After a couple of essays about one of the largest franchises in the modern world, I’m going to write about an author most people have never even heard of. It’s a bit of a shift, but I’ve finally finished Twig and started Ward, and the worldbuilding in the latter work inspired this. And since I’ve so far just been writing about whatever comes to mind, I’m writing about this. Be warned, however, that this essay will contain unavoidable spoilers for all of Wildbow’s completed web serials (Worm, Pact, and Twig), particularly Worm and Twig.
If I had to pick a single theme running across everything Wildbow has written, it would be how people rebuild after loss. This can be seen in the character arcs of Wildbow’s completed works, where the protagonists (Taylor, Blake, and Sylvester) all lose or sacrifice more and more things which they hold close to themselves and need to rebuild their lives thereafter. With the possible exception of Blake, they all manage to successfully build something greater with their sacrifices, despite their losses.
The inner conflicts of the protagonists consistently mirror the external conflicts, both the smaller-scale ones of protagonist versus antagonist and the larger-scale ones which theor setting is embroiled in. It should therefore come as no surprise that the worlds of Worm, Twig, and (to a lesser extent) Pact end up also suffering great losses. Jacob’s Bell of Pact is slowly ravaged by the conflicts of the magicians living there and ends up essentially falling into Hell; Twig’s North America ends up covered in the side effects of biological super-weapons and the destructive containment measures developed for them; and in Worm, the entire Earth is ultimately rendered nigh-uninhabitable by a globe-spanning, portal-abusing fight between the mightiest superbeings on that planet. This is, of course, saying nothing of the smaller disasters within each work.
You’ve doubtless seen any number of post-apocalyptic movies, novels, and so on. However, with the exception of Pact, we see people protecting and rebuilding society from each of these disasters. That’s not something which is commonly seen in post-apocalyptic fiction. Perhaps this is in part a matter of definitions, with partly-rebuilt societies not counting as “post-apocalyptic”; however, this is at most a semantic issue, as there are few stories set during that reconstruction period. Most stories with an apocalypse in the world’s lore either take place immediately after the apocalypse, with no rebuilt society seeming plausible for ages, or else so long after that the apocalypse has faded into legend. Sometimes, as with Mad Max Fury Road, you see both at the same time. The only other “post-post-apocalypse” work I can think of off the top of my head, where society has rebuilt itself after some great catastrophe but still bears scars and memories of it, would be The Last of Us. Yet Wildbow embraces this idea. Today, I intend to look at not merely the worlds he created, but how he conveyed this idea to the reader.
Let’s first look at Worm, Wildbow’s first work. In a sense, their world is perpetually descending into Armageddon; everything from superpowered kaiju called Endbringers to street gangs and bush wars with superpowers is slowly eating away at both global society and each individual community within it. There are some mentions of this in early chapters, but that aspect takes a back seat for the first quarter or so of the novel. After dozens of chapters, however, we get our first visceral glimpse of both sides of the coin. We get a brief look at foreign conflicts in less-stable parts of the world through Miss Militia, a mid-tier superhero in the protagonist’s hometown who triggered and single-handedly destroyed a squad of (briefly) shocked combatants. This is overshadowed in every way by the revelation that Leviathan, one of the Endbringers, is coming to said hometown.
Leviathan’s attack causes massive death and destruction, as you might expect. The story barely waits for the dust to settle before telling the reader about the devastation wreaked; flooding, blackouts, a constant outflow of refugees, and so on. It doesn’t take long for details of other hardships to casually creep their way in, from barriers around reconstruction sites to parents bringing their kids to work due to school being out of session to airports being shut down due to violent unrest to streets still being flooded with inches of water. This is helped by the story shifting focus for a few chapters to the heroes in charge of maintaining order in the city.
The devil isn’t merely in the details, however; this destruction impacts the plot. For instance, the supplies being brought into the city are a major point for much of the rest of Worm, early until the story stops focusing on Brockton Bay. In addition, while Taylor’s team has the resources to keep her insulated from the worst of the disaster’s effects, they do occasionally affect her in obvious ways; at one point, she literally needs to run across town to warn her father about an impending attack because her cell phone doesn’t work. Yet, despite all of this hardship, ordinary life goes on. People go to work, hospitals run, police and superheroes alike maintain order; even if none of these work quite as well as they had before, even if they add all sorts of new complications to the daily lives of anyone dealing with them, they work. In this ruined city, growing emptier and more perilous by the day, life lives on. Of course, ruining a single city isn’t quite the same as an apocalypse; life in the city is sustained, in part, by parts of the country and the world which are not currently ruined. Yet we already see the juxtaposition of a society which is simultaneously shattered and functioning, a juxtaposition which will return when Wildbow does actually destroy the world.
