RogerBW's Blog

Hench, Natalie Zina Walschots 04 February 2022

2020 superheroic SF. Even supervillains need office workers, and like everyone else they hire through a temp agency. Anna didn't expect to find herself holding a mind-control device to the mayor's kid's head, but she still became collateral damage when the superheroes came in to rescue him. Then it gets interesting.

Because Anna Tromedlov (groan, and what's worse nothing is ever done with the name), with a shattered femur and no income, starts running the numbers: just how much damage does a superhero do in return for the benefits of foiling a robbery, saving a life, and so on? Using mathematics derived from the modelling of natural disasters, she works this out and publishes it; and from there it's a small step to realising that superheroes are a net blight on the world, and taking a bit of subtle revenge.

This seems to be quite a polarising book; some readers are quite happy to say that Anna took the job working for a villain, so she deserves all she gets, while others notice just how little actual choice she has (take the office job or starve; agree to go along and be a diverse face at the presentation, or get fired and starve; hold the device when the villain hands it to her, or get fired and starve). She's looking out for herself – well, yes, nobody else is going to! ("Where is the government if jobs are that scarce?" says one American reviewer on GoodReads. Where indeed?) This is not a friendly world where virtue is rewarded by the end of the episode and there's always a new job waiting round the next corner. And if we drop all that, does even the most enthusiastic evildoer deserve life-altering injuries handed out at the whim of one individual?

Yes, Anna does gradually progress to full-fledged supervillainy, as defined by those in power; but unlike the heroes, she cares about the collateral damage. So rather than try to blow away the hero with a Huge Cannon o' Doom, she sets things up so that they feel more vulnerable, more cautious, less universally loved, and maybe they'll think twice before tossing a car full of people aside to get the next villain.

But that's not the whole story: friends are lost, others are gained, and there's a strong divide between those who see people as people and those who see them as tools. Personalities matter and affect the way people act, much more than their superpowers do; indeed most of the people we meet don't have powers at all, which is a story I simply find more interesting than how far Super Guy can jump.

Since Watchmen, everybody deconstructs superheroes, but it's hard for many writers to get away from the basic power-fantasy that they represent: what if you could solve crime by punching it in the face? It's an appealing idea until one thinks about it, and some people never do. This is the first book I've read that dares to depart from the orthodoxy that superpowered fighters for good must be a net good thing for the world.

I found the start a little slow, but after a couple of introductory chapters things get properly going and don't let up until the end – which isn't quite as conclusive as one might like, though Walschots is hoping to write a sequel at some point. Good stuff, and I'll certainly take an interest in whatever she does next.

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  1. Posted by Jon Hancock at 02:28pm on 04 February 2022

    "what if you could solve crime by punching it in the face?"

    In the unlikely event that I write a supers RPG, that will be the tagline.

  2. Posted by Dr Bob at 06:04pm on 04 February 2022

    Watching many of the superhero city-pulverising, slug-fests which seem to be cinema staples these days, I can't help thinking that what superhero teams lack is... a D&D cleric. Or the superhero equivalent. Someone who has magical/super powers that can heal the mangled bodies and traumatised psyches of the normal human beings who get caught up in all this mayhem.

  3. Posted by Chris at 08:27pm on 04 February 2022

    I'm fairly sure it was in the eighties, though possibly just after Watchmen, that I read a comic by Neil Gaiman told in the voice of an adolescent who for some reason had not gone up to London with his mates on the day the Superheroes trashed the place in a fight with Evil. His mates died. One of them was left hanging on the spike of a church steeple with the wind making an eerie noise in his ribcage (Neil was trying to give me nightmares that year, and I disappointed him every time because I had been forced to learn in early youth how to defang those.)

    I've got a strong feeling that in the American-format comics I remember from the early sixties, Superman went to quite a lot of trouble not to kill anyone, nor to let anyone be killed, as a result of his actions during his battles against villains; in fact I remember him letting a villain get away because he had to rescue someone who had been put into peril. I think I'd have noticed and been frightened by gratuitous deaths when I was a child, and I am sure my mother and elder brothers would have warned me off the comics as they did books that might give me nightmares, after the unfortunate incident with HG Wells' Time Machine.

    If my memory is right, I wonder when it was that things changed and superheroes stopped caring about what happened to innocent bystanders.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 08:39pm on 04 February 2022

    1980s, I think, though I'm no expert on the history of comics. I think superheroes were always a power fantasy, but in the early days the writers took care to deploy them only against similarly simplistic villains.

    The property damage aspect has become much more obvious with the recent popularity of superhero films, presumably because it's relatively cheap spectacle. (Just computer time, none of that tedious need for creativity which Hollywood can never understand.)

  5. Posted by Chris at 10:16pm on 04 February 2022

    Early eighties would make sense: I wasn't paying attention at that point, and my children were too young to be reading comics.

    Neil's in the late eighties was definitely making the point that superheroes needed to be more careful where they put their clumsy great feet, anyhow. Mine at the same time were taking the piss rotten out of the semi-clothed barbarian female Conan sub-genre, and in spite of being a mercenary soldier the non-eponymous heroine deliberately never killed anyone she didn't absolutely have to. (All very moral: only the Evil Queen killed people and destroyed things for no good reason. Eventually the American fans noticed and started to complain.)

    Having had a look-see about the place, I now know that my early reading experience was during what was called "the silver age of comics", when the Comics Code Authority had some actual teeth because distributors wouldn't handle comics that didn't have their seal on them. When I came to write the things, I didn't even know that had existed: the seal was just something that had been on comics but I didn't need to have it.

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