You’ll Never Side With the Superheroes Again: Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Posted 17th October 2020 by Sia in Queer Lit, Reviews, Sci-Fi Reviews / 0 Comments

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Sci Fi
Representation: Bi/Pansexual MC, disability, characters of colour, minor genderqueer character, secondary gay and lesbian characters
Published on: 22nd September 2020

Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy? As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured.  And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one.

So, of course, then she gets laid off.

With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks.

Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.  And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance.

It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world.

I learned about Hench by – well, not quite luck, but KA Doore’s incredible list of 2020 Queer Adult Science Fiction & Fantasy Books. It was a very small mention (there’s not a lot of room on the list!), but the book was described thusly

– so queer is anyone even cis-het??
– superheroes are terrible and it pays better to work for the villain (plus they have health insurance)
– spreadsheets as superpower

Despite not being able to find out basically anything else about it, I was SOLD SO HARD. It sounded like a ridiculously cool premise! And again, despite not being able to find any reviews or pre-release hype about it, it was probably the book I was most excited to read in September.

(Which, considering how many epic books came out in September, is HUGE).

And then I picked it up…and I could not put it down.

Why was Doore the only one talking about this??? Why was it not all over every rec list in existence??? Hench is freaking fabulous!

Anna is a fantastic heroine (although she’d probably stick me with her taser-cane for calling her that) that I gelled with immediately; a fellow millennial trying to get by in an utterly ridiculous world. When the book opens, she’s trying to juggle her online grocery cart with the tiny amount left in her checking account, praying for the temp agency to call. She’s so very real from the very first page, someone just about all of us can empathise with so very easily.

Except…the temp agency is a temp agency for villainous henchpersons. Shouldn’t we balk? Doesn’t this mean she’s a bad guy???

Well, no. See the aforementioned juggling of the grocery cart. She’s just trying to get by. She works on data input, for crying out loud; she’s not laughing maniacally while murdering people. She’s commiserating with her friends about the job market and bosses who just do not know how to use a computer. She digs deep for patience when her boss wants to know about her feelings. She has no patience for idiots who will not put their phone on vibrate, no matter how many times the volume and intensity of their ringtone has been brought up as problematic for their coworkers.

She’s any of us. All of us.

And then she gets caught in the crossfire between a villain and a hero.

The last few years (the last decade?) there’s been a trend of gritty stories that try to ask whether superheroes are really heroes. The MCU had a go at it (which, wow, underwhelming take on the Civil War arc or what), the Batman vs Superman movie kinda sorta went there, and my husband has been greatly enjoying The Boys, adapted from the comics of the same name. (It’s too gory for me, but I trust his taste). The Incredibles 1 and 2 both touch on it. I could go on.

Maybe it’s because Hench is told in first-person by a narrator who could have been me in another timeline, but I think it packs a hell of a lot more punch than any other attempt at answering this question;

How heroic are superheroes?

Not fucking very, is the answer.

Anna’s leg is destroyed by a superhero’s brush-off – he wasn’t even trying to hurt her; she was just in the way. And during her recovery – which, for the record, was incredibly detailed and close to life; as someone who’s gone through too many surgeries myself, her accounting of surgery and physiotherapy afterwards, and how you struggle with a body that won’t do what it’s supposed to do, was – well, I applaud Walschots for the attention to detail.

Anyway, during Anna’s recovery, she becomes obsessed with the damage superheroes do, and how hard society works to cover up the fact that the balance sheets just don’t balance – the amount of harm prevented by superheroes doesn’t come close to how much they cause.

And this is where Walschots diverges from something like The Boys. Because rather than shoving the raw, gory horror of a dead girlfriend in your face, Walschots slaps down A DALY Measure of the Direct Impact of Natural Disasters, where author Ilan Noy produces a kind of formula for measuring the harm wrought by natural disasters.

I had been thinking about him as a person–an immensely destructive person, but a human being nonetheless. But he had more in common with a hurricane than a person, and once I adjusted my thinking, I realized there was a whole system devised to describe such forces, and what they cost. The currency was years of human life.

It’s a real article, but it’s okay if you’re not up to the math – Walschots doesn’t ask you to start working the numbers on the back of a napkin. Anna does it for us.

The only events that I could compare him to were catastrophic. Years ago, a 6.2-magnitude earthquake hit New Zealand; 182 people died, thousands were injured, and there were billions of dollars in damage. The entire downtown of Christchurch was leveled. There was no question in anyone’s mind that it was a disaster. It cost, according to the researchers who wrote the paper, 180,821 lifeyears.