For instance, look at Worm’s sequel, Ward. Worm was set in a world much like our own (but with superpowers), meaning that he could introduce worldbuilding elements slowly over the initial chapters. Ward starts after the end of the world, and has some serious worldbuilding to do. That’s why the first chapters of Ward were an extended prologue of people talking on the Internet.
Let us consider that. Creating, growing, and maintaining it required and requires cutting-edge digital-era technology which could not have been imagined half a century ago, and has changed how we see the world. The freedom and interconnectedness it enables mesh well with modern, liberal, globalist values. At the same time, the Internet’s flaws are the flaws of the current century (in no small part due to the Internet’s flaws). The same interconnectedness that allows one to make friends with people across the world also allows those with extreme views to find each other, to find a group of peers where those views are treated as acceptable. This has caused increasing levels of polarization and tribalism, and enables all sorts of backwards ideas to fester. Yet for all of this, or perhaps because of it, the Internet is a symbol of the modern world. The fact that there is any Internet after the end of the world is telling, from both Watsonian and Doylist points of view.
Yet this isn’t quite the Internet we know. On a basic level, most if not all servers were lost in the apocalypse; rebuilding the content of the web is one of the first things mentioned in the online prologue. Another is the low bandwidth, comparable to the days of dial-up modems; the first chapter of the prologue specifically mentions a website stripping out images and other data-heavy features until things get more settled. That first prologue chapter immediately moves onto discussing how the web is being rebuilt and the issues associated with it (along with a brief, admin-smothered argument about the place of superheroes in the new world). The first paragraphs of the first chapter of the prologue, the first thing most people are going to be reading when they read Ward, are about rebuilding a symbol of the modern world. The efforts of rebuilding, how far they’ve come yet how far they have to go, get mentioned before the global refugee crisis. If that doesn’t set a cautiously optimistic tone, I don’t know how Wildbow could do so.
Once the story proper begins, once we begin seeing the world through the eyes of our protagonist for the story, the focus changes from electronic symbols of the modern era to that eternal symbol of industrial hubris—the skyscrapers and high-rises of our great cities’ skylines. Among them are incomplete buildings, covered in tarps and hazard signs and more. More strangely, there is a unified aesthetic among the completed skyscrapers, a golden luster from tinted glass lining the high-rises. That isn’t the only aesthetic difference between the old world and the new; the new streets have been designed with the room for greenery which modern cities try to retrofit in, as well as massive numbers of memorials to those who died in the apocalypse. All of this gets mentioned in the first fraction of the first chapter of the story. Establishing the world as being rebuilt, differently, is as important as establishing the tensions between those with superpowers and those without.
The rest of the story sprinkles in little details. School only runs for half-days, with many students spending the other half of the day working in some capacity or another. Yards are as lumpy and uneven as they were before humans settled there, because nobody cared enough to landscape the yard. Houses are thrown up in a day or less and sold to anyone desperate enough to not ask questions, and with the refugee situation being as it is there’s no end to demand. Heroes and villains alike are setting up claims, finding ways to get the money they need to function and thrive. Yet…there is school, there are yards and houses, there is money and commerce. Society isn’t doing as well as it did before, and certainly isn’t doing the same as it did before, but it’s doing. Life goes on.
Then we have Twig. In Twig, the apocalypse comes from a biological superweapon being developed without appropriate safety measures, with the improvised safety measures serving to slow it down and make it resentful, combined with the developer’s enemies coming in to make a mess of things in a way that lets the superweapon retaliate with an infection somewhere between the bubonic plague and gray goo. This plague spreads across North America, destroying every city is passes through, followed by various destructive countermeasures meant to keep it from creeping into the bastions of civilization.
Oh, yes, those exist. (I exaggerated when I said it destroyed every city.) How they keep the plague out varies a bit, and what they do inside those bastions varies a lot, but several places keep themselves safe from the plague. Near the beginning of the plague, we see the protagonist of Twig, Sylvester, set up a tiny version of one for himself and his friends. While the chapter where we get a glimpse of this self-quarantined life is more focused on how said life is disrupted by being evacuated from it, we do see some of these same themes playing out. Sylvester has to scavenge for food and supplies in the city, cutting plague out of wherever it takes root for each morsel of food or mediocre luxury, yet he still manages to scrape together enough food and luxuries to get by. Yet again, we see a new normal develop—not as comfortable or convenient as the old normal, but life can still go on.
The same is true in the full-sized bastions of civilization. Ways to find or create the food and supplies needed to keep the survivors functioning are devised, methods of communicating and travelling across a dangerous landscape are found, and the conflicts across the continent start back up once more. The Academies teach and learn, rebels scheme, leaders of the land try to hold everything together even as more and more people evacuate the continent. Life goes on, reduced in quality and quantity but still managing to persist. The same goes in later chapters, where we see characters survive—no, live in—the equally-inhospitable environments created by the countermeasures.
