Review: VIGILANCE by Robert Jackson Bennett

Publisher: Tor.com
Page Count: 208
Release Date: January 29th, 2019
Series: Standalone
Rating: 4/5 Stars – Really Liked It

bennett_vigilanceThe year is 2030.  An enterprising media company has figured out how to harness the strange relationship between America and fear. As much as its citizens are terrified of things like mass gun violence, they can’t stop looking away, and they can’t stop feeding into the cycle that perpetuates that violence. Thus, the TV show VIGILANCE was born, supposedly to warn the populace about the need to stay “vigilant” against threats at home.  At random intervals throughout the year, VIGILANCE chooses a location that has agreed to be part of the pool of potential victims (in return for a lucrative contract) and releases shooters into the environment. Ordinary citizens who take down the shooter can win a cash prize, but so can the shooter if he manages to be the last one standing.  It’s a carefully choreographed process, all geared towards the advertisements that flash in the feeds of the social media streaming the game.  Sure, anyone at any minute could be a victim, but wouldn’t you want the chance to be the hero?

VIGILANCE is a hard book to read, mostly because so much of the content is relevant to today’s world state.  I read this by coincidence only a few days after Christchurch, yet another horrific act of violence brought about by guns – and this one was live-streamed.  It sadly doesn’t seem that far-fetched at all that mass shootings could be turned into a spectator sport.  The sections of the book that depict the game of VIGILANCE itself – how it’s structured, how shooters are chosen, how the locations are chosen, how everything about the optics are carefully managed to bring the maximum amount of fear and paranoia of “the other” – these are the parts of the book  that hurt the deepest and resonated the most.

VIGILANCE largely cuts between two characters: John McDean, the executive producer of VIGILANCE who is overseeing the broadcast of the latest show, and Delyna, a young black woman working at a bar that ends up displaying VIGILANCE to its patrons when the show goes live. The juxtaposition of watching the person manipulating an audience against a “real” person watching the crowd respond to the show was effective, and added a necessary alternate POV on gun violence from a minority perspective. McDean’s section occasionally spouted dialogue that was crass to the point of cartoonishness, but was biting in its analysis what causes a (white) person to be invested in watching horrific acts of violence and what makes them sympathetic to the victims.  It was also eerie watching the “newscasters” covering the event who were using rhetoric about patriotism and defending one’s self that wasn’t that far removed from rhetoric I hear in the real world today.

Where things fell apart for me was the third act.  There was an added twist that I didn’t feel really brought anything to an already fairly horrifying story, and just pushed the conceit a bridge too far. But with 80% of the story largely successful, I found I couldn’t give VIGILANCE less than four stars. It’s a troubling look at the relationship between media and the gun culture in America and is worth a read if you are able to handle the material.

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