Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett

41940477The 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.

Review:

Trigger warning for anything and everything guns, violence, and mass murder.

The America circa 2030 that Bennett pictures is not a happy place. Take the most troubling parts of American life and shove them down the slippery slope – a lack of gun control leads to a culture where open carry is de rigueur and random gun violence is part of everyday life. Technology has evolved and a newscaster can be generated from algorithms, and live video can be manipulated to the point that you never know if what you’re watching is completely real. The West has fallen on extremely hard times and many young people in America have emigrated to places with better prospects like China and South America.

In this dystopian but eerily familiar world mass shootings approach entertainment, leading one company to develop a reality show based on that concept. Pay the owners of malls and other public gathering sites for the right to stage an episode of Vigilance at a time of the producer’s choosing, several fully armed people who want to commit mass murder are set loose on the unsuspecting crowd, and people who survive get a big cash reward. The entire ordeal is broadcast live to millions.

…disturbing as fuck, right?

The book follows the production of one Vigilance episode through the eyes of the main producer in the control room and a bartender every-woman. We see how America has changed, how hungry the public has become for this entertainment, and how many almost relish the thought of being unwittingly cast in the show to see if they have what it takes to survive.

Parts of this book are very well done. The world building in particular is tight and combined with a driving plot led me to reading the novella in a single day. (Wanting to avoid violent dreams may have been another reason….)  The America Bennett imagines may seem too far gone but the seeds of many ideas, especially with regard to technology, already exist today.

I had a bunch of issues as well, though. First, despite the female POV character I doubt this passes the Bechdel Test, and most women characters (that is, two out of three-ish) are stereotypes or a virtual personality made to fit the expectations and criteria of men.

Second, while the set up is interesting the end of the story fell flat. One character ended up being the undoing of another, and I recognized it as soon as they were introduced because I saw how the stereotypical gender dynamic was going. The story ends on a big AHA that felt not only out of left field but not in keeping with the themes he had been playing with to that point.

I think Vigilance works as a piece of speculative fiction in that it shows what America, ruled by greed and unchecked gun possession, could become. The idea of the reality show is fascinating, and I kept reading to see how this sort of thing could possibly be set up. Once we get past the setup, though, there’s a whole bunch of disappointment. It’s a haunting read, to be sure, and the idea behind the book will stick with me longer than the so-so writing, plot, or characters.