Supercollider was as bad for the world as an earthquake.

This is fundamentally different to any take on this issue – the damage done by superheroes – than any I’ve seen before. This is cold, hard numbers – except it’s not, because the numbers are years of human life.

I’m reminded of a poignant statement I came across somewhere a few years ago (alas, I can’t find the source now), which went something like, ‘We wouldn’t call Batman a hero if all the bystanders the Joker kills had names.’ And that’s wandering down a slightly different road – Batman is presented as heroic because he refuses to kill, but does that make him responsible for the Joker’s victims if he continuously chooses not to stop the Joker permanently, when it’s clear no prison etc can hold him? – but I think the core point of it is the same as what Walschots is trying to say.

We see a hero pick up a truck and hurl it at a bad guy – but who’s in the truck? We see clashing titans break through an elevated highway – but who were the drivers in the cars that fell, and who’s paying to repair the road? We see the hero throw or blast the villain through a building – but who are the people inside it that are injured or killed, or the family that loses their business and livelihood because their store’s been demolished?

People. Normal human people like you and me. And even when the villains and their henchpeople get hurt – don’t human rights apply even to the worst war criminals? How much harm is it okay to do – to bystanders, and to villains – before you’re not a hero any more?

Using numbers isn’t how other stories have tried to get this point across. They shove you into the raw, gory horror of it, like The Boys, or else they try to appeal to abstract concepts like the rule of law, or they try to make it personal for the character in question, make it a small enough idea that the audience can wrap their head around.

And to be fair, the reader does vicariously experience Anna’s suffering and stress and the ruin this has made of her life. So it is personal, for her and for the reader. At first. But it grows much bigger than that when Anna starts researching other superheroes, not just the one who injured her. The personal hatred evolves into horror and outrage at the whole social institution of superheroes, and the society that works to support it and clean up after it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m surprised and impressed that Walschots was brave enough to go for the numbers. No, she doesn’t make the reader do the math ourselves, but she does trust us to keep up. We think of numbers and statistics as cold and emotionless; after a certain point, the human brain just kind of fails at comprehending how big a number is. Walschots shoves the numbers in our face and dares us to try and brush them off as meaningless statistics. It’s an argument that has no counter-argument, the way any other approach might – making it personal, putting value in abstract concepts, rubbing the gore all over us; our brains can squirm out of those things, ultimately.

But you can’t argue with an earthquake.

Anna starts publishing her numbers, and eventually that draws some attention. After a little while, one of the biggest bads in the world wants to hire her.

He wants her to keep running the numbers. He wants her to use the numbers.

And honestly? By that point, you’ll be cheering her on.

Hench is a book about questioning, and then attacking, unjust and dangerous systems. It’s about being helpless, and feeling so much rage. It’s about the danger of black-and-white thinking. It’s bitter and brutal and hilariously funny, and doesn’t take a scalpel so much as a hatchet to the ideal of governmental institutions and societal norms. It bares its teeth and flips the bird at those who can’t or won’t acknowledge that they’re full of shit and doing harm. It’s a book that says, ‘I’m not playing for the team that thinks this way of doing things is okay.’

It’s a very millennial book. It speaks to me and to my people, okay? In everything from its ‘I take my comedy like I take my coffee’ flavour of humour (pitch black, obviously) to the linguistic quirk of writing questions without question marks (and if that’s something you’re unfamiliar with, don’t worry; it’ll click for you the second you start reading it). There’s the deconstructing and questioning of social norms and governmental institutions; there’s the Nice Guy TM being far worse than any supervillain; and there is that special brand of depthless, helpless rage at the system and the people it chooses to protect. The helplessness feels so familiar; the anger, the viciousness, feels so familiar; so does the loyalty and found-family and the way the broken cling together and never let each other go.

It’s raw and brilliant and beautiful and wickedly clever; it’ll make you laugh and have your blood rushing in your ears and at some point, you will cry, from either heartbreak or joy. It is, genuinely, a superhero story like none you’ve ever seen before. It has a main character whose superpower is spreadsheets and powerpoints.

You absolutely have to read it. Seriously, you have to. This isn’t just one of the best books of the year; it’s setting the bar for the rest of the decade. And good luck to anyone who wants to try and top it.

You’re gonna need it.

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