Long ago, in July 2011, a writer named Wildbow (pen name of John McRae) started his first web-published serial fiction, Worm. The story of a high school girl named Taylor with superpowers that allowed her to control bugs, it started off unassumingly. Most webfiction at the time was aimed roughly at a YA audience and followed the story of an exceptional young woman. Worm was no different, except perhaps in terms of how serious Wildbow was about his craft.
From the beginning, Wildbow was very dedicated to updating frequently and regularly. His updates got longer and longer. He encouraged the fans who commented on his posts to point out typos and errors, which he assiduously corrected. The story began to develop more structure that was increasingly complex. The cast expanded, but was kept manageable by keeping the focus on a small number of core characters and rotating out which antagonists and supporting characters were relevant each arc.
Wildbow attributed the steadily growing audience to his regularity of updates, which kept readers invested and satisfied, yet eager for the next installment. It was rare at the time, and I believe it still is, for a creator to be able to make webfiction their primary source of income, but he has managed it for over six years now. The readers who followed the series closely became a sort of ad-hoc copyediting team, posting any errors they caught in the comments. Wildbow accepted these corrections gratefully and was very forthcoming about his writing process and the thinking behind his narrative decisions. By the end of the series, Worm weighed in at 1.68 million words, the equivalent of about five epic fantasy novels.
Since the climactic end of Worm (the world ends, and that’s kinda the least of it), Wildbow has written two other series, each running about two years, titled Pact and Twig. Prior to starting Twig, he wrote and posted teasers for several different stories he was considering, and he took feedback from his readers into consideration before settling on Twig. He has stated that he felt Pact and Twig were less successful than Worm, but that they were good learning experiences for him as a writer.
Now, four years after the end of Worm, Wildbow has launched a sequel, entitled Ward. The story follows a minor character from the original who is struggling with all the trauma she experienced in the first series and trying to find a place in the new world defined by the cataclysmic events of that story. Even as a reader of Worm, starting Ward feels like jumping into the deep end. The world is vastly unfamiliar, and Wildbow has always preferred an “exposition as we go” type of approach. Ten chapters in, there are still a ton of huge questions.
The writing in Ward has the same emotional richness that made Worm so compelling, but that intensity is also a barrier to many readers. One reviewer mentioned that Worm hit every trigger warning their site listed, and I would say that it probably necessitated coining a few new ones people didn’t realize were needed. Vivisection, for instance, isn’t an experience very many reviewers have to consider.
In both Worm and Ward, every “parahuman” gets their powers via a “trigger event,” in fact, an intensely emotional experience that is often traumatic in nature. The nature of that event is part of what determines what powers they get. For instance, Taylor Hebert, the protagonist, has her powers awakened when bullies lock her in a locker full of used tampons. Her need for escape and her disgust at her surroundings combine to give her the ability to sense and control bugs. This means that nearly all of the main characters have a history of different severe trauma.
One of the defining features of Worm is its detached, almost clinical tone. The story is told in a first-person perspective, focused on the thoughts and impressions of the protagonist. Taylor is the protagonist for all of the main story, but there are frequent “interludes” from the perspectives of other characters. Taylor rarely describes visual details or her own emotions, though the events she describes often make it very clear she is experiencing extreme feelings. This detachment grows as the story progresses, and many readers feel that it indicates her level of grief and trauma. It also has the side effect of precluding many of the missteps that male authors sometimes have when writing young girls.
While there were inevitable missteps in such a long work by a relatively inexperienced author with no editor, in my mind, Worm is one of the few works I’ve encountered in any medium that manages to walk the line between reveling in its characters’ pain and failing to engage with trauma in a meaningful way. My own experiences with trauma are relatively minor, so I’m admittedly not the best judge, but I felt that its explorations of a wide variety of ways characters react to and deal with their trauma helped me work through some of my own issues. The clinical tone often helps make the depictions of traumatic events in the story easier to read.
Even taking into consideration that a fair-sized subset of readers will find Worm’s intensity off-putting, Ward asks its readers to do 1.68 million words of homework. It’s roughly equivalent to George R.R. Martin launching a whole new series that requires readers to have already read all of A Song of Ice and Fire. Ward doesn’t strictly require having read Worm, but it’s certainly not going out of its way as of yet to introduce new readers to any of its existing setting elements. It’s a type of storytelling that raises an ever-increasing barrier to new readers, yet it’s not significantly different from the interminable SF/F series that have become the standard in speculative fiction. It’s not even terribly different from other long-running webfiction series, some of which have been running for 10 or more years without a break.
Will Ward match the success of Worm? We’ll have to wait and see, of course. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the return of a world and story that meant a lot to me and encourage everyone who feels they can handle it to read Worm.