Robert Jackson Bennett
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.