Violence and Surveillance: A Review of Robert Jackson Bennett’s “Vigilance”

While 2019 is still young and there is a lot of literary terrain to cover before the end of the year, I can confidently say Robert Jackson Bennett’s Vigilance will be talked about in many best of 2019 lists as one of the most honest and timely book of the year. Unflinching in its portrayal of senseless violence and scathing in its critique of the country’s obsession with guns and distrust of the Other, this is a book that resonates.

The year is 2030 and the United States is a smoldering, messy dystopia where people have fully given in to paranoia, guns, and fear of the Other. John McDean is the executive producer of Vigilance, the biggest show on television and the perfect example of what society has turned into. Vigilance is a reality game show in which people are selected, given some points to purchase their weapon(s) of choice, and then let loose in a predetermined public space. The survivor makes a lot of money, and the only way to survive is to kill everyone else. The show is made with two main purposes: to sell products while perpetuating a nostalgic vision of a white, perfect America and to ensure citizens stay alert to foreign and domestic threats, all of which are non-white. However, the people are at home and online aren’t the only ones watching. There are powerful entities interested in the reach Vigilance has, and they want to try something new, a program that will bring forth an important change. Unfortunately for McDean and his crew, he soon finds out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera.

Vigilance is a relatively short, fast read, but one that cuts to the marrow of some of the most pressing issues in this country. Bennett isn’t afraid to explore our obsession with guns and how they are, partly, a reaction to the culture of fear created by most news outlets and the government. He also deconstructs the discourse around Otherness in this country, showing how skin color and culture are used to signify bad things. These honest examinations make this novel an uncomfortable read because, despite taking place in 2030, the realities it presents are very close to what we are seeing today. Furthermore, the honesty with which some of these themes are treated will make a lot of readers uncomfortable, and that’s a very good thing:

The heart of the matter was that, from the beginning, America had always been a nation of fear.
Fear of the monarchy. Fear of the elites. Fear of losing your property, to the government or invasion. A fear that, though you had worked damn hard to own your own property, some dumb thug or smug city prick would either find a way to seal it or use the law to steal it.
This was what made the beating heart of America: not a sense of civics, not a love of country or people, not respect for the Constitution—but fear.
And where you had fear, you had guns.

Tackling politics in speculative fiction has always been tricky. On one hand, it’s something that’s necessary because art, besides entertainment, has the potential to deliver important messages. On the other, I’m sure many readers will take issue with the scathing critiques presented here because, whether we like it or not, the fearful, racist, gun-waving viewers presented in this narrative are actually out there right now. All you have to do to find one is go read the comments on any news story dealing with gun violence or immigration. Those readers will probably react negatively to some of the truths in here, like when Bennett states this country “absolutely worships the Second World War—and yet, when it comes to genuine, actual Nazis at home, they curiously don’t mind so much.”

Politics aside, this is a sexy, action-packed story that’s as entertaining as it is violent. McDean serves his masters and the viewers serve the economy, and that relationships makes McDean the perfect vehicle to explore advertising in the future and how nostalgia can play a huge role in selling products/ideas. Oh, and there’s also a sexy woman doing naughty things on McDean’s phone that ultimately reveals something that will stick with readers long after they’ve finished the book.

Vigilance is an enjoyable, fun, too-real read, and Bennett, who’s won two Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and an Edgar Award, shows that he is as effective in a 192-page book as he is in his 400-600 page behemoths like American Elsewhere and The Company Man. If you get angry every time you watch the news, this book is a must for you. If you don’t get angry when watching the news, then this book is also a must for you, but for entirely different reasons.


by Robert Jackson Bennett; 192 p.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.