Everyone is terrible and that’s incredible: a review of Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots is the story of a down-on-her luck henchperson by the name of Anne struggling to make ends in a horribly exploitative capitalist society where heroes and villains own their own companies with disastrous HR practices. When Anne gets into an accident with the most famous hero of them all— Supercollider— her rage pushes her to try to fight back in the only way she knows how: blogging. This catches the eyes of some exceptionally big players, including, much to her chagrin, Supercollider.

And now I get to review it

What can I say about Hench other than it took me by surprise, to the point where I probably ruined my posture for life as I was hunched over reading it.

It starts off as an extremely on-the-nose take of someone who is being chewed up and spat out, almost living on the fringes of society in the Gig Economy. Anne is a Hench— a goon for hire. She must pray and balance her bank budget to make sure she can eat from week to week, and prays the temp agency will give her something— anything— to put bread on the table, regardless of what it is.

The situation seems to improve for Anne when she is hired for the mysterious E, a minor villain CEO for a startup (and a habit of asking you far too many probing questions). E looks to capitalise on a recent new invention of his, and through some unspoken actions of Anne, takes a shining to her, to the point where she thinks she’s actually on the way up. Unfortunately, she very quickly finds out the motive of E; she’s a placeholder, a PR puff so people won’t crawl up his ass for having too many male goons around. He has an image to uphold, after all. Even worse still, Supercollider— who punches well above the realm in which E operates in— decides to drop in. Anne is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and suffers greatly for it. After a brief stint in hospital and physiotherapy, Anne goes home and is morose and dejected, her life essentially ruined. It is in this ruination, that she starts to focus her anger into something tangible.

I’d been thinking about Supercollider the wrong way, I learned. 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.

And in that anger, Anne behind to calculate the hard numbers. She comes to realise that heros objectively cause more harm than good for the relatively small bad being done by villains. In human life alone, Supercollider has done great crimes. In fact, if he continued, he would cause as much harm and damage as an earthquake. So, she does what she can in her limited capacity.

She starts a blog.

It goes the way most blogs go, languishing in obscurity, until she’s picked up by a journalist. But then people pay attention. People start asking questions. She starts coming onto the radar of people, villainous and heroic.

What I love about this story is the slow building of what makes a villain in the 21st century: Data, and how you use it. Anne’s only superpower is to be able to look at data and arrange it in such a way that it makes sense. It’s not unique in any sense of the word— the story points that out— but it is her approach that catches the interest of other people in the story, and mine. It is with this data-driven framing, and Anne’s growth away from the blog into long term employment by a supervillain, that this book takes real-world tactics from professional doxxers and makes it work to very chilling effect.

In one instance, Anne goes after a female superhero using witch-hunting and purity-trolling you regularly see online on twitter and others. It’s a scenario designed to be extremely uncomfortable, and feels like it’s the author’s statement that only in a world of superheroes and supervillains do these actions feel justified. But in the context of Anne, none of these things matter: she is doing her job, and she’s getting paid and rewarded handsomely for it.

The characters do not try to offer any kind of justification for what it is they are doing. Why would they? They’re people first, supervillains second. Anne only spends a few times reaffirming herself that her actions are just. She only need look at the numbers— the total years of human life saved— to act as her moral compass.

Hench is a delightful yet scary read that plays and deconstructs the superhero tropes. and one I well recommend reading.

Rating: 4/5

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