In the 1980s, the British pop group Talk Talk decided it had had enough of its heavily produced, saccharine sounds for the masses and decided to veer off in a new direction, self-producing their own album Spirit of Eden. A commercial failure yet something more sophisticated connoisseurs of music picked up on, the album is testament to the value of going with your heart and creating what’s real to yourself. With a history of only genre-oriented fiction in his wake, I can’t help but feel that Robert Jackson Bennett, with 2019’s Vigilance, is striking out on his own—at least in this instance. But perhaps most interesting is, Bennett striking out on his own is not what may polarize readers; it’s the story’s substance that’s likely to divide.
With Robert Sheckley, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Ursula Le Guin, and a variety of other writers standing—standing—on the wings applauding (Sheckley is probably cupping his hands and shouting “Encore!”), Vigilance tells the story of a near-future America that doesn’t feel entirely futuristic. With gun laws perpetuating themselves unaltered, mass shootings only increase in America, and the government decides to take advantage. Preying off fear and paranoia, they go with the flow and make entertainment of it. Each citizen required at all times to be ready for an active shooter, the ultimate reality television show is born: Vigilance.
Vigilance told from two points of view, the first is television producer John McDean's. Armed with an armada of advertising algorithms, A.I., and a mind tuned to people’s interests and fears, McDean maximizes the drama and commercial value of the tv show for its investors. The second is barman Delyna. Living a simple, honest life, little does she know the night’s tv entertainment is about to become reality in her middle America neck of the woods.
Right off the bat is the most important aspect of Vigilance: taxonomy. Many are quick to categorize Bennett’s portrayal of paranoid, gun-loving America as satire. But is it? Does the tone imply Bennett is taking the piss out of American culture, or, is in fact the story a possible, near-future vision of American life? The fact there is no clear answer to that question is where Vigilance comes into its full value as art. If Americans consider the idea of guns blasting randomly and regularly away in public something normal, where does society stand on the subject? If phrases like “active shooter” have entered common vocabulary and schools are now running drills for such scenarios, what does that say about the presence of mass shootings? If mass media outlets focus on doom, gloom, drama, and threats to drive ratings, what does that say about the information being transmitted at the societal level and the people which consume it? And by extension of all these questions, does that render Bennett’s novella a whiplash joke? Certainly the reality of the story doesn’t exist today… but does it?
There is only one weak part of Vigilance: the conclusion. Rather than heading down a Sheckley-esque or Ballardian road, Bennett chooses to throw sand in the eyes of the reader and confuse the story’s vision, unfortunately. Put more succinctly (but not spoilery), one of the primary causes of American fear and paranoia driving involvement and interest in the show Vigilance is revealed as having been legitimate. Given the edginess and strength with which the condemnation of American fear mongering was delivered to that point, I do not have the impression Bennett was subverting his own vision, rather trying to tie off the plot in neat fashion. That it partially undermined theme and substance is unfortunate. Far more appropriate would have been to conclude the story on open tragedy, e,g. mid-chaos, thus leaving the reader to draw their own conclusion, or perhaps through personal tragedy—possibly emotionally cheap, but effective.
I’ve read stories like Jeffrey Ford’s “Blood Drive”, which is an innocent (enough) satire on the idea of requiring high school students to carry guns, as well as Joe Hill’s “Loaded”, a story playing both sides against the middle in terms of the value of guns to society. But I’ve not read anything like Vigilance. It grabs the bull of American violence by the horns and bodily picks it up and throws it. No wind and no caution, Bennett imagines a society, fed by the increasing desperation to make ends meet, where fear and guns are openly sanctioned and mixed for entertainment, then asks the reader to consider the reality and implications of it. Looking at the number of doomsday cults, backyard bunker builders, and rapturists in America, it's clear Bennett has hit upon something. One can only hope this is the beginning of a number of such “fictions” examining and questioning the relative aspects of American culture and governance. Given how fundamental fear of attacks on freedom and the right to have guns are to the country’s culture, and the increase in relative problems, Vigilance is automatically one of the most important books of 2019. One can only hope that Bennett, on top of his more familiar genre output, continues to produce stories closer to his political heart.