Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Worm: Oh the Humanity

Let’s take a step back from the universe, and get there later. First I want to talk about humanism.

“A stranger is just a friend who’s story you don’t know.”

I think we’ve all heard that saying, and let’s hold on to it a second.

We’ve all read Bad stories. Ones where the characters exist just to be stand ins for the good side and the bad side. Or where every character talks Just Like The Author. Or where most characters are one-dimensional props that are merely aspects of the main character.

But the most common of course, is where each character can be neatly defined by their racial, political, ideological, economic or national groups and that is all there is to them. They’ll believe the things that group believes, and they won’t have much internality beyond it. In superhero stories this most commonly happens with the division of dastardly villains who want money or terrorism and are cardboard cutouts for that position, and superheroes weighed down by The Burden Of Always Being Right. Throw in the Arab Villain and the American Hero and you’ve got your comic book printing press. (Rationalist fic does not improve on this much by making all the categories based on “how much you use the scientific method correctly.”)

The best stories, the ones nerds treasure and spawn new franchises based off of, are the ones that humanize these characters. What made that villain end up that way? What sort of psychological issues does that hero wrestle with? (Slash fic goes way off the deep end by asking “what would a relationship between that hero and that villain be like?”)

The humanist approach to fiction is to take any character, no matter how evil or pure or in conflict with the hero or wrong, and say “hey, they’re a person too. They had a mother who loved them, they’ve got complex shit going on, and really they’re doing the best they can do right now.” There are no good guys or bad guys, no capes or villains, there are just people - complex, infinite people who all have their own story to tell. A good author gives them different voices, different motives, and uses the complexity of the human experience to put them in conflict with each other (and it’s always a tragic conflict.)

It’s the morality of relating to everyone in the world as “a stranger is a friend whose story you don’t know.” Everyone is complex and doing the best they can so give them some slack, ok?

Wildbow obviously has a natural talent for this sort of writing and Worm is extremely compelling when it lets it run free. How many readers would open an interlude and feel “oh yeah this is when we’re going to get ____’s side of the story, that will be great.” Bonesaw’s story. Parian’s story. Battery’s story. Kraus’s story. And of course Taylor’s. Worm is made up of all these individual vignettes that tell us why a person would do something.

(One of the most interesting things Wildbow does with these characters is show how those powers *relate* to their character. We see how Battery’s charging mechanic relates to her overall philosophy of life, and how her power and her philosophy lead to her title, and then how that title is changed when defined by her relationship with Assault. It’s a whole complex interconnected character that we’re really grateful to get to know, in one short story. Same with the earlier Interlude, Bitch. And holy hell how did he do that with Accord?)

It would be easy enough to say the story encourages this empathy with the protagonist, but we’re used to that. It’s even more impressive the level of detail that is given to Kraus, who gets the second largest amount of time from his perspective, just so we know what this rival gang thinks like.

If you are tired of culture wars in literature where one side is always simplistic and dumb, and you believe that all people are interesting and righteous from their perspective and the moral grey areas they fall into are fascinating and beautiful, then there’s a lot about Worm to love. You can really see the humanism in this come through. For a lot of Worm, a bad guy is just a favorite character whose story you don’t yet know.

It's a weighty philosophical outlook and I wish there was more writing defending it.


And then Tattletale steps in and says Fuck That.

Bonesaw is kind of the epitome of this. When we first meet her she’s doing horrible things to our characters, and she causes a lot of pain and makes the Slaughterhouse 9 almost invincible. She is just such a creepy psychopath.

And then we see her desperation to please Jack. And we see how the S9 are like a family for her. And we see her origin story and how she became part of the S9. And then we see her making friends with someone, and coming to realize her murderous actions were immoral because of the empathy from that human connection. And that contributes to her sabotaging the S9000 and joining the good guys. It’s a very cliche humanist story.

Which Tattletale gives her no slack for.

“Stop equivocating and listen.  You’re a monster.  Maybe the worst one out there.  But when it all comes down to it, you’re just like that big golden bastard out there.  You’re Jack’s pawn.  Everything you ever made, everything you ever did, the strongest parts of you, the little vulnerabilities, custom tailored by him.”


“This is the real change,” Tattletale said.  “Being reduced to nothing, starting anew.  And you get to carry all the shit and all the hate that you earned being an unholy terror before.  You deserve to carry all that shit and deal with the hate.  You’ve got a steep uphill climb, before you even get a trace of respect or trust.  You understand?  Putting your buddy’s face on possible victims isn’t even close to redemption.”
Tattletale doesn’t think that Bonesaw is lying and tricking them. Tattletale doesn’t see Bonesaw as a soulless monster. She understands all of the complexities Bonesaw is going through and she still doesn’t care. Being human doesn’t make your actions not monstrous, and it doesn’t save you from responsibility for them.

(A moment for Tattletale who consistently represents this anti-human perspective. She understands almost everyone she meets. Have you thought about that? The understanding we get from these Interludes? She basically has that. And she’s still a jerk to them, often as not. She reminds me of David from Prometheus, who sees the very dreams and motivations of his crewmates, and still disdains them so much he helps them to their death. We were talking about bullying before, and if you think Tattletale isn’t the ultimate bully, in how she perceives people’s psychological weaknesses and uses them ruthlessly against them, you’re probably biased by rooting for the Undersiders. It doesn’t make her bad, in fact the narrative usually exalts her, but it means she has no excuses.)

