I recently found a rash of novellas at my local library from authors that I enjoy reading, and I picked up a few of them. This is the first of those, and was likely the one I was second most excited about to read. Robert Jackson Bennett has been a favorite of mine ever since I stumbled across his Divine Cities series (EBR Archive), and so picking this one up was a no-brainer.
VIGILANCE (Amazon) is a novella that tackles the idea of the danger of gun violence in our society and extrapolates it to an almost ludicrous level. It posits the possibility that in the future there would be those that are willing to seek to make a profit off of broadcasting tv and the internet video recordings of violent, public, mass shootings. In fact, in this future, companies have gone so far as to “set up” these mass shootings by hiring individuals that are ready to enter highly populated areas with weapons and armor of their choice and see how many people they can take out before the local law enforcement (and sometimes random, skilled, unplanned participants) takes the shooters out. To advertise for these events, they make it known abroad that the public must stay “Vigilant” and always pack your weapon around with you because you never know when someone is going to break out a weapon of their own and start killing everyone.
Really, it’s enough to turn your stomach. Several times over. But this isn’t the first time that a speculative fiction writer has put together a story that didn’t conform to my moralistic sensibilities, and it’s not going to be the last.
I honestly had no idea what I was getting into when I started reading this one. It didn’t surprise me to find that the main character that the story was told through, John McDean, is an absolutely terrible human being. This man’s many moral failings do not all fall solely within his management of this company and the production of its quasi-reality tv show. With each scene, it becomes more and more apparent just how abhorrent this character is. There is a second POV character, a young woman working in a diner, that seems to be the only person left in the entire country to think that these Vigilance events are as horrific as they actually are.
This is almost exactly what a near-future science fiction novella should be:
A near-future science fiction story about the danger of gun violence that exceeded my ability to suspend disbelief and really wasn't enjoyable at all.
- Extrapolation of a single idea? Check
- Dystopic future? Check
- Well-written? Check
- Story structured and built to perfection? Check
- Believable characters? Check
From a technical standpoint, I really couldn’t find all that much to complain about. Even the fact that this was presented in novella form instead of a novel was a great choice from my perspective. Something that is this absolutely horrific and gut-wrenching stretched out over the course of a novel would have been… absolutely unbearable.
So, yes. Nearly perfect novella. But at the same time, shouldn’t we enjoy reading these things too?
For me, reading is about the experience. I love to be transported into another place and set into another’s perspective and be allowed to live the story through them. And honestly, I never want to read this story ever again. Not just because of how terrible the situation was either. For one, I quickly lost my ability to suspend disbelief. I mean, yeah sure, there are probably people out there in the world that wouldn’t have a problem with throwing ads up around videos of violent shootings and making money off of that. There are also people out there that would be willing to watch those videos and buy the products associated with the ads shown during the events. I can’t see the widespread public acceptance of it though, or the apparent lack of action on the part of law enforcement to take down the company that is perpetrating these events. Couple that with all of the other aspects of this undeniably bleak and morally decrepit future, and there is quite literally very little that I would like to read about less.
I came across a bunch of reader complaints online (after reading the book) about this story just bleeding with the author’s political viewpoints. That may be the case. I, however, thought that all of the aspects of the story were very well-relayed through the central character of the story. Again, technically, very well done. And this may very well be the author’s “literary rant” about the dangers of gun violence and “what might happen to the United States if we keep moving in this direction” and all that jazz. For me, it was just a story, and a well-told one at that. Just no fun.
Generally, I think this author has a lot to offer by way of story and character and goodness. I’d absolutely suggest that you pick up his Divine Cities trilogy if you haven’t yet, or perhaps his most recent fantasy novel FOUNDRYSIDE (EBR Review), but this one just isn’t worth reading. That is, of course, unless you really enjoy torturing yourself by reading about horrible people doing horrible things. If that’s the case, go ahead. Knock yourself out. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting here continuing to shake my head and suggest you find something better to do with your time.
- Recommended Age: 18+
- Language: Strong and frequent and casual
- Violence: Bloody and harsh and intimately in-your-face
- Sex: Several strong references and one short scene