Vigilance Fearlessly Targets America’s Obsession with Violence

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Cover detail; art by Brian Stauffer

It’s not particularly daring to suggest that America is a nation obsessed with violence. The more we debate the impact of the brutality we witness on TV, in movies, and in literature, the less we seem willing to act to curb acts of violence in the real world. Robert Jackson Bennett, whose inventive fantasy novel Foundryside took on the corporate indifference to human suffering in the name of profits, explores the extent to which we’ll tolerate and even celebrate—with a nudge from canny marketing—the most extreme human behavior in his new novella Vigilance.

The America of the year 2030 is a recognizably more extreme version of our present. Global competitors like China have continued to grow economically and advance technologically while the U.S. stagnates, over-reliant on fossil fuels and seemingly incapable of making meaningful policy changes. A collapse in immigration and the flight of younger Americans to greener pastures has left behind an aging, increasingly white population. The number one TV show in this plausibly bleak future is Vigilance. The widely popular viral sensation airs on no fixed schedule. Instead, without fanfare, the program’s producers drop heavily armed combatants into seemingly random, thoroughly market-tested environments, offering big prizes to either the shooters who make the most kills or the survivors who manage to live through the ordeal.

It’s a premise that sounds almost cartoonish in its broadness, but Bennett sells the disturbing concept by taking us behind the scenes: John McDean is the showrunning mastermind responsible for wrangling all the technological and marketing resources at his disposal in order to engage the biggest possible audience and deliver the maximum possible returns for his overseers. As we follow McDean through his show prep, the concept starts to feel like less and less of a stretch. Rather than weighing the morality of his actions, McDean is analyzing a whirlwind of data in order to determine the ideal location to engage the right sort of viewer, and ensure they will experience the spectacle exactly as he wants them to. After all, as the show’s perfectly market-tested hosts suggest, why shouldn’t vigilance be a virtue? With so many threats (both enumerated and cannily implied) surrounding viewers on any given day, it’s shameful for any citizen to leave the house without being armed to the teeth and ready for action. Don’t you care about your own safety? The safety of your family?

Surely it’s easy for Vigilance‘s viewers to imagine themselves to be the good guy with a gun—a reassuring fantasy that offers a feeling of control in an uncertain world. On the other side of the screen, we’re introduced to Delyna and the regulars at the South Tavern as they receive word that maybe, just maybe, a new episode of the show is about to drop. Bartender Delyna is conspicuously unprepared for action, not because she’s fearless, but because she’s realistic about her chances in a firefight. She’s not particularly enthusiastic about even just watching the show, but Vigilance might as well be the Super Bowl—a thing not to be turned off lightly, particularly in a room filled with drunk and increasingly rowdy fans.

Of course, we readers know what’s coming—we’ve already been party to to John McDean’s agonizingly precise and detailed arrangements. Vigilance is headed to a mall. (There’s some concern that mall shootings have been done to death, but McDean and his team ultimately decide to go with what works.) In spite of all their careful planning, however, things don’t go as expected for McDean, who realizes too late that he has weaknesses of his own, and others are more than happy to exploit them.

Bennett’s take on gun violence in America is obvious here, which is not to suggest that the novella is a shouty, oversimplified, anti0gun polemic—it’s far too plausible for that. And Bennett is just as biting, and perhaps even more incisive, in his exploration of the extent to which our very thoughts and emotions have already been commodified in order to sell us products and make more money for already very rich people. The idea of an active-shooter reality show may or may not seem outlandish (near-rapturous news coverage of similar real-world events suggest that a sizable number of us would tune in, clucking our tongues all the while), but Vigilance, the novella, has just as much to say about our willingness to buy into any idea as long as it is accompanied by the appropriate keywords a few nods to our national mythologies. The carrot of reassurance and the stick of fear form a potent combination in modern-day marketing, and there’s no reason to believe that they’ll be less prominent in the future. (It’s almost as if some of our anti-violence vigilance is being misdirected somehow.)

This is bold, biting, fearless science fiction that will doubtless offend a bunch of different folks for all sorts of different reasons. Some will disagree with its message, others with its stridency, and still others with its violence (although the bloodletting is mostly implied). But in a time of near-daily mass shootings, it’s hard to imagine what a subtle take on gun violence would even look like. Certainly there’s a grand tradition of science fiction that goes for the jugular—think of the novels of Anthony Burgess, Karel Čapek, and George Orwell, or even Stephen King’s The Running Man; these works suggest that some dangers are too clear and too present to be treated mildly. Beyond a sense of purpose, Robert Jackson Bennett shares with those writers an essential talent for incisive dialogue and forward momentum that keeps Vigilance from being weighed down by its heavy themes. It’s a dark and challenging book, but it’s too soon to say whether it’s a warning to be heeded or a dire prediction of a future that’s already squarely in our crosshairs.

Vigilance is available now

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