After writing the three novels in his fantasy series the Divine Cities trilogy, writer Robert Jackson Bennett switched things up by combining urban fantasy and cyberpunk for Foundryside, the first book in his Founders trilogy. Now he’s changing things up again with his new novella Vigilance (paperback, Kindle), a dystopian sci-fi satire. In the following email interview, Bennett talks about how this story of a gun game was neither inspired nor influenced by what you might expect.
Photo Credit: Josh Brewster Photography
To begin, what is Vigilance about?
Vigilance is about a near future America where a media company, using powerful A.I. technology and fueled by advertising dollars, has created a reality TV game show about mass shootings. At any moment, nearly any building or place in America can be subject to a “Vigilance,” where up to four “participants” will enter the environment and begin opening fire. The test is to see which of the civilians is truly vigilant. It’s a dark world where paranoia, distrust, and arming yourself are considered the critical virtues.
It’s kind of an obvious question, but where did you get the idea for this story?
I had the idea years ago and thought it was about the ugliest thing one could ever think up. What surprised me is how funny the book is. It’s a really nasty satire, but it’s actually quite difficult for this satire to outpace our current reality, sadly.
And did you set out to write a story about gun violence, just a story with a political bent, or did you set out to write an interesting story and something with a political bent about gun violence just came out?
I actually don’t think Vigilance is about guns. Vigilance is more about the strain of wild, mistrustful fear that’s infected American society in the 21st century, and how there are mercantile interests who find great rewards in exploiting that fear.
Vigilance looks a lot at those players, but it most keenly examines the media. The media company that actually puts Vigilance together doesn’t think they’re doing anything wrong. It gets clicks, it gets ratings, it generates the appropriate advertising metrics. Whether or not it’s horrible or corrosive or dehumanizing is immaterial.
Vigilance is set in 2030, which isn’t that far off. Why did you decide to set it then as opposed to now or in 2119?
It’s actually not actually set in 2030. I’m not sure how people settled on that year. I consider it to be set around 2040, personally, but it’s not made explicitly clear.
But it’s also really about the present; it’s about present trends taken just a step or two further.
2119 is, technologically speaking, about a thousand steps down the line. Eighty-five years ago, we didn’t have canned beer, superglue, microwaves, nuclear reactors, jet engines, and a whole host of technological innovations that have completely reshaped society. Predicting what the world is going to be like more than twenty years out or so quickly devolves into speculative guessing. This is my personal opinion, but such a big jump forward removes the story from the window of time that makes it more germane to the present, I guess you could say.
Along similar lines, Vigilance is a novella, while your other books have all been novels. Again, did you set out to write a novella or did you just realize that this story only needed to be 208 pages long, and that makes it a novella?
I had the idea, and I was approached to write a novella. This story seemed well-suited to such a format. It didn’t feel like a world that people would want to stay in for more than 30,000 words or so.
It sounds like Vigilance is a dystopian sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?
It’s completely a dystopian SF story. It’s also a satire. But just barely. It takes modern innovations like drones and A.I., and asks the question: What if the worst people in the world used these to play to our worst instincts? What would stop them?
It was a bit. I’d remembered reading the short story in high school; I’ve never seen the movie. I knew I didn’t want it to be positioned from the point of view of the participants, or the people getting shot at. I wanted to make the reader a spectator or the puppeteer of the show, rather than involved in it. Because for something like Vigilance, to watch it is to also support it. By passively observing this horrible phenomenon, by giving it ratings, you’re just as complicit as the people who are putting the guns in the hands of the participants.
Aside from King’s story, are there any other stories, or writers, that were a big influence on Vigilance but not on any of your other books?
If anything, movies like The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Big Short were larger influences; watching something horrible unfold from the point of view of a slick, amoral asshole who knows exactly what he’s doing, and how to do it well.
You said earlier that you think of Vigilance as a satire. Who do you feel were the biggest influences on the satirical parts of the story?
Hmmm. I’d say I felt like I might have channeled some of the more accessible non-fiction works by David Foster Wallace in trying to strike the conversational but surreal tone one would use to describe an awful media company earning billions of dollars by getting people killed and stoking discord and paranoia. There’s probably also some Neal Stephenson in there.
You and I have done similar interviews prior about the first book in your Founders trilogy, Foundryside [which you can read here] and the Divine Cities trilogy [which you can read here]. Is Vigilance part of a trilogy or a series as well?
Vigilance is a one off. Just did it for the funsies.
Earlier in this interview we talked about The Running Man and other movies, TV shows, and games that may have influenced Vigilance. But has there been any interest in adapting Vigilance into a movie, show, or game?
Not yet. But sure, I feel like it’s a story that people need to see. You can’t do anything about the ugliness inside of you until you acknowledge that it’s there.
If Vigilance was to be adapted into a movie, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
Ryan Gosling [Blade Runner 2049] plays a great asshole. He could make a good McDean.
Finally, if someone enjoys Vigilance, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
This is so unlike everything else I’ve ever written that I feel reluctant giving anyone a solid answer here. This is the only near future work I’ve ever written, and it’s probably the most nakedly political thing I’ve ever written as well. That said, American Elsewhere is probably the most similar in style or tone.