Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett
Robert Jackson Bennett’s newest work, 2019’s Vigilance, is a slim (under 200 pages) but densely satirical take-down of modern American society. Set in 2030, Bennett details an America well into its decline:
There’d been a mass migration of the younger generations and immigrants out of America throughout the 2020s, leaving the nation saddled with an older generation that couldn’t work but was entitled to steadily advancing medical technology that kept them all alive for far longer than any economist had ever predicted. The elderly population ate up whatever national budgets remained like locusts devouring corn … America stopped doing everything. Except television.
And the most popular show on television? Vigilance — a reality game show born after the “514th mass shooting of 2026” where a media/advertising company places active shooters into environments and then streams the carnage, sort of a modern mash-up of Rollerball, The Running Man, The Hunger Games, Columbine, and — most bitterly tragic, the news. Both shooters and environments are carefully selected for their impact on demographics, audience reaction, advertising potential:
You wanted the environment to be right. It had to have broad appeal … You wanted at least two active shooters … one shooter was boring and anything north of six was confusing for the audience.
At the end of the slaughter, prize money is handed out: a million dollars to the family of active shooters killed during the show (the most typical outcome), five million to any civilian or police officer who kills a shooter, twenty million to any shooter who survives, which has happened only twice in the show’s history (thanks to careful tweaking of selection criteria to ensure it didn’t happen again after those first two).
The two POVs come via John McDean, the producer of Vigilance, and Delyna, a young black bartender. McDean offers a behind-the-scenes look at tonight’s “episode” while Delyna’s part of the novella shows us the audience through her rapt bar crowd (all of whom are packing guns, of course). Between the two (and via some omniscient explanations of how things got to this point), we witness the episode from its pre-production stages through the event itself and then its unexpected (kinda) aftermath.
We are both huge fans of Bennett’s earlier work, so we decided to have a conversation about Vigilance, something we’re both sure many people will be doing once the book comes out.
Bill: Ok, so let’s talk about the satire first, which is pretty blistering, with Bennett pulling no punches in terms of vividness (there is no move away from the “camera” when the actual slaughter begins) or targets, a non-exhaustive list of which would include: gun fetishism and violence, media manipulation, fear of the other, American exceptionalism, inequality, racism, misogyny, killing of black people by law enforcement, toxic masculinity, surveillance, drone warfare, American myth-making (translation: self-delusion). This a grim, angry (though not without attempts at humor) screed, and I have to imagine Bennett felt pretty good during and just afterward (just as I imagine him banging on his keys in his office yelling out like Oprah’s evil twin: “You get a fuck-you! And you get a fuck-you! And you get a fuck-you! …”
But sharp as the blade is, it never sunk into the flesh for me. Which left me wondering why exactly that was. Bear with me if you can, Marion — this will be long. What I came up with in terms of personal obstacles are:
1) My fear that modern society has simply outrun satire. I mean, when you’ve got a reality-tv show president who paid hush money to a porn star he slept with while his wife was home with a newborn, and who bragged about serially sexually assaulting women while being investigated for colluding with Russia to tamper with an election while media personalities mock teenagers who survived a mass shooting in their school and America pays more attention to Titan Games and The Masked Singer, I guess it begs the question — where does satire go to be more weird? I mean, yes, we’re not in Bennett’s world. But it seems to me that once upon a time the distance between the satirical and the actual used to me more safely, more reassuringly distant. So maybe that blunts the edge a bit here.
2) The fact is that I happen to agree with Bennett on (double-checks), yep, pretty much everything here. So instead of thinking too deeply, I just kind of nod my head and go, “Yup. Yup. Uh-huh. Wait, missed a ‘fuck-you’ there … Oh, there it is. Never mind. Yup.” So that may have worked against the impact.
3) The broad and familiar nature of the characters, sometimes so stock that I have to assume (based on what I know about Bennett’s other writing — which is superbly original) is intentional. So we have the amoral ad exec/media producer. The pervy computer guy. The twangy, over-the-top, homophobic Texan oil magnate. The coldly inhuman messianic, sadistic exec extending his human lifespan (when he at one point utters “Excellent,” I couldn’t help but wonder if Bennett was channeling Montgomery Burns). We even get the bullying gym teacher reference. Even if, as I assume, this is all self-aware, and it’s certainly not unusual for satire to paint characters so broadly, it still created a distancing effect for me.
4) The scattershot nature of the novella, which as noted above, hit a slew of targets, but so many strikes may have diluted the impact of each individual one.
