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Literature / Parahumans

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The Parahumans series is the shared setting of Worm and Ward, the respective first and fourth Web Serial Novels by John McCrae, a.k.a. Wildbow. Set in an alternate universe where superpowers have begun to appear in people since the 1980s, the series follows the exploits of these eponymous "parahumans" as they deal with their powers and contend with the societal impacts their sometimes miraculous, more often than not nightmarish powers have on the world. Special focus is placed on the hero-villain dichotomy, and the Black-and-Grey Morality that ensues from making necessary compromises to stop far worse threats.

The series is infamous for its dark themes and content, with both books heavily exploring the nature of trauma: in this setting, powers manifest from "trigger events," which are deeply traumatic and stressful events in one's life. The powers gained from triggers tend to evoke the same trauma through which they came to be, and the mysteries behind where they come from are explored throughout both stories.

The works in the series so far include:

  • Worm (2011-2013): Taylor Hebert is a lonely teenager and the go-to target for her school's resident bullies, but after gaining the power to control bugs from a particularly horrific bullying incident she sets out to change her life's trajectory by joining the local team of young hero Wards. Unfortunately, a mix-up on her first foray in costume leads to her instead getting dragged into Brockton Bay's criminal underworld, and although she tries to stick true to her morals, the complexities of cape life begin to push her to compromise more and more. Sometimes, you just have to do the wrong things for the right reasons.
  • Ward (2017-2020): After the destruction of Brockton Bay, Victoria Dallon, former Glory Girl of New Wave, sets out to get back into the cape game. But the past can't simply be forgotten, and Victoria still hasn't mentally healed from a horrific event that ruined her life during the attack of the Slaughterhouse Nine. Not helping matters is the truly abysmal state humanity has been left in since the events of Gold Morning, with villains running rampant over the unwritten rules that used to keep them nominally in line. In search of recovery, Victoria forms a team of other similarly hurt capes, hoping to maybe find a way to forge peace in this strange new era along the way.

Due to the spoiler-heavy nature of this series, this page's spoilers are unmarked.

Parahumans provides examples of:

  • Absurd Brand Name: The chain restaurants "Fugly Bob's" and "Roadkill", both sounding uninviting or unsanitary.
  • Big Bad Ensemble: The Endbringers and the Entities. The former are a group of unkillable monsters that have caused destruction and mass death all over the world for decades, with the subtle machinations of the Simurgh resulting in incalculable levels of further chaos. The latter are the Eldritch Abominations that seeded powers in humanity as part of a life cycle that will culminate in the end of the world, and although Scion is defeated by the end of Worm, some of his and his deceased partner's shards are still on a trajectory to complete this mission in Ward. The Simurgh, being the Sole Survivor of the original three Endbringers, attempts to hijack this process for its own purposes, planning a more "efficient" method of data collection by rearranging society into a system of constant murder and torture until another Entity comes around.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: The protagonists of the first novel are supervillains, but have standards and generally try to collaborate with the heroes to stop more depraved threats like the roving band of serial killers that is the Slaughterhouse Nine, or the monstrous Endbringers that wipe out entire cities whenever they become active. The heroes themselves are unwittingly being run by a massive conspiracy that has steeped into increasingly twisted and sociopathic methods to stave off the end of the world, and although their corruption is eventually rooted out, the heroes still must make deals with villains to have any hope of keeping things under control.
  • Crapsack World: Because of the nature of how parahuman powers work, there tends to be far more villains than there are heroes. The powers that don't come from trauma are distributed by a massive conspiracy that has its fingers in everything, and if that weren't enough there are also a trio of Kaiju that wreak havoc wherever they go. All of this gets worse when it's revealed that the Big Good, Scion, is actually a malevolent alien that spread powers as part of its reproduction cycle, which is set to end with the complete destruction of all Earths throughout the multiverse. He's stopped by the end of Worm, but the destruction of the old society leaves villains with more freedom than ever before, while some of the shards manage to take over their hosts in an effort to continue the process.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Entities responsible for superpowers are unfathomably large alien creatures that can shift through the multiverse. The powers themselves, "shards" of the Entities, also count, being similarly sentient and massive creatures that connect to their hosts from another dimension.
  • Traumatic Superpower Awakening: "Triggers" are incredibly stressful events that cause people to manifest powers. Shards actively seek out hosts and implant themselves, laying dormant until stressful events occur. When they do, the shards analyze the host's personality and reconfigures itself into a case-specific ability.