But what is, perhaps, most interesting about Twig is that it sees the end of the end. The epilogue chapters of the story describe the entire world returning to normal—and not just a relatively normal existence, marred by extraordinary hardships. The countermeasures beat back the plague to irrelevance, if not quite extinction. Species which survived both the plague and the countermeasures are found; they spread across the landscape and are used by the Academies to make other species, and from this a new ecosystem is born. With the pressure of the great disasters removed, the survivors begin to build a new society. Both that society and nature itself have recovered, reaching a new normal. Perhaps neither is quite at the same level of quality as they were before, but does it even matter? Life goes on.
In each of these stories, we see a juxtaposition of ordinary life with extraordinary complications. People go to their 9-5 jobs, but have to drive around the crater-lake right in the middle of their commute. Others surf the Web, openly under the watchful eye of the local supervillain gang. Some look forward to a nice, hot cup of tea after a long day of scrounging for food and digging plague out of their veins. What does all of this add up to?
Whenever you write a story, making the characters’ reality to seem real to the readers is more difficult than it sounds. You need to make the implications of that reality clear to the reader, but without revealing too much detail (slowing the story to a crawl and preventing the reader’s mind from neatly filling in any gaps) or being too blunt (in violation of show-don’t-tell). Failing to do so either leads to an unsatisfying read or a world where the characters’ problems seem insignificant.
On one end of the spectrum, it’s practically standard procedure to show the lack of problems in someone’s life via the contentment of ordinary life. (Obviously, this doesn’t communicate any peril or discomfort to the audience, but if you’re intending to communicate a lack of peril ad discomfort this isn’t a problem.) On the other end, post-apocalyptic works have this down pat. They show the characters scavenging for food, pining for luxuries, and fighting for survival against monsters both inhuman and human. But this type of setting has its downsides. It’s one-dimensional, it’s extremely bleak, and it’s overdone.
What Wildbow does is balance these two techniques. On one hand, he shows elements of ordinary life which survive whatever disaster falls upon the world; on the other hand, he mixes it with extraordinary hardships coming from that disaster. The elements of hardship serve to communicate this element of the characters’ reality to the reader, helping them suspend their disbelief; they see what the characters have to put up with and believe their world is recovering from a great disaster. But the bleak tone set by a typical post-apocalyptic setting is avoided by the existence of a new normal for the characters, one where they preserve parts of the old normal which matter to them in the face of new hardships.
But why does any of this matter? For the same reason anything in literature matters, of course. Art is, at heart, a form of communication; the themes of a work are, in a sense, the message that the author wishes to convey to the audience. Back at the beginning of this essay, I mentioned that how people rebuild after loss is a major theme in all of Wildbow’s works thus far. There is no greater, more dramatic example of rebuilding after loss than the survivors of a society rebuilding itself after civilization itself has been lost.
What does Wildbow have to say about this process of rebuilding? The presence of both ordinary life and extraordinary hardships suggests that it isn’t black-and-white. Moreover, in each example the ordinary life takes precedence over the extraordinary hardships. One chapter might feature an ordinary-seeming barbeque, with a few details reminding the reader of the power rationing and looming supervillain threats. Another has friends playing cards, two of them casually trying to convince the third to get out of the unnatural forest smothering the landscape and go somewhere he doesn’t need to wear an environmental suit all day.
This isn’t people making scraps of ordinary life when the extraordinary hardships abate; this is extraordinary hardships slipping between the cracks of ordinary life. The hardships aren’t the norm; life is the norm. People don’t have to abandon their lives to adapt to the new world, they just need to adjust to a new set of challenges. Implicit in this thesis is the idea that humanity can adapt to almost anything that comes its way. This hidden optimism, the idea that humanity can always find a way to live on despite all the horrors which threaten to destroy it, is a defining aspect of Wildbow’s work. Rather than accept the fatalistic, pessimistic tone of most post-apocalyptic stories, which claims that the end of civilization as we know it is a final conclusion, Wildbow says that Armageddon is just a transition from one kind of civilization to another. The last epilogue chapter is written, and a new tale begins.
In other words, I really want to see how he’d write a zombie story.
1: Real name John C. McCrae, but everyone calls him Wildbow.
2: Pact is the red-headed stepchild of Wildbow’s works in a number of ways. The nature of Pact’s magic and the presence of the masquerade affect how much Blake can come back from his sacrifices and how big of an effect his adventures could have on the world, while also handicapping how much it’s possible to rebuild. This is likely part of why Pact is considered to be unpleasantly bleak even by fans of Wildbow’s work, which (as you may have gathered) is far from cheerful.
3: Wildbow’s stories often take a chapter off from the “main plot” to show the world from another character’s point of view, though usually only for one chapter at a time.
4: Definitions for these terms can be found here.
5: The latter is probably easy to visualize. For an example of the latter, look at RWBY, which completely fails to communicate the peril the world faces from the Grimm until the Grimm suddenly overrun Beacon.