status. He is the lowliest worm humanity has. He is without doubt “the meekest.” And so in the kingdom of God, it is he who will be exalted.

This monstrously powerful golden idol, that the whole world is fascinating with, appears before Kevin, and takes orders from him. He listens to Kevin. He tries to do right by him.

And Kevin is even properly humble about this power! He doesn’t enrich himself, he tries to help orphans and stop disasters. And Kevin feels true terror at the thought that all the problems of the world are now his responsibility. If he wastes this power, it will be on his head, and that (rightly) scares him.

The whole Interlude “The Most Powerful Man in the World” is just really brilliant stuff. The title ironically links “this is about Scion” with “the rants of a homeless man”, efficiently linking these two concepts. Kevin’s fear, but also his rage, and his hope, are expertly done. And Scion really does come across as… weird and inhuman. But also a potential symbol of goodness, now that we know his power can be directed to productive ends.

(It's also an incredibly funny scene: witness how Kevin constantly talks to his dog like a person, but talks to the most powerful entity on Earth like a dog.)

So many critics claim what makes Worm good is the consistent power levels and intelligent use of powers and the type categorization, and other immersive elements that read more like an RPG handbook. None of that fits in here. There’s not even “Taylor bonding with her friends.” There’s just two people being befuddled and in awe at the mysteries of the universe.

What more religious scene can there be than the sacrament of one High Priest of the Golden Man passing his mantle to a new successor, in symbolic exchange for a token offering?

In many works of fiction, this would be the last, triumphant scene of the entire series. (For instance, such a revelation is not too dissimilar from the ending of Return of the Jedi, where Darth Vader has sacrificed himself to rid the galaxy of the Dark Side, and now Luke must ponder what to do with his new responsibility and power. Or Elysium, or the Neverending Story.)


But it doesn’t work. The story doesn’t end here, and in fact it rapidly gets worse. How come?

Well it sure was fun watching Scion kick Behemoth’s ass.

But beside that, what sort of orders does Kevin have to contribute? It turns out he is not full of insight into reducing inequality, overthrowing oppression, and critiquing capitalist power structures. He saw there were some orphans in the news, and so he feels God should sort that out. He is not really that full of revolutionary fervor, and he’s probably pretty representative of his class that way.

Even what ideas he does have, he’s downright bad at communicating to God. The communication barriers between inhuman omnipotence and mere humanity are pretty high. It’s kind of a miracle they can relate at all, and after years finally get around to “take out those city destroying monsters.”

Worst of all, by the end, it goes horribly wrong. This sort of dispassionate helpfulness is easily turned towards destructive glee, as Scion enters the anger stage of grieving over his lost partner. And on his way to wiping out all of Earth, he slowly takes time to toy with the heroes and rub in the futility of their attempts to oppose him.

He’s not a suffering God. He’s a bored God.

(This is somewhat reminiscent of Mxyptlk in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” [spoilers for the comic book] .)


Literary nitpickers above will have noticed that I left one category out of “types of maltheism in genre fiction” : Lovecraftian. That’s the tradition of stories that depict gods who are beyond our understanding, who have no concern for us, and are so horrifyingly weird that the merest glimpse of them drives a human being mad. Humanity can barely, maybe fight them on a lucky day, but is by far best off avoiding their attention entirely.

(Hell, the only way Taylor takes him down is by finding his one vaguely humanist aspect - his aching grief - and exploiting it brutally.)

By the end of Worm, this Christian ideal has been transmuted to that Lovecraftian maltheism, and it’s a fairly chilling argument against wanting any involvement with the divine.

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