Worm, being a serial novel longer than many book series, is filled with themes, allusions, and other subtext that adds richness to the experience on a close reading. Caution, spoilers are unmarked.
Superhero fiction and the world of WormAny reader who is moderately familiar with the world of comic book superheroes is likely to be aware that the standard superhero universe is unrealistic. Not just because there are people with superpowers running around, but because the implications of this fact are rarely well-explored within the setting and the societal effects of the phenomenon are rarely elaborated convincingly. Here's a list of some of the most common features and tropes that define the setting of a typical superhero world:
- People and beings who have superpowers exist.
- These people use their superpowers primarily for violence with very few exceptions.
- Villains use violence for personal gain or other evil.
- Heroes use violence to oppose the villains and in general to uphold the "rightful" or "lawful" order and authority.
- In general, it appears that Reed Richards Is Useless and that no one thinks to Cut Lex Luthor a Check. Heroism or Villainy are the most common use for powers.
- Despite using violence constantly, individual superheroes and supervillains rarely die.
- Despite large amounts of potent violence being used, non-powered individuals die in small numbers if at all, and only when dramatically appropriate.
- Massive amounts of property damage occurs as a result of this violence, but is quickly repaired and rarely seems to have a strong economic effect.
- Heroes and villains have secret identities, and going after these identities is something unusual and dramatic.
- Not only this, but the existence of secret identities does not prevent the testimony of masked individuals from being used in court, so that when the heroes nonlethally stop the villains, they can be brought to trial like a normal person.
- The societal norms and mores of the setting are rarely greatly altered by the existence of superpowers.
None of this makes very much sense, does it? If you had a superpower that allowed you to lift great weights, would your first instinct be to use it to hurt people? Or would you go into construction and make great money undercutting the crane industry? If you can talk to animals, why put yourself at risk to be a vigilante beastmaster when you could be an amazing veterinarian? If you have super martial arts skills, why fight crime on the street instead of becoming a world-renowned MMA fighter? If you can create incredible technology beyond the current capabilities of your society, why not mass-produce and market it? And if you are superpowered and still inclined towards violence, why pull punches when using your power?
There are superhero universe deconstructions out there that look at these problems and have them play out logically. Supervillains kill their targets, the heroes put down villains permanently, there are powered people who make tons of money and never fight, the destruction wreaked has permanent effects on the setting.
Worm however does not do this. In fact, it has many of the same features as the unrealistic superhero universe: superpowered people (called Capes) don't kill each other, they all have secret identities that are rarely investigated or attacked, and society (at least in North America) is largely similar to the real world society that it mirrors, except with superheroes. Instead of asking "what would the world look like if superpowers were real?", Worm inverts the question, and asks: "what would the conditions have to be like to turn the real world into a stereotypical superhero universe?"
So first, it has to figure out a reason why everyone is so violent all the time, despite the mundane utility of many powers. This is explained through the origin of powers. There exist giant, interdimensional aliens called Entities with immense power. They need to reproduce, and they are seeking a way to avert entropy and live forever. However, they are not very creative. They they get around this by finding planets inhabited by sapient beings, taking semi-sentient chunks of themselves (called Shards) and bonding them to the local inhabitants. They want to see the powers interact in new ways, and so they build into each shard a drive that subtly pushes the host towards conflict. And they only choose individuals who they think will use those powers creatively, and they give them their powers on the worst day of their lives at the moment of maximum trauma, and then make the power related in some way to the trauma that prompted it to be given. This ensures that the people who receive powers are more likely to use them violently and interact with others who have powers, giving the entities the data they need.
So that's the violence aspect covered—our capes are subtly pushed towards conflict and the people chosen to be capes are those who would be more inclined to be violent in the first place. It's possible to get powers without also getting the conflict drive or experiencing a traumatic trigger event—but the technique for doing so is difficult, unreliable, and not widely known, so such capes are few and far between. How then do we account for the other half of the problem, that despite all this violence the heroes and villains are rarely killed?
Well, it turns out that in their whole rush to infect the earth with superpowers, one of the entities had a little accident and hurt itself badly. Unluckily for it, one of its powers that was not meant for public distribution was given out, and a small group of people find out the truth, more-or-less. These people, reasonably, want to find a way to save their reality from the entities. But all they have to work with that can even compare to the entities' abilities are the powers from the injured-now dead crashed entity. All they can do is give as many people powers as they can, and observe the powers that occur "naturally", and hope that one of those powers turns out to be strong enough to defeat the surviving entity, or that maybe by getting enough capes together they might collectively be strong enough to win. The powers that they do distribute do not include the conflict drive nor require trauma to manifest, and include some of the most powerful heroes in the setting, which helps them prevent a complete villain takeover at the same time.
So this group, codenamed Cauldron, sets out to intentionally shape the nascent superhero society into something that allows people to use their powers, but prevent them from killing each other off too much. Using their own powers, they secretly create and enforce a set of unwritten rules that prevents the disclosure of secret identities and limits the lethal effects of the violence. They get laws written to help make this a normal part of society, creating the Protectorate and the Parahuman Response Team. Those who do break the unwritten rules are quickly hunted down by the rest and put down, either lethally or by imprisonment in the Bird Cage, an inescapable prison created for superheroes. And to further reinforce the "no killing" rule, there are some bigger threats that are left out there for all to see and make it clear that powered individuals need to be kept alive—monsters like the Slaughterhouse Nine, Nilbog, and the Endbringers.
So in Worm, we are basically left with the standard superhero world, but its existence is not arbitrary but justified and enforced by the setting in which it is built. The source of powers itself inclines capes towards violence—but a strong and well-resourced conspiracy exists to keep society stable and the violence mostly nonlethal.