Book Review: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

VigilanceRJBVigilance
Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor
190 pages

Why I Chose it:
C’mon.  Robert Jackson Bennett is an autoread for me, and this particular book? As writers, a lot of us struggle with terrible public events, feeling like we should be able to put words on the page to expose the awful truth of things. But most of us just flail in that direction. So when I heard that RJB had written a satirical SF novel about America’s obsession with–and enabling of–mass public shootings, I picked it up.

I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it.  Satire is as often bitter as the truths it exposes.

The Premise:
Robert Jackson Bennett’s Vigilance is a dark science fiction action parable from an America that has permanently surrendered to gun violence.

The United States. 2030. John McDean executive produces “Vigilance,” a reality game show designed to make sure American citizens stay alert to foreign and domestic threats. Shooters are introduced into a “game environment,” and the survivors get a cash prize.

The TV audience is not the only one that’s watching though, and McDean soon finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Discussion:
I’m going to avoid spoilers for most of this review, but really there are no surprises here.

The blurb tells us right away that McDean will suffer the same fate as his “contestants”. There are some fiddly little twists, but overall, this book provides what you expect.

And that was… weirdly disappointing.

The book is compulsively readable.  RJB is great at stringing words together and creating vivid characters, even in the shorter form of the novella.

That said, I expected more somehow.  More of an edge. Something more potent than just the USA turning public shootings into a patriotic-tinged game show, which… I’ve seen before and before and before.  So many story-lines go back to the bread and circuses of the Romans–death for sport. It’s not enough to really make me sit back and think. I’ve seen variations on it in Star Trek and Doctor Who and any show that ever declares “fight club to the DEATH!!!”.  It’s trope is what I’m saying. And kind of a tired one to hinge the entire novella on.

(Now if someone wanted to write a satirical novel about the NFL and CTE, that would be interesting, and RJB touches on it a bit here.)

The big problem for me is that I expect a certain level of horror/shock or appalled laughter from my satires—like I did in reading Swift’s A Modest Proposal or Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens.

Or Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, which gave me this:

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.

This is giggle-worthy writing, bleakly true, and best of all, relatable.

In Vigilance, I got that sting only once in the entire book.

McDean’s guts flutter unpleasantly. He does not want to piss off Kruse—but he can’t share the man’s blithe confidence when it comes to subjecting his entire audience to a subliminal AI about which he knows fucking nothing at all. He’s heard Kruse’s people conduct tests on prisoners, and the thought horrifies him: prisoners don’t share the same race and economic backgrounds of any of his primary demographics at all. The population’s all wrong! If that’s his sample, then it’s skewed, utterly fucked! This could decimate his TMAs.
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TMA- Target Market Activations, by the way if you, like me, are not up on marketing terms.

This point stung and resonated, twisted the common expectations of McDean’s horror in an effective way.  We’re poised, after the thought horrifies him, for human rights violations, not poor demographic matches.

McDean is our primary voice, though there is a secondary POV from Delyna, the “Regular girl” who (rightfully) loathes Vigilance. But then, she’s not his target audience at all, being neither white, nor male, nor constantly afraid. She’s feels only tangentially there–much like the comforting commercials McDean airs between scenes of Vigilance–to soothe the reader and keep them turning the pages instead of turning away.

But in the end, Bennett uses Delyna’s POV in a wonderful (horrible) way to make his primary point.

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

The “Vigilance” TV-watching portion of the USA descends into gun-fueled chaos courtesy of the subliminal AI mentioned above.  Chaos and bloodshed everywhere. Everyone turning on everyone else, guns ablazing like any old Western movie. Not a surprise.  We’ve seen the writing on the wall from page one.

Then there are the customers in Delyna’s bar, and what happens when she dares to turn off the TV in the middle of the episode.

Her patrons don’t fall prey to that subliminal AI because she shut the TV down before the AI started its work; their minds are still their own.   And yet… and yet… they still erupt in violence. Because, as Bennett suggests on every page, once you have a gun in your hand and fear in your heart, there’s no backing down.

So even though Bennett put a third party player on the page, he doesn’t let it absolve the citizens from their murderous, destructive spree.  See, Bennett suggests, they (we) would have erupted eventually anyway.

That’s a powerful statement, and sadly, one that lacks an easy rebuttal.

