Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

So in my day job I do things related to fairly customized computer software, and if the company needed some extras to stand around in the background for a public presentation or a video about a new product, sure, I’d do that. Anna Tromedlov, the first-person narrator of Hench, says yes to more or less the same thing and a few hours later has her femur shattered for her trouble. To add insult to grievous injury, she had been a temp so now she’s laid off. Of course, she knew that she was temping — henching — for a supervillain. But she hadn’t counted on bumping into — ok, getting thrown across a conference room by — the world’s leading hero, Supercollider.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Those comic book scenes where the hero interrupts the villain’s press conference or announcement or demonstration of their latest nefarious technology, the scenes that feature lots of bodies flying around like tenpins and bouncing off of furniture and walls and whatever? That was Anna’s afternoon, with her one wild and precious life in the role of the bounced. Afterward, all the glory goes to the heroes, and anyone who looks in afterward figures the henchpeople got what they deserved for working for the baddies. The doctors put Anna back together, of course, because that’s what doctors do, but then she’s looking down the barrel of half a year of recovery, a high probability of permanent disability, and even more limited career prospects.

Hench starts out as a novel of young people taking crappy young-people jobs, scraping by among lots of friends in similar situations, making fun of the system while they still only have half a foot in it. The world is full of superheroes and supervillains, giving things some odd twists, but in previous decades the characters would not have been too out of place in Generation X or Slackers. When Anna gets an offer to upgrade from remote data entry work to more on-site analysis, she calls her best friend June, who’s already on-site as part of the same villain’s team.

“But what is it like” [asked Anna].
“Normal. Boring. An office. The lighting is terrible.”
“But is it. You know.”
“Weird.” I hesitated. “Or evil.”
[June] laughed around a mouthful of … popcorn? “No. The vibe is much more shitty start-up than lair.”
“Did you think there was a fucking lava moat?”
“Shut up.”
“You did.”
“Shut up.” …
“So I should take the job?” [asked Anna].
“Okay. Listen. There are some things you need to know.”
I felt my chest squeeze. “Yeah?” I hopped off the counter and stood awkwardly in my tiny galley kitchen, between the fridge and sin.
“It’s mostly about the boss. Electric Eel.”
“Is he scary?”
“No! Not at all.”
I flinched, feeling very stupid. …
June was struggling to find the words. “He’s–man. He’s not … Huh.”
I put my hand on the freezer door. “Is he a pervert. Is he going to touch me.”
“No! Calm down–shit. He’s a supervillain, not a fast-food assistant manager.”
“I have never done this, okay.”
“Oh, I know. Look, the office isn’t on a fucking airship. There is a piranha tank, but it’s decorative and not for feeding lazy interns to. The computers are out-of-date and this one personal assistant microwaves fish every fucking day. It annoys the shit out of me. You’ll love it.” (pp. 14–15)

Anna likes the data work, she improves the cover company’s spreadsheets, and when someone asks her to stand in the background for a public presentation, she says sure, why not. Here’s how that ends for her:

Supercollider took the opportunity to rush the [villain’s hired fighter], and unluckily, trying to keep myself from being burned to a crisp, I had stumbled into the hero’s way.
He absently moved me aside, out of his path, as though I were a piece of furniture. He might not have been trying to injure me, but it was like a glancing blow from a transport truck. His flesh seemed impossibly hard, the way jumping from a great height into water is the same as hitting a concrete wall once you reach a certain velocity. I felt my body buckle and give.
I was briefly airborne and landed badly. I sat, stupidly, in the middle of the floor where I’d fallen, legs splayed out, in shock. (p. 50)

The cop who interviews her a couple of days later in the hospital implies that the villain caused her injury, even when confronted with conclusive evidence otherwise. The system is well on its way to spitting her out when she has an insight. “I’d been thinking about Supercollider the wrong way … 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.” (p. 72) Data maven that she is, Anna soon reaches a conclusion: “Those few minutes in a hotel conference cost all of us 152 years of our lives combined. Supercollider had decided that a kid’s little finger and the Eel’s ransom demand had more value than 152 years in hench lives. Maybe a lot of those years wouldn’t have been terribly good, and would have involved a lot of busting heads and driving recklessly and working for villains. But they were our shitty years, and they’d been taken from us by an asshole in a cape playing judge and executioner.” (. 75)

Her conclusion leads to calculations about the toll that superheroes are taking from the world around them. That leads to an anonymous blog called Injury Report that exposes the human and material costs that heroes are imposing on everyone else. And that eventually gets noticed.

Three-quarters of Hench is about what happens when Anna goes to work for Leviathan, the most famous and dangerous of all supervillians. She has a plan to make heroes’ lives miserable, to sap them of public support, to use data and insight into character to bring the whole edifice down. It’s very dark, and very hilarious. Amidst the heroics and villainies, Hench remains a novel about working and life, but once Anna gets really into henching, she finds a supportive boss, people who look out for each other, and human connection well beyond the daily grind. It helps that she’s all-in for the mission.

“I would cut every cable, knock down every beam, tear out every bit of foundation supporting [Supercollider]. I would rip the world down around him. It’s everything surrounding him that makes him a hero, so I would take everything he touches and relies on away. With all that gone, if you met him alone on an empty plain, what would be left?” (p. 220)

Pretty good monologue for someone new to the villain business.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/10/16/hench-by-natalie-zina-walschots/

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