Vigilance, a new novella by Robert Jackson Bennett, is a love story between America and its guns—and as with all toxic relationships, someone’s going to get hurt.
In a near-future America undergoing a fast, steep decline—a nation where the young have left for safer and brighter ports, while an older generation hangs on by its fingernails to the old vision of what America could be—a right-wing news organization has found the exact thing to prey on their fear. This America, much like our own, is both fascinated by and numb to the horrors of mass shootings: people are still willing to watch the coverage, and not yet sick of it enough to turn away from the brutality. So John McDean, one of the lead marketers for Our Nation’s Truth television network, has turned shootings into a reality TV show: Vigilance.
Bennett spares no detail in painting a picture of what it’s like to live in McDean’s head: craving higher and higher ratings for each new episode, always trying to reach out to the ideal viewer (white, older, sexist, racist, scared), desperate to constantly reinvent what the horror of a mass shooting should feel like, McDean has calibrated each episode of Vigilance to find new ways of exploiting fear. Will it take place at a train station? A school? A mall? A church? Bennett explores the terrifying questions that such situations force us to ask, but instead of asking these questions in pursuit of safety and survival, he has McDean ask them in pursuit of ratings.
As Vigilance begins to boil toward its new episode, Bennett takes every opportunity to illustrate exactly the sort of technology—and the morality— that goes into creating such a horrifying show: augmented reality and holographic hosts and content bots that flood the internet, all engineered by white men who are craving a hit from viewers, pursuing it like a drug. And while they sit safely in their studio, orchestrating murder for ratings, tweaking reality to inspire fear and rage at the world, Bennett also takes us into the real world.
In a run-down tavern, Delyna is a young black woman hoping for things to get better. In an almost-unspecified corner of the world, she’s a waitress and bartender, dealing with shitty tips, bad customers, and fearing when the next outbreak of Vigilance will hit. Many of her customers and the regulars at the tavern are armed, eager for the day when the show hits their town, thinking they’re prepared. As the next episode of Vigilance draws closer, Bennett uses this tavern as a microcosm for America at large, split between the majority (folks who love their guns, indulge in their worst instincts, and bet on who will survive Vigilance) and the minority that still has hope for this country, but can’t help but wonder when it all started to go wrong. As the night progresses, the stakes and tension in the tavern grow higher and higher, until Bennett literally and figuratively pulls the trigger.
The final piece of this novella, this puzzle of gunmetal and bullets, is the show itself: watching the auditioning of potential active shooters, empowered to be as destructive and lethal as possible; experiencing the gamification of shooters picking out their weapons, their armor; witnessing the moments before the Vigilance starts, when social media is rampant with speculation on where it’s going to take place. And then the shooting begins. Three active shooters are released, and the results are horrific. Families are mowed down, people of all ages falling before they can even register what’s happening.
Rarely do things that I read make me feel sick, but Vigilance, especially the sections of story set during the show itself, made my stomach churn. Not only because of the violence, which is sudden and brutal. And not only due to the growing tension, as person after person is effortlessly taken down. No…it’s mostly because we never see this violence experienced with any empathy or compassion; the victims are faceless, unknown, their lives playthings in the hands of the shooters, the studio executives. The distance Bennett maintains during this section is what sickens the most: the dispassionate observation of studio executives, the senseless enthusiasm of viewers at home. It captures the numbness, the exhaustion, and the constant desensitization to mass shootings in the real world and drives it home. In this world, no matter who you are, it’s just television. Just another show. Until you’re in it, of course—then, it’s life and death.
In the end, Bennett weaves together plot threads that culminate in a vision of what will ultimately come of America’s love affair with firearms, and the answer isn’t pretty. But of course, the reality of the situation now, in both fiction and truth, isn’t pretty either. And as the satire of Bennett’s brilliant novella begins to hue closer and closer to reality, the end becomes more and more evident until it is a barrel staring up at you through the pages like an inexorable threat: this obsession will end in destruction. Whether the damage is self-inflicted or not, there is only so much time to pull away from this path; the decision is up to us as a society. Let’s hope Vigilance can help change some minds before it’s too late.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.