September 8, 2019

Review: Vigilance

Vigilance Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a vicious satire that, unfortunately, seems all too likely to come to pass, even with the intervention of the AI at the end.

Vigilance is a way of life. It's also a reality TV show a scant ten years in the future that sends handpicked killers into American towns to shoot up the place (a shopping mall, in this particular episode, although it's odd that shopping malls are still around in 2030) and see if any of the hapless citizens are vigilant enough to fight back. This America is in the midst of a steep decline, whose current politics, and paranoia, is jacked up to 11, where many young people (and one presumes, people of color) have fled to other nations; a dying, stagnating America that has been surpassed technologically and in terms of world respect and influence by China. Its Ideal Citizen, the person the show is tailored to, is a wealthy white male "between sixty-four and eighty-one years old...who is increasingly burdened with medical debt."

John McDean, the show's producer, is the primary protagonist. The second POV belongs to Delyna, a young black woman. The juxtaposition between the two characters, the privileged white man who runs this horrorshow and manipulates the bots and algorithms that it depends on, and the blue-collar woman (Delyna is a bartender) who has to try and survive the night, drive the story's narrative.

The final dea ex machina is Tabitha, McDean's lover who uses his phone (while he's jacking off to a virtual reality representation of her) to upload a worm that allows a Chinese-created artificial intelligence to hijack a similar AI behind McDean's show. This second AI is modified to send out a subliminal signal to the American populace (at least the ones watching the show, which is a great deal of the country). This tells them to "be vigilant. But--against everyone."

So everyone starts shooting each other, and China wins this undeclared war in one fell swoop. But the way it's described, it's more of a mercy killing.

"America is dead, John," says her voice. "Not tonight, though. It died a long time ago. You people smothered it in its bed, then tried to dress up its corpse so it looked like it was alive. It needed to go, John. The forest was rotten and sick. Better to burn it to the ground and have it start over again. Fresh and new--and devoid of people like you."

Make no mistake, this is cynical and depressing and terrifyingly plausible, except for the AI. There is no happy ending here. It's an extremely unsettling story that gives the reader a great deal to think about--or should, anyway.

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