It’s a philosophy that “yes humans are complex and reasonable and contain multitudes of their own story, but that doesn’t stop them from still being scum.”

Around this time, the story gains a lot of inhuman elements. The Endbringers become allies. We meet the Faerie Queen, who never tries to justify herself in human terms. We see the backstory of these monstrous cosmological worm creatures. Cauldron and Contessa barely have human concerns, being monomaniacally focused on a world-ending threat, and Contessa's power warping her beyond the ability to live a normal life. And not long before this there was that wonderful scene between the PR consultant and Taylor where he shows her what she looks like from the outside, and Taylor realizes that for all her human internality, that yeah, that doesn’t change what she is to the rest of the world.

It was me, crawling through a window.  That would be from the night I retaliated against Tagg.  Odd, seeing how the bugs moved in coordination with me.  When I turned my head in the video, the orientation of every bug in the swarm changed in the same moment.

All around me, PRT employees were howling in pain, their cries silenced by the lack of an audio feed.  Either the camera hadn’t picked it up, or Glenn had muted it.  They thrashed.  One reached for me, for the me on the screen, and I could see how I moved out of the way without even glancing at him.  The swarm concealed me at the same time, briefly obscuring the Skitter in the video from both the man on the ground and the security camera.  When it parted, she had shifted two or three feet to the left.  A simple step to one side in the half-second she couldn’t be seen, but it misled the eyes.

And I couldn’t remember doing it.  I’d never consciously added the trick to my repertoire.

“If you told me that girl was a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Glenn said, “I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.”

All of this culminates in the climax where Taylor turns almost every cape in the world into a drone to fight Scion. It turns out all that human individuality, creativity, and ingenuity? Nah you’ll work fine as part of a swarm too (partially foreshadowed by the description of the Chinese capes). It might break down due to mental stress, but it’s not like they don’t work on some level. Worm has shown us that human individuality really exists - this is the terrifying question “But does our humanity really matter?”

(After the showdown, in the Epilogue, most of the storytelling returns back to the human level, most dramatically realized by Glastic Ulaine sitting on the therapist's couch, and of course Taylor's quasi-dreamstate without fame or power.)

And we’ll get to the biggest, best inhuman element tomorrow: Scion.


  1. Tattletale I find interesting a lot because she is a massive, relentlessly effective psychological bully, but unlike Sophia or Emma*, is nice to her friends and is a (relatively) decent person by the standard of Supervillainesses. I really can't blame her either, since it's her only real weapon in a very dangerous world, just like I can't blame Taylor for going full nightmare fuel mode or in general most heroes using physical (And often painful) force in doing their duties.

    As for the bit about Bonesaw, I agree wholeheartedly. Adolf Hitler was a War Hero (A decorated and permanently maimed one at that), a vegetarian, an aspiring artist, had family issues, grew up middle class but clawed his way up the social ladder, and survived a very hard life. A very human and possibly tragic figure.

    He was still a spiteful and insane monster responsible for the death of tens of millions.

    Now obviously that's a bit of a big example, but I think it applies pretty well to the extreme edge of Worm's menagerie of (Human) monsters. All of them were once normal people who life bent and twisted into horrors. Some of them deserve pity, possibly even the remote chance of redemption. All of them need to neutralized from society, by either death or containment.

    *She is also unlike Madison in that she is actually a person

    1. The list of categories of a person doesn't do much to humanize them. It's defining them by a number of traits, rather than giving us their story. It's entirely possible you could tell a story about Hitler (more likely, there's a number of US presidents we know the hagiography of who have been complicit in mass murder), but without it we can't say we are judging them at the same level as Tattletale is.

      Anyway, it should also be made clear that this blog does not agree with all the philosophical perspectives that make up the Worm moral universe (or Star Wars). Just that they are compellingly presented and deserve to be pointed out.

    2. Blue, I think you're being too hard on Green Door, implying that because she listed categories for Hitler instead of telling a story about him means she's essentially unsympathetic to Hitler. Stories take a while to write, we have limited time comments have limited space -- categories are pithy, stories take space and time -- and categories and stories aren't opposites or enemies. Categories tell stories about people or at least hint at them; a list of categories a person falls into is a skeleton of a story all on its own. Sure, "Hitler was a brave war hero in WWI" doesn't make me as sympathetic to him as I would be if Green Door had written an Interlude about Hitler -- but it makes me a bit more sympathetic to him, nonetheless.

    3. Sophia is nice to her friend. Friend. To Emma.
      Emma drops Sophia when she's in prison.

  2. In case it's not clear at the end of this: not having humanist writing is not actually synonymous with Bad writing. Star Wars OT, for instance, is starkly archetypical (Obi-Wan is a Hermit Wizard and that's what you need to know. Some of Luke's backstory was specifically cut out to be an empty shell for the viewer). The PT is good only by virtue of being satirically humanist.

  3. Tattletale can't have sexual relationships because anyone she might be attracted to, her power shows her everything disgusting inside them.

    I don't think she's seeing Interludes everywhere she goes. In fact, when we see her power from her perspective, it's almost exactly what you accuse Green of: a stark list of traits that categorize a person into boxes.