Overall:
I’m glad I read Vigilance. At the same time, I wish it packed more punch.  Maybe it’s that I keep thinking of Vigilance as a satire, and Bennett wrote it as a parable—a lesson for us to learn from.  Maybe it’s the brevity. There was a lot of world-building glossed over or hand-waved away. Maybe it was just that this was such a White America story and I kept wondering where the other citizens were—just keeping their heads down, like Delyna? Trying to keep a low profile? Or fleeing the country for inexplicable welcomes elsewhere. I felt a lot of absence in this book.

I think, looking at the Jingo quote up above, I know what hampered this book the most for me.  For it to be a satire or even a parable, we have to recognize ourselves in the pages.  We have to say oh god, I’ve thought that, felt that, could I become THAT?!? And I never got that feeling here. McDean is a compelling caricature but he’s not relatable.  I was never in danger of thinking, oh a few missteps and I’d be like him….

There was a tiny moment that zipped by, part of the set-up and explanation for how this game show came to be: ads accidentally get linked to violent footage of a public shooting and… the ad revenue soars because people keep watching and watching.  And watching. That’s relatable.  Our appetite for disasters is marketable.  I believe it. Anyone who reads, watches, or otherwise consumes True Crime stories knows how thin the line is between observing a terrible act and glorifying it.  Between analyzing it and mythologizing it.

I think, in the end, though Vigilance is an enjoyable, thoughtful read, and one I definitely recommend, it isn’t the story I wanted to read. Someone, somewhere has written or is writing something scathing about America’s Gun Problem ™ which holds a mirror up to each and every one of us “regular people”. That’s the one I want to read.

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Book Review: Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

A Fantasy Rant

One of the things I’m attempting to do with my current fantasy novel is to stuff it full of animal life–not only because Rhi and Ferrus are naturalists, hunters, and proto-zoo keepers.  But it’s always been a pet peeve (no pun intended) that the fauna is very often lacking in fantasy worlds.

I think it’s a failure of understanding on our parts as writers.  We live in a person-oriented time; we live and write in cities; we live in climate controlled boxes, and wildlife really isn’t much of a daily consideration.  We vastly outnumber animal–or perceive that we do.  And if we’re not looking for them, it’s easy to overlook how many we pass by even in a city: sparrows and pigeons, rats and squirrels, cats and dogs, bats and the insects we never see unless they impinge in our personal space.  But there are so many animals moving around us, living their lives.

And in a fantasy world–which is so often under-populated, agrarian, and rustic (no climate control for these folks!)–the characters would be constantly exposed to or dealing with wildlife.  As small as the weevils infesting the flour and as large as oh, say a stampede of bison.  Mostly what I see in fantasy is the domesticated animal–the horse, the cat, the hound, the message pigeon or the magical versions of those.  I see the dangerous animals–the dragons, the wolves, the serpents.  I see the food animals–chickens and rabbits and fish.  I see human-adjacent animals, basically.  The ones that have uses to humans or the ones who threaten humans.  I don’t see the rest.  The vast array of the rest.

I want to see them.

I crave them.

The lizard skittering across the leaves.  The butterflies that migrate through the hero’s path.  The freaking dung beetles.  The scavengers.  The song birds.  The harmless pests.  The spiders that aren’t poisonous.  The garter snakes.  The alligator sunning on the bank with the anhinga clicking and croaking away.  I want the fantasy world full of animal sounds.  I want cicadas droning away.  I want my characters to be sleeping outside by their firepit and be woken by possums poking around or to have an annoying owl hooting all night over head.

So my challenge to all of us is to just look for the animals in our world then apply that number to our fantasy worlds.  I get up.  I see my pets.  I go outside.  I startle robins on my lawn.  I drive to work.  I see red-tailed hawks on the wires.  I park in the parking garage.  I see sparrows and pigeons.  At night, in warmer weather, there are bats darting around the tall streetlights.  I dig in the garden and turn up worms and cicada grubs–white and unfinished and ghostly–and spiders skitter away from my hands.  A trip to Home Depot brings me more sparrows in the rafters, their wing beats audible even when they’re not.  A flash of movement.  I can smell skunk on the road from a conflict I never saw.  Coyotes run the park and I hear them yipping.  An owl cries “who cooks for you”. Pillbugs wander through my garage.  And my cats kill stinkbugs and wrinkle their noses at the acrid smell.  In the spring, an orb weaver covers my door every night and has to have its web wiped away with my leaving.  My life is FULL of animals.  And I live a sedate life in the city.

