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“Vigilance” by Robert Jackson Bennett Adron Buske
Bleak, propulsive, and frighteningly plausible, Robert Jackson Bennett’s concise novella Vigilance examines an America which has embraced gun violence as inevitable and marketable. Yet the greatest weapons wielded in this warning tale are the tools of media manipulation, used to keep a diminishing populace paranoid yet eager for more corporate-sponsored bloodshed.
Tightly plotted and judicious of detail, Vigilance takes place over a scant few hours, ratcheting tension with a controlled deliberateness. At a broadcast facility for the ONT news network – the grandiose and believably named Our Nation’s Truth – executive producer John McDean leads a high tech television production team. McDean is a marketing genius who obsesses over demographic information, his focus narrowed to a highly specific Ideal Person, the prime target for his network and its advertisers. And, tonight, he and his team hope to upend all the previous ratings metrics, utilizing extraordinary data and technological resources to capture and sustain audience attention.
This is a near-future America that witnesses 500+ unprompted mass shootings a year, a pattern of escalation that has driven most of the younger generations out of the country. Those who are left are both desensitized to, and yet perversely thrilled by, the constant threat of violence.
McDean produces “Vigilance”, ONT’s riveting and lethal reality show, which unleashes carefully cultivated and strategically armed active shooters into meticulously selected public spaces.
ONT’s “Vigilance” justifies its provocation of citizen homicide by framing it as a warning to viewers: it’s a dangerous world out there. If you’re not ready, if you’re not armed, if you’re not trained and prepared to kill, it’s your own fault for being a victim.
Drone cameras follow the shooters as they assault innocent bystanders, children, and ill-equipped law enforcement. Digitally crafted, market researched pundits narrate the action, ready to pour regretful shame on unwitting casualties who just should have been more prepared. And TV ratings and social media buzz soar as audiences across the country hang on every moment, wagering on who will survive, and telling themselves that’d they’d be the heroes who would take down a shooter, if only they’d been there.
Bennett’s novella reads with the paranoid precision of a Black Mirror episode, with some of the darkly violent parable of The Purge films. It imagines an America where the government is bankrupt and largely powerless, controlled instead by a few phenomenally wealthy corporate interests. It shows the danger of Big Data run rampant, how the information generated by our credit cards, our social media accounts, our tech and our media consumption can be weaponized against us. It explores how digital tech emerging today, in our real world, can and will be used to cloud our perception of truth and mobilize consumer discord for mercurial agendas.
As we watch John McDean lead his team of digital puppet masters and former NSA spooks, all desensitized to the bloody results of their product, we also learn who he answers to. Behind the curtain are aged and unnervingly preserved titans of industry, powerful old men of unimaginable wealth whose appetite for money and influence can never be satiated. Even McDean, who indirectly murderers countless civilians through his program, even he is disturbed by his handlers and their obsessive ambitions. One in particular is introducing a new variable into tonight’s program, a technology called Perseph. McDean and his team don’t really understand what it is or does, only that at the peak of their show’s viewership ratings, its effects will be added to the broadcast.
As primary point-of-view character, McDean is ostensibly the villain of the story. He’s unscrupulous and amoral, driven by numbers and dollars and the endorphin rush of unprecedented success. But Vigilance illustrates that even those who know how to manipulate people on a grand scale often don’t understand what it means to be human. And that, however aware of the systems and patterns they utilize, they are themselves just as susceptible to obfuscation and interference.
Bennett provides one counterpoint POV character, a young black woman named Delyna, tending bar on the evening of the surprise Vigilance broadcast. Her patrons are, as a rule, practicing concealed carry, to varying levels of competence and responsibility. And all of them are overtly excited when the show begins streaming, taking bets on the outcome. Delyna, the daughter of a policeman whose family has experienced gun violence, is not so eager to partake in the spectacle. Her busy tavern workplace provides a microcosm view of how ONT’s “Vigilance” sows fervor and unrest in equal measure.
