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Monday, June 30th, 2014 07:58 am
I recently finished reading a web serial called "Worm". (In other news, I forgot to bring any fun books to read to last week's physics conference.) I'm not sure what to say about it, or even whether to recommend it, but it was a heck of a read. Worm is a very long superhero story whose main character is a 15-year-old girl with the random and not obviously useful ability to control nearby bugs. The quality is a bit uneven, it's often pretty dark, and there were times that it was outright annoying or just too darn long. But its fictional world is quite good at aiming for "the inner consistency of reality", which is important to me, and it weaves a complex and (I think) satisfying story within that setting.

I obviously enjoyed Worm enough to read all of its ~1.8 million words on and off over the course of half a year or so (or more?). (That's something like 10-11 long novels, or almost 6 Wheel of Time books). I cared enough about the characters to want to know how things turned out for them, and enough about the fictional world to want to find out what was really going on. Many chunks of the plot were gripping (both on the scale of scenes and chapters and on the scale of novel-length arcs). It's an enjoyable story.

But on the other hand, there were multiple points along the way where I almost stopped reading (or where I did stop, only for unsatisfied curiosity to suck me back in weeks later). There are several points early on when the main character makes choices that seem blatantly at odds with her well-established goals (which may be forgivable in-story because she's so young, but that didn't make it less annoying to me as a reader). The pacing is inconsistent: in some places the character development and action flow beautifully, but in others it feels like a single plot arc is dragging out about twice as long as it needs to, and in others (well, one other) it skips right over a vast expanse of time that really ought to have been fleshed out more. The story could definitely benefit from a round or two of revision, and probably some professional editing.

There were a few times when Worm's tone rubbed me the wrong way, too. Especially near the start, there's a significant vibe of "adults don't care enough to help" that felt unfairly broad and lacking in nuance to me. Later on, there are a handful of minor places where the story seems to buy in to juvenile anti-feminism. (But then you keep reading, and close to the end there's a completely tangential moment of explicit opposition to rape culture thrown in out of nowhere, so I was left more neutral on that score than I expected to be.) And it sometimes feels too cynical about its people: nobody's perfect, sure, but I wish more characters in the story were more or less decent.

Overall, though, the underlying ethos of the story was right up my alley. A big theme is watching characters find ways to succeed by thinking carefully and making the most of small advantages. Sometimes (sometimes) that's even enough to overcome opposition that is intrinsically stronger or more politically powerful. Even more central to the story is moral ambiguity: there are frequent questions of ends vs. means, conflicting loyalties to family, friends, and society, and it's very rare that there are any easy answers. Even a lot of the worst "villains" have some degree of depth. And the thing that makes all that work for me is simple: the main character is trying to do the best she can for the people around her, even when her choices aren't what they ought to be.

So should you read it? I really couldn't say. I don't even have a good answer to how far you should read before you decide whether it's for you. But there are things about the story that I think will stick with me for a while.