So my question is why should our fantasy characters lead a less full life than we do?

If you’re a writer and you’re writing fantasy (or even science fiction–don’t get me started how somehow all the animals have vanished in SF), do that for me.  Look for the “unimportant” animals in your life.  Count them up.  And then, apply that to your characters.

Also, if you know of any good writers who do include the “irrelevant” animals, sing out and let me know!

 

 

 

 

 

A Fantasy Rant

Miscues and other misadventures in writing

One of my jobs is freelance critiquing through the Odyssey workshop.*  I enjoy it.  There’s something very satisfying about helping writers find a better way to express themselves.  But it does mean that I tend to view all writing–mine, the mss I deal with, and even the books I read for pure pleasure–with an analytical eye.  There are a lot of writing “problems” people struggle with, but I think one of the worst is miscuing the reader.

I was thinking about this at breakfast this morning as I was reading book samples.  I download book samples throughout the week as the fancy takes me, then, on leisurely Sundays, when I’ve forgotten what the books are about, read through them.  Today, one of the books I sampled (not going to name it) began with a simple scene with the protagonist standing on a porch, feeling anxiety.  We’re given the emotional simile, “Character stood on the porch, with as much fear as looking over the edge of a five-hundred-foot drop.”  A little clunky, but harmless, you’d think.

Except.  It’s backward.  Standing on the porch evokes looking over the edge–and I’m primed that this character is afraid to leave the porch, afraid to make that leap into the world.  So at the end of the page, when it turns out he’s afraid to knock on the door… I have this weird rotation of my mental image happen.  Like the entire stage shifts.  The boy is not looking outward; he’s spun about and looking at the door.  He’s coming, not going.  It’s a miscued simile.  Because porches are raised, even if by an inch or so, and because he’s thinking about a drop, we’re cued that the character is going to take that step down.  So obviously, he’s leaving the house.  Not arriving.

Tiny, tiny thing, but jarring.  And in my case, enough for me to delete the sample.

Watch your similes, people.  Watch them.  Make sure they’re not suggesting something else.

It’s not like I’m perfect, either, god no.  I am currently embarked on a drastic revision of the fantasy novel I wrote, because I miscued the reader terribly.

Not even a tiny simile error for me, either.  No, I miscued the entire damn tone of the book.

The first segment is all about my characters trying to escape their home environments–which just happen to be courtly and political.  So I’m cuing the reader to expect a political fantasy, with lots of back-stabbing and infighting and striving for status.  And that’s not what this book is about at all.  No!  It’s an adventure novel!  But because I spent too much detail on their homes and took too long to get them on the road, whoops!  Now it says: expect politics!  Expect courtly intrigues!  Expect battles won by manners and maneuvers.  Not monster fighting.  Not road hardships.  Not wild pursuits.

Yet, each scene stands on its own.  There’s conflict.  There’s character.  There’s event.  It’s just cuing the reader to expect the wrong story.

So yeah, that’s my Sunday thinking: Avoid miscues in your writing.  Look at what you’re saying on the page and what you’re implying, from the micro (on the porch looking out/in) to the macro (ffs, look at the tone of your chapters and see what they’re suggesting your book is about, Robins.).

There are twists you want the reader to experience, but miscues are a totally other beast, and they’re not welcome.

*I swear I am a much better critiquer than I am a blogger.  I have decided to fight my perfectionist tendencies by allowing myself to blither on the blog without obsessing over every word and piece of punctuation.

Miscues and other misadventures in writing

Scenes from the Pet House

The way my mornings go in winter.

Little Dog #1 AKA Jeffrey AKA Mr. J:  My toes are cold.  Can I sit on your lap while you eat breakfast?  I promise not to lick your toast.

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adorable, right?  But I am a cruel person and say “No!” and “Go lie down in the giant dog bed I bought you, you spoiled thing you!”  And I pet his fuzzy head.

Then Little-but-not-quite-as-little Dog #2 AKA  Ursula, AKA U AKA Ursabear says:  What about me?  I will sit on your lap and help you with your breakfast, see how useful I am?