While McDean aggressively taskmasters his team of top tier professionals in a secure control room, Delyna tries to keep peace with unruly drunks riled up by media bloodlust and propaganda. Through her eyes, we see the desperation of the working class who remained in the United States while their children fled to safer countries, and the way allegiance to their countrymen has eroded. How willing they are to watch their fellow citizens suffer and horrifically die, on TV, on their phones, between commercial breaks — for entertainment. It’s nauseating, all the more so because, in our current political climate, it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch.
Outside of McDean and Delyna, the rest of people populating Bennett’s world are mostly names and job titles, each layered with a standout, repetitively noted trait that keeps them recognizable. A few feel like outright caricatures at times. At 190 fast-moving pages, though, there isn’t space or need to flesh them out. With such a lean plot, it’s also very telegraphed which characters will bear a significant role in the outcomes. Bennett puts all the pieces in play and makes sure some of them have very predictable moves. The end result feels less like a surprise and more like an inevitability.
This is a dark, pessimistic story, and parallels to our modern reality are transparent and pointed. Vigilance pulls no punches in its repudiation of gun worship, media irresponsibility, and the amorality of Big Data. It’s clearly a critique of talking-head faux news punditry and a cultural, national identity formulated primarily of greed and fear. It’s no stretch to expect that a large chunk of conservatively-minded readers might reject this story outright as “agenda-driven” liberal propaganda. But Bennett isn’t hiding or disguising anything here. Vigilance is a warning, an all-too imaginable outcome of our present day situation. Unnervingly prescient in the way of the best and most disturbing science fiction, it examines an aspect of our existence and exaggerating it to its most disruptive and harrowing degree. Vigilance pains the reader, not because its violence and death and disconnection are so outlandish, but because they are so familiar. It reflects our own cultural attitudes and ambivalence, amplified, made all encompassing. And, at its core, it shows us a point of no return, a place beyond hope for salvation or reconciliation.
This is Bennett’s warning for the reader, the lesson echoed from ONT’s vile reality show. This is the future that’s coming for us, if we aren’t prepared, if we aren’t cautious. If we aren’t vigilante.
I’m a big fan of Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside (read the review here) and his skill as a storyteller is on display again here. Novella length was the right choice for this story. It’s not a world I would want to stay in for long, but the conceit is strong and the delivery powerful, even if much of it was predictable. There’s a lot to mentally chew on here, much of it not for the feint of heart.
I actually worked in traditional broadcast media for over a decade, so I’m very familiar with marketing demographics and other concepts explored here. Too close for this story to feel comfortable at times, really. I was working in radio during the big shift from gut-driven management tactics to Big Data driven strategy. Converting people to demos and data points is part of the deal, but it is dehumanizing and often immorally manipulative. Bennett obviously understands those concepts well. In the age of Cambridge Analytica scandals and Facebook’s breaches of user trust, it’s easy to see where his head was at writing this, and why the warning signs in our present day headlines feel so dire. And I suppose I’m of the right mindset to be open to the author’s message.
As a reader, I really like novella length books, so that’s a big attraction for me. And as I’m already a fan of Robert Jackson Bennett’s work, I would definitely grab this off a shelf. However, the very apropos artwork of hundreds of firearms would have been much less enticing for me. But I think that bit of marketing is an interesting move, as the cover art and blurb seem more inclined to attract the gun enamored, who might be turned off by the actual premise. I do hope they give it a chance, though.
Even though it’s a quick afternoon read, I don’t know that I’ll revisit Vigilance any time soon. It’s bleak as hell and not something you read for enjoyment. But I will keep it as something to lend to friends. And to remind myself to, yes, stay cautious, stay vigilant.
Adron Buske is a speaker, writer, interviewer, and multimedia storyteller. A media professional since 2001, he spent 11 years in the radio industry as a digital creative director and, later, a corporate executive. He has worn many creative hats: video production director, graphic designer, web developer, fashion photographer, performing musician, gaming festival organizer, comic creator, and voice talent. He is a frequent speaker at pop culture conventions around the country, presenting seminars about entertainment careers, the craft of storytelling, and ways to power-up your life using concepts from gaming and fiction.
The Fictitious Podcast, hosted & produced by Adron Buske, delves into the craft of Science Fiction and Fantasy storytelling through interviews with authors and other writers, creators, and publishing professionals.