Review: Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon Jan 10 18:57:49 PST 2022

by Natalie Zina Walschots

Publisher: William Morrow
Copyright: September 2020
ISBN:      0-06-297859-4
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     403

Anna Tromedlov is a hench, which means she does boring things for
terrible people for money. Supervillains need a lot of labor to keep
their bases and criminal organizations running, and they get that labor
the same way everyone else does: through temporary agencies. Anna does
spreadsheets, preferably from home on her couch.

On-site work was terrifying and she tried to avoid it, but the lure of
a long-term contract was too strong. The Electric Eel, despite being a
creepy sleazeball, seemed to be a manageable problem. He needed some
support at a press conference, which turns out to be code for being a
diversity token in front of the camera, but all she should have to do
is stand there.

That's how Anna ended up holding the mind control device to the head of
the mayor's kid when the superheroes attack, followed shortly by being
thrown across the room by Supercollider.

Left with a complex fracture of her leg that will take months to heal,
a layoff notice and a fruit basket from Electric Eel's company, and a
vaguely menacing hospital conversation with the police (including
Supercollider in a transparent disguise) in which it's made clear to
her that she is mistaken about Supercollider's hand-print on her thigh,
Anna starts wondering just how much damage superheroes have done. The
answer, when analyzed using the framework for natural disasters, is
astonishingly high. Anna's resulting obsession with adding up the
numbers leads to her starting a blog, the Injury Report, with a growing
cult following. That, in turn, leads to a new job and a sponsor: the
mysterious supervillain Leviathan.

To review this book properly, I need to talk about Watchmen.

One of the things that makes superheroes interesting culturally is the
straightforwardness of their foundational appeal. The archetypal
superhero story is an id story: an almost pure power fantasy aimed at
teenage boys. Like other pulp mass media, they reflect the prevailing
cultural myths of the era in which they're told. World War II
superheroes are mostly all-American boy scouts who punch Nazis. 1960s
superheroes are a more complex mix of outsider misfits with a moral
code and sarcastic but earnestly ethical do-gooders. The superhero
genre is vast, with numerous reinterpretations, deconstructions, and
alternate perspectives, but its ur-story is a good versus evil struggle
of individual action, in which exceptional people use their powers for
good to defeat nefarious villains.

Watchmen was not the first internal critique of the genre, but it was
the one that everyone read in the 1980s and 1990s. It takes direct aim
at that moral binary. The superheroes in Watchmen are not paragons of
virtue (some of them are truly horrible people), and they have just as
much messy entanglement with the world as the rest of us. It was
superheroes re-imagined for the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, for
the end of the Cold War when we were realizing how many lies about
morality we had been told. But it was still put superheroes and their
struggles with morality at the center of the story.

Hench is a superhero story for the modern neoliberal world of reality
TV and power inequality in the way that Watchmen was a superhero story
for the Iran-Contra era and the end of the Cold War.

Whether our heroes have feet of clay is no longer a question. Today, a
better question is whether the official heroes, the ones that are
celebrated as triumphs of individual achievement, are anything but
clay. Hench doesn't bother asking whether superheroes have fallen short
of their ideal; that answer is obvious. What Hench asks instead is a
question familiar to those living in a world full of televangelists,
climate denialism, manipulative advertising, and Facebook: are
superheroes anything more than a self-perpetuating scam? Has the good
superheroes supposedly do ever outweighed the collateral damage? Do
they care in the slightest about the people they're supposedly
protecting? Or is the whole system of superheroes and supervillains a
performance for an audience, one that chews up bystanders and spits
them out mangled while delivering simplistic and unquestioned official

This sounds like a deeply cynical premise, but Hench is not a cynical
book. It is cynical about superheroes, which is not the same thing. The
brilliance of Walschots's approach is that Anna has a foot in both
worlds. She works for a supervillain and, over the course of the book,
gains access to real power within the world of superheroic battles. But
she's also an ordinary person with ordinary problems: not enough money,
rocky friendships, deep anger at the injustices of the world and the
way people like her are discarded, and now a disability and PTSD.
Walschots perfectly balances the tension between those worlds and
maintains that tension straight to the end of the book. From the
supervillain world, Anna draws support, resources, and a mission, but
all of the hope, true morality, and heart of this book comes from the
ordinary side.

If you had the infrastructure of a supervillain at your disposal, what
would you do with it?

Anna's answer is to treat superheroes as a destructive force like
climate change, and to do whatever she can to drive them out of the
business and thus reduce their impact on the world. The tool she uses
for that is psychological warfare: make them so miserable that they'll
snap and do something too catastrophic to be covered up. And the raw
material for that psychological warfare is data.

That's the foot in the supervillain world. In descriptions of this
book, her skills with data are often called her superpower. That's not
exactly wrong, but the reason why she gains power and respect is only
partly because of her data skills. Anna lives by the morality of the
ordinary people world: you look out for your friends, you treat your
co-workers with respect as long as they're not assholes, and you try to
make life a bit better for the people around you. When Leviathan gives
her the opportunity to put together a team, she finds people with
skills she admires, funnels work to people who are good at it, and
worries about the team dynamics. She treats the other ordinary
employees of a supervillain as people, with lives and personalities and
emotions and worth. She wins their respect.

Then she uses their combined skills to destroy superhero lives.

I was fascinated by the moral complexity in this book. Anna and her
team do villainous things by the morality of the superheroic world
(and, honestly, by the morality of most readers), including some things
that result in people's deaths. By the end of the book, one could argue
that Anna has been driven by revenge into becoming an unusual sort of
supervillain. And yet, she treats the people around her so much better
than either the heroes or the villains do. Anna is fiercely moral in
all the ordinary person ways, and that leads directly to her becoming a
villain in the superhero frame. Hench doesn't resolve that conflict; it
just leaves it on the page for the reader to ponder.

The best part about this book is that it's absurdly grabby,
unpredictable, and full of narrative momentum. Walschots's pacing kept
me up past midnight a couple of times and derailed other weekend plans
so that I could keep reading. I had no idea where the plot was going
even at the 80% mark. The ending is ambiguous and a bit uncomfortable,
just like the morality throughout the book, but I liked it the more I
thought about it.

One caveat, unfortunately: Hench has some very graphic descriptions of
violence and medical procedures, and there's an extended torture
sequence with some incredibly gruesome body horror that I thought went
on far too long and was unnecessary to the plot. If you're a bit
squeamish like I am, there are some places where you'll want to skim,
including one sequence that's annoyingly intermixed with important
story developments.

Otherwise, though, this is a truly excellent book. It has a memorable
protagonist with a great first-person voice, an epic character arc of
empowerment and revenge, a timely take on the superhero genre that uses
it for sharp critique of neoliberal governance and reality TV morality,
a fascinatingly ambiguous and unsettled moral stance, a gripping and
unpredictable plot, and some thoroughly enjoyable competence porn. I
had put off reading it because I was worried that it would be too
cynical or dark, but apart from the unnecessary torture scene, it's not
at all. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-01-10


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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