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But my heart is made of flint.  I refuse!  I pet her little head and say, “No, now go eat your breakfast, you still have kibble left.”

Then comes Remy, AKA Cat #3, AKA Noodleshark, AKA psychokitten and he says:  SUCKERS, you ASKED!

Remylaptime
Jeez, this picture is nearly life-sized.  But hey, it just means you get the full force of his SMUG.
Scenes from the Pet House

Library Haul

A quick stop in at the library netted me a collection of things to read.

More Gail Carriger: always readable.  Another Ellery Adams book since I enjoyed The Secret, Book, and Scone Society. A couple of random thriller types.  One graphic novel that I’ve heard fun things about: Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. And Godblind, which… is probably not going to be to my taste given the word “grimdark” keeps getting tossed at it.  I have zero qualms with dark.  But grimdark always seems to involve the characters either wallowing in their misery, or a strong undercurrent of tragedy, or nihilism, or drawn-out torture scenes, or all of the above.  Still, it’s a library book!  Costs nothing to try it, and who knows, I might adore it.

Went back to the local bookstore when they called me that the NK Jemisin book was finally back in stock. So How Long ’til Black Future Month came home with me, which I’m excited about.  And then there was a new release Lyndsay Faye book: The Paragon Hotel which I snatched up so quickly I realized that somewhere along the line Lyndsay Faye became an autobuy. The opening was gorgeous; the kind of weirdly confessional prologue that usually leaves me cold.  Here, it really worked.

 

Library Haul

Reading Roundup

So last week or so I brought home the library haul.  Five books, three of which I read completely, one of which I got 2/3rds through, and one that went back without really getting started.  Then I hit the Raven Bookstore with a holiday giftcard for more bookloot.  These are the results.

The Guilty Dead: Monkeewrench #9Not a surprise that I really enjoyed The Guilty Dead, the ninth Monkeewrench outing.  I skipped book 8 somehow, but each of these novels is pretty much standalone.  One of the things I most like about this series is that even as the mysteries build to super high stakes, each step feels plausible.  The characters are believable in their context.  My favorite of the series is still probably The Sixth Idea, but this is a good entry. I understand that PJ Tracy is a solo act now after the death of her mother, but she’s doing her mom proud. Recommended for mystery lovers.

Creatures of Want and Ruin

 

I went back and forth on whether I was enjoying Creatures of Want & Ruin, by Molly Tanzer and in the end, the exceptional and out of the ordinary, characterization, demonology, and setting made this a win.  Her books aren’t always paced the way I’d like, but they always make me feel rewarded for reading them. I’m looking forward to more in this world. Recommended.

 

Pop the Clutch! This is an anthology I picked up on a whim, despite not having any particular Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horrorinterest in Rockabilly culture.  And the book had some formatting/editing issues that really irked me–splash pages of art left blank with <IMAGE PENDING> left behind; stories that repeated a sentence twice, the constant misspelling of “altar”.  But crankiness aside, there were some gems of stories in here.  I really enjoyed “Tremble” by Kasey and Joe Lansdale about a singer with a grudge; “Dr. Morbismo’s InsaniTERRORium Horror Show” by Lisa Morton about schlock horror shows running into a real ghost; and “I Was a Teenage Shroom Fiend” by Brian Hodge which has them all beat for pleasantly weird.

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean.  How many times am I going to check this book out before I Priest of Bones (War for the Rose Throne Book 1)finally finish it?!?  At least one more.  The deal is that somehow, despite McLean’s great writing, and treading the sweet spot between “gritty” and “nihilistic”, and me being invested in the characters, I just keep hitting a wall. This time, I got through the entire first act, much of the second, and well… I’m not as interested in the turn the book makes toward politics.  Add in the fact that it’s not a stand-alone, and I lose momentum.  I’m still going to recommend it though because it’s really well-written!  And really compelling!  And I’m going to check it out again. Recommended.

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep.  A DNF.  Really, more of a DNStart.  I blame the blurb.  It told Kill the Queen (A Crown of Shards Novel Book 1)me too much of the exciting event to happen, so that I started the book on a mental timer, waiting for the slaughter to begin.  And instead, I got a slow build, where the heroine notes all these “odd” things going on in the palace, but doesn’t draw any conclusion–which annoyed me, because I already knew what the conclusion was: SLAUGHTER!!!  I was impatient and not in the mood.  I sent it back to the library.  It looks like it might be a lot of fun for the right reader.  That’s apparently not me.