5) And finally, most depressingly, just a creeping sense of despair. Satire is supposed to help prod us forward, make us look more closely, allows us to see what hasn’t been seen (or willfully ignored). It’s fighting the good fight. But, and this cycles back to point one, if we can’t change based on seeing children fleeing a slaughterhouse in real life, where does that leave satire’s power? And I say this as a guy currently writing his own satirical play involving school shooting. Because sometimes you just have to. But still.
Marion: Bill, my thoughts? You pretty much hit everything. I don’t know if my sense of numbness at the end was just a reaction to trauma and I was somehow affected by this intentional horrorshow, or if I’m just… numb.
Bennett’s eloquent rage blazes like a firestorm through every page here, certainly. I believe that Bennett didn’t want distance. I firmly believe he is excoriating the modern world, right now. I agree with you that this is an angry satire.
I also agree that somehow, as a satire, it didn’t quite work. I was interested in your comment that we might be living in a post-satire world. As I was typing this, an elected president of the United States has just “grounded” the Speaker of the House, in a move that a CNN reporter compared to playground behavior. So… yeah; is satire necessary? On the other hand, last fall I read Charlie Jane Anders’s novella Rock Manning Goes for Broke. Much of that had a satirical bent, and it worked quite well. It did make me think; it did make me look at current events in a different way. I didn’t close Vigilance with that sense.
I understand painting characters in broad strokes, but I had big problems with the types you mentioned. I was okay with McDean, the brilliant, morally twisted adman who is the brains behind the TV game-show Vigilance. The two money-men stereotypes, Hopper and Kruse, fell far short of what I expect from this brilliant and original writer. Hopper, for instance:
The corpse is fat and bulging, especially around the arms and hips, and it has countless tubes running into its graying, wrinkled body, into its arms, its neck, its ears…
He’s a grotesque, and he’s an oil man who made his fortune largely through fracking and his body mimics what he did to the earth… okay, okay, I get it. And Kruse is a reptilian android, and he’s the tech-billionaire. Oh, and Hopper, the Texas oilman, is also homophobic and yet strangely obsessed with gay men. Either this is Bennett suddenly distrusting his audience (“Oh, no… They might not understand that Hopper is a monster who should be killed with fire, so I’ll make it really obvious!”) or it’s him letting his rage take over the story. And I really think it’s that second thing.
I engaged with Delyna, and I thought that part of the story, as small as it is, was more genuine and provided a good contrast to the Vigilance game. Certainly Delyna is the closest we get to an “everyperson” POV character.
Bill: I agree Delyna is that everyperson, but while she wasn’t over-the-top as the other characters, she still felt too constructed for me, more prop than character, complete with on-the-nose introspection or memories (as with her dad’s lecture on guns).
And while we’re on Delyna, I suppose we should talk about the other female character, Tabitha, who offers up both a plot twist (sort of) and another satirical target. All I’ll say about the former, so as to avoid spoilers, is that it didn’t work as a twist for me in that it seemed pretty clear to me from the start that’s where that storyline was heading. As for the satire with regard to sex, virtual sex, obsession with youth, deep fake software, etc., I don’t know. I didn’t feel I needed it to further characterize McDean, the sexual aspects felt sort of thrown in and a distraction from the America as fearful/gun violence core argument, and, well, just yuck (how’s that for incisive criticism?). Your views on her character?
Marion: I too had a pretty good idea where we were going as soon as Tabitha appeared – although I did snort with laughter at her first “selfie.” Near the end, however, there is a phone call from her that I found unbelievable [Bill nods in agreement]. I found it unbelievable that she would call in the first place and engage in that kind of a monologue (the story didn’t actually need it) and I could not believe that, in the moment, once he had figured out what happened, McDean would stay on the call with her. Why? Because Bennett still had some points to make about whose fault this all was?
Beyond character, I think Bennett took a few other missteps plot-wise. One is with the China conspiracy, which I didn’t think well-established. Another is Bonnan, one of the “active shooters,” a nice-looking young Nazi boy. The plot robs him of agency at the very end, and that wasn’t necessary either. Like McDean, he was already convincingly horrifying without that final “twist.” (In fact, a satire from a Bonnan character’s POV, in the same set-up as Vigilance, might have been interesting to read and… oh, wait. That’s A Clockwork Orange. Sorry.)
