Review: Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots
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 morality?
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