 

Picked up two mysteries at the local bookstore, one of which I disliked immensely because I thought the heroine and her family were horrible stuck-up snobs.  Her sister met her fiance… ON THE INTERNET!!!! The Horror!!! And it tried really hard for quirky cast of characters but mostly just felt crowded and full of people I would hate to be around.  Not going to name it.  But it was one of those cozies that require the mystery to stop while the “gimmick” is run through.  In this case, every meal involved a long description of the cooking process.  Which, really, was maybe my favorite part?  But… if I want to read about cooking, there are other books with that as the actual focus.

The Secret, Book & Scone Society

 

The Secret, Book, & Scone Society by Ellery Adams on the other hand was pretty good.  It’s a little artsy for my taste in some places–the four women sharing their “dreadful” secrets and handing out secret keys, and the like–but in the end, I really liked these characters and would gladly read another book in the series.

 

Though I never read A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice & Virtue, that didn’t stop me from picking up the second book in the series, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats & Piracy.  I felt comfortable The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracydoing this since it revolved around a secondary character from the first book as this book’s protagonist.  And I’m always up for reading about a determined girl trying to break down the rules of society that get in her way.  Things I really appreciated about this book?  Multiple female characters, all fighting for their futures in their own ways, and learning to respect each other’s choices.  That’s before you get to having an Ace protagonist, which is always refreshing.  My only hiccup was that I was reading along assuming this was pretty much basic historical YA and suddenly there were magical dragon scales.  So that sort of took me aback.  Not badly, just a bit of blinking and wondering how MacKenzi Lee managed to convince the publishers to go for that!

And a personal fail.  I bought a book I already owned.  God, I hate that.  A lot.  At least it was a good book!  A Treacherous Curse, book 3 of the Veronica Speedwell mysteries by Deanna Raybourn.  I would recommend this series for anyone who loved the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters.

Reading Roundup

Library Haul!

It’s that awkward time of the year where we’re careening between holidays and the dreaded LIBRARY CLOSURES.  It’s not like I’m not surfeited with books in my house, but the very idea of a holiday without any library books to hand is… alarming.

So I zoomed in today after work and picked up:

The Guilty Dead: Monkeewrench #9Creatures of Want and RuinPop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horror

Priest of Bones (War for the Rose Throne Book 1)Kill the Queen (A Crown of Shards Novel Book 1)

Because I never trust pictures to really be worth a thousand words, the books are:

PJ Tracy’s The Guilty Dead, which is a Monkeewrench mystery.  This is a strange series for me.  Some of them are excellent.  Some of them are tragic.  And some of them just sort of misfire.  The authors seem to cram other types of genre into their mystery so each book can be a pretty different reading experience.

Creatures of Want & Ruin by Molly Tanzer. The title made me think it was a sequel to Creatures of Will & Temper, which I quite liked.  But if so, it’s a sequel by setting, rather than protagonist.  That’s all right by me.  Hopefully, this one the dog won’t eat.  I had to buy the first book from the library after the puppy got hold of it.

Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horrors.  Totally not my kind of book, but hey it fell off the shelf that I was browsing and it’s a library–it costs me nothing to give it a try (unless the dog gets involved).  So I took it home.

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean.  Technically, I have borrowed this book before.  But, I had just cracked it open, decided I really liked the voice of the book, when it came due.  The downsides to quickly browsing the “new releases” shelves when I’m in a hurry.  It was back; I am going to read this one first this time.  Seems like it’s going to do the difficult work of treading the path between “gritty” (bleh!) and “realism” well.

Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep.  Long ago, I bought Spider’s Bite, but never got around to reading it and misplaced it.  It’s here. Somewhere. In one of the book piles. But for now, the idea of an epic fantasy with a modern urban fantasy sensibility seemed deeply appealing.

Also picked up: Rick Springfield’s newest CD The Snake King.  (The man is STILL MAKING MUSIC!  Is it any good?  I will find out!)  And Camila Cabello’s self-titled CD.  I like the “Havana” song.  It’s catchy.

Library Haul!