An awesome, somewhat addictive, fairly dark and finished free novel about people with superpowers, published as a very long web serial. I recommend this to anyone who generally likes SF, and either has plenty of free time or sufficient self control to only read a few chapters a day.

Longer review

Worm by Wildbow (John McCrae) is a superhero web serial that Christophe pointed me at. He sold it to me roughly as "it's about superheroes who use their powers in a mostly intelligent and often surprising manner". Which was vague enough to spoil nothing and specific enough to make me have a look.

I came to work the following day extremely blurry-eyed, having read until the morning and only having time for a a couple of hours of sleep before I had to be back at work. And that was kind of the pattern for the next couple of weeks, because this thing is long, and sufficiently compelling that most of my free time was spent reading it. It's all the more impressive for being written by one guy, part time, updating 2-3 times a week without fail, over a couple of years.

There's a couple of separate bits to Worm that I find interesting. First, there's the question of the work itself. And then there's the publishing / business model. I'll discuss these in that order.

The Work

The world building is absolutely top notch. Incredibly imaginative, and mostly internally consistent. I like the characters (even when I don't like the persona, I like the characterization). A decent comparison would be the early Vorkosigan books by Bujold. I love the way the protagonist's angle of figuring out creative ways to abuse her superpower, and her continuing annoyance at other superheros not doing it. It's got a bit of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality feel to it (but doesn't suffer from the many weaknesses that HP:MoR has as a story rather than as a rationalist screed).

McCrae is very skilled at setting up cliffhangers. That's probably a requirement for the web serial format where the most important part is to make sure people come back regularly for their next fix. But it's really dangerous for a completed work. It never feels like there's a satisfying place to stop :-)

As a particular rarity, I love the ending. So many epic scifi or fantasy tomes either end up with a whimper, or end up with supposedly cosmic nonsense that I just can't make any sense of. Worm avoids this completely. It builds up to an awesome ending sequence, which is clearly foreshadowed right from the beginning but that I never would've guessed would actually happen. And then it even resolves everything in a very satisfying and fitting way. I kind of wish the epilogues hadn't been written, or at least that I hadn't read them. But I will say no more about that, and understand why the epilogues exist and why some (most?) people would like them, it's purely a matter of taste.

There are some bad parts as well.

The book has not been professionally edited. I have no major complaints about the language, though there are some annoying verbal ticks, and I'm not a huge fan of the longer dialogues. As a more serious matter many parts of the story could be tightened significantly. One friend commented that during particularly combat heavy sequences he'd start just reading the first sentence of each paragraph, because the action felt like it was moving at one second per 5 paragraphs. I don't agree entirely, but some sections were a bit more of a slog. It feels like a ruthless editor could do the book a big service by cutting away the right 20%.

It's also a very dark story. Can you imagine something bad happening to someone? There's a pretty good chance it'll happen to a major character, or happened as part of their backstory. Good things happen, but much less often. It's not casual cruelty, nor any kind of misery porn (unlike e.g. Song of Ice and Fire seemed to devolve to). But it is a bleak and potentially quite depressing world. Definitely wouldn't let kids read this.

But anyway, overall I really like it, and recommend it with the above caveats.

The Business Model

There's been a lot of talk about what's going to happen to the publishing industry in the future (see for example the related posts on the blog of Charlie Stross, both by him and guest bloggers). And there have been all kinds of experiments in that space. Worm is at the extreme end of those experiments.

This is the first web serial I've ever come across that felt like an actual business rather than hobbyist fanfiction. (I gather from some interviews that it wasn't set up as such, but just a way for the author to force themselves to stick to one project). It maybe should not be a surprise that the model exists. A bunch of people appear to be able to make a living from long running webcomics (geez, have I really been reading Sluggy Freelance for almost half my life?). Why wouldn't it be possible for a novelist to do the same?

One major difference in the business model is that Worm ran entirely on donations, not on ads. This is quite admirable. Another difference is that from the outside it feels like the amount of continuous work going into Worm must have been much higher than for the typical "3 panes, 6 times a week" webcomic. And finally, while I don't know the full financials of the operation, part of the donations are done over the recurring donation system Patreon, and those donations are public. Currently it's at a recurring $1200 per month. Maybe people are uncomfortable with that method (I certainly was, and used PayPal instead). But at least based on the public information, the work/donations combination doesn't really look sustainable, which is a real shame.

But then again, authors being published for the first time through traditional channels are unlikely to make a living just by that either. And while it seems likely that the ARPU of a web serial must be pretty low, it must be way easier to reach new readers than in traditional publishing. I buy very little fiction from new authors these days. There's just no point since I already have a big backlog of books from authors I'm a fan of. From my point of view a publisher's brand gives absolutely no marketing benefit, or even credibility, to a new author. The only way I'll find new authors is through positive word of mouth, and a web serial is clearly much more viral than a book, whether physical or e-book, as long as the author can hook the reader within the first 10 minutes.

This feels like the future. It might be a depressing future, but then again that's what every kind of business feels like these days.

McCrae has already started a new serial Pact.