And I didn’t completely understand this world. A minute ago I was complaining about the satire part of the story, and now I’m going to say that if the camera had pushed in, so to speak, on just the Vigilance game, Vigilance the story might have worked better for me. Several things about the world were good, were clear: the flight of young people to better countries; China’s economic dominance, the effects of global warming. Reference to a war with Canada made no sense to me, and neither did the idea that these massive changes had happened, along with things we already know about, like online retailing, yet life in public places is exactly the same as it is now. I mean, shopping malls are starting to fade now. And I wondered while I was reading it, whether Vigilance, the TV show, in fact competed with everyday mass shootings in this dystopia. The way the world’s described, wouldn’t that be happening? If so, why doesn’t McDean worry about that competition?
Bill: Yes, I’d agree the world felt like a slightly ragged medley, with some parts working and other parts not feeling fully thought out. As for the China factor, this was another aspect that felt like a distraction (that “scattershot” nature of the story I noted above), so I could have done without it. I also was disappointed that it introduced an exterior player. The concept of “we did this to ourselves” is still predominant certainly — gets out and out stated even (again, too blunt for me) — but still, the outside actor I thought muddied the close, and thus weakened the impact of the satire.
Marion: The internet spawned an expression: “performative rage.” As an act of performative rage, Vigilance succeeds. As you pointed out, I could check all the boxes about my biases about Americans with guns, greed, advertising, and so on. It confirmed those biases. It didn’t move me, and it didn’t make me think, two things I read Bennett for.
Bill: I had the same response, or more accurately lack of response, and especially in comparison to Bennett’s other works. The characters and situations were too broad to garner an emotional response, while the plot was too didactic, expository, and too much in line with what I already think to force me down a challenging mental path. I often comment in my reviews about how one of my favorite aspects of fantasy is how the metaphorical can be made literal, which allows us to peer more closely at ourselves and our society with a bit of clarifying distance. I wonder if Vigilance is just too close to the reality to have the same impact, say, of Foundryside or the Divine Cities trilogy.
It seems we’re both in agreement that Vigilance didn’t succeed as satire (or story either?). But to end on a positive, I would note that Bennett’s writing style is a perfect fit for what he’s attempting here: propulsive, stripped and sparse, a lot of dialogue, few similes or metaphors, sharp language. It’s a change in some ways from, say, the DIVINE CITIES style, but like any good author, Bennett shifts style and tone to match purpose and story. Craft isn’t the issue here.
Marion: Stylistically, the McDean scenes in the studio just crackled with tension and energy for me. This is not an issue of craft. This is a question of an author’s choice and how we responded to it. Bennett is passionate about what greed, selfishness and privilege are doing to this country (and the world), and even when a piece by him does not work for me, I stand in awe of his talent (and his work ethic!). And I applaud Bennett’s courage for trying a new style and a new type of story, even though it didn’t work for me.
This was a miss for me [and Bill] but I think it will engender a lot of discussion [Bill nods]. And probably inspire a subReddit hate group.
When the news itself feels like satire every single day, it’s hard for me to actively seek out satirical fiction — I’m just so burned out at this point. If nothing else, you two make me feel like I’m not a lone nut screaming at an audience of rocks and trees, so thank you.
That’s similar to the sentiment I expressed to Bill when we started discussing VIGILANCE.
OK, you talked me out of that one. And in looking back, most of these short novels/long novellas that have come out over the last few years have been underwhelming. The Murderbot ones are the biggest exception. The Peter Watts one (Freeze-Frame Revolution) and Gwyneth Jones one (Proof of Concept) were just okay, and a lot of others that some people liked (Passing Strange, The Jewel and Her Lapidary, JY Yang’s first two, Dave Hutchinson’s Acadie, and Six Wakes) were too thin to even rise to that level.
I should be an ideal audience, having grown up on Ace doubles. But the quality of genre works has advanced quite a bit since those days, and even a short novel now should have either some real depth of characterization or a believable and involving plot in order to be satisfying (if not both).
Well, I really like PASSING STRANGE and the Yang stories (although I think they are so closely linked that they will work better when, at some point, the entire series is published in omnibus format), and I love Okorafor’s BINTI books. I see your point though; the novella length still needs a complete (ish) plot, and it’s a good chance for the thorough worldbuilding you usually can’t fit in a 5K-word story. I’m delighted to see them out there, but I know they won’t all be gems. And I appreciate the shout-out to Ace doubles! A nice moment of nostalgia.
I’d like to see someone like Carolyn Ives Gilman try this format, since she’s very good at making shorter works still feel substantial. Or (this is probably too far out) Thomas Pynchon–some of his books have single chapters that are like miniature novels in themselves.