Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
March 2019

Title: Vigilance
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Publisher: Tor.com

In his write-up on science fiction and fantasy in 2018 for Locus magazine, 2018: A Year on Edge, noted critic and reviewer Paul Kincaid describes some of last year's social and political pressure points and then observes the following:

All of this is, at some point, going to feed through into a wave of fictions built around the ongoing sense of fear and mistrust, the feeling that the world is out of kilter.

The two short novels I'm going to look at in this column certainly belong in Kincaid's predicted wave. These books tackle two contemporary hot topics--American gun culture and the Second Amendment, in the case of Bennett's Vigilance, and U.K. immigration protocols in Neuvel's The Test--and supercharge them with ingenious near-future extrapolation solidly rooted in present technology.

Vigilance may be the more instantly incendiary of the two. Bennett depicts a collapsing America, one of whose last survivalist gasps is to elevate gun-related violence to the level of institutional sport. The novel opens with John McDean, one of the men responsible for engineering controlled-mass-shootings and streaming them live for an audience whose lust for vicarious violence knows no satiation. McDean is under a lot of pressure to deliver ratings/views for his superiors, and diligently works every angle with his crack team of expert data manipulators and production engineers. During the novel's early chapters we access thoughts by McDean on what constitutes the Ideal Person, that is to say, the perfect recipient of the blood-spattered reality-as-entertainment package that is Vigilance. Here's one of McDean's musings:

Usually when McDean's Ideal Person waxes poetic about this aching desire, they summon up phantoms from the mid-twentieth century, nearly a hundred years ago by now: images of John Wayne and Frank Sinatra (two actors who, McDean knows, successfully dodged the draft, and then made their careers playing soldiers) huddled in the sands of Iwo Jima, their helmet straps dangling by their cheeks, a cigarette drooping from their lips. . . . [H]is Ideal Person is largely for any kind of war, his research shows; it doesn't matter where or why. . . .

Meanwhile we're also introduced to Delyna, who is tending bar and facing an increasingly twitchy clientele salivating at the prospect of an imminent Vigilance installment. Two neat twin storylines: content producers on the one hand and content consumers on the other. By the novel's end these narrative strands meet in an interesting, if--at least for one of our viewpoint characters--a perhaps slightly anti-climactic way.

The frighteningly plausible paranoia of Vigilance's world spills out on every page, as with this early comment on surveillance:

Since most buildings these days are layered with cameras and biometric sensors (the modern rule is, the only thing that doesn't have a camera in it is a camera), most of which are poorly secured, it's a simple thing for Darrow and Neal to hack in, scan a crowd, and tell you in seconds everyone's ages, places of birth, religions, hell, even people's hobbies, most of which is acquired by the AIs the two have built.

As satire and social warning, Bennett's novel is effective and engrossing. It propels its story along on muscular prose occasionally enlivened by memorable quips: "America isn't a place you live in--not anymore. It's a place you survive." Thematically, the book treads familiar ground. Social media takes advantage of our propensity for certain addictive or compulsive behaviors, and popular entertainment is becoming increasingly married with social media. Throw in live violence, and voila. This recipe, with variations, has been around for some time. In addition to its literalized body horror, Videodrome warned of violence and torture broadcast as entertainment. The Running Man gave us televised killers hunting down criminals as their quarry. In The Outer Limits episode "Judgment Day," murderers are pursued by the families of their victims on live TV. The more recent thriller Nightcrawler delves deep into the media's fetishistic exploitation of violence and true crime under the guise of journalism. The Purge film series devises a different take on the release of pent-up aggressions through temporarily legalized acts of extreme violence. Numerous episodes of the anthology series Black Mirror, the sensibility of which Bennett's what-ifs often evokes, offer myriad dire warnings along these lines. I'm reminded too of Robert Sheckley's classic story "The Seventh Victim" (sort-of adapted into film as The Tenth Victim, novelized by Sheckley himself and continued in the later novels Victim Prime and Hunter/Victim).

So there's ample precedent for Bennett's conceit. But there is a new element that Bennett masterfully enlists in the service of his story: the idea of incredibly sophisticated algorithms and AIs as the accelerants of our highly combustible scenario. To my mind this is the novel's most implacably worrisome implication. Societal views on guns and mass shootings, after all, may shift over time, but once certain technologies are developed and deployed at large, there's really no going back. McDean's superiors have been working on a new AI, called Perseph, so powerful and insidious that it will induce physical pain in the viewer if he or she looks away. A remarkably scary idea.

Genre readers will probably find Vigilance's final plot twist somewhat predictable, and it's hard to feel much sympathy towards McDean. One later sequence recalls a scene from Kingsman: The Secret Service that I found hard to stomach the first time around, and equally off-putting here. But I suppose that's the point. If we wish to avoid the nightmare world of Vigilance, we must remain on guard. Picard said it best on Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Vigilance, Mister Worf, that is the price we have to continually pay."

Title: The Test
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Publisher: Tor.com

While Vigilance detonates its story with concussive immediacy, The Test ramps up its revelations in a more sneaky fashion and perhaps provides a deeper afterburn. It is also a highly adrenalized work.

Neuvel's book begins with a fairly straightforward narrative framework: the first question to the "The Life in the United Kingdom Test," followed by our protagonist Idir Jalil's first-person ruminations as he produces his answer. Jalil thinks about his wife Tidir and makes some descriptive observations about the room in which he and a few others are taking the test. Then we move on to question number two, and again we become privy to Jalil's thoughts as he comes up with the answer. Each of Jalil's answers further fleshes out his life-story via his memories and associations. Neuvel's prose is adept at evoking an almost stream-of-consciousness style, nevertheless directed to the matters at hand. And then we reach question number five and the pattern is broken as a gunshot is heard. In the next chapter we're introduced to the shooter, and the stakes become exponentially higher for Jalil with each ensuing event.

Without giving away a fun plot reveal, I'll simply mention that we later meet another character named Deep who has a psychology background. (If we were crossing universes Deep might be one of John McDean's underlings in Vigilance). Deep's decisions and actions become increasingly intimately bound up with Jalil's fate in what proves to be a two-way link. Neuvel develops this connection in a way that's emotionally horrific and intellectually enthralling, masterfully dialing up the tension with every unfolding branch of this deeply interactive, feedback-driven decision tree. Deep's knowledge of human instinct, and how people behave under stressful circumstances, furnishes us with excellent nuggets throughout the narrative. Some readers may grumble that these mental disquisitions are too expository, but I found them fascinating. Here's an example:

System justification is one of many decision-avoidance mechanisms we carry around. When faced with a choice, humans almost invariably seek a no-action, no-change option, even when one of the presented alternatives is quantifiably and logically more advantageous. * * *

Here the aversion to decision-making is reinforced by a phenomenon called reactance: when we feel that someone, or something, is threatening or eliminating our behavioral freedom, even just limiting our options, our innate reaction is to try to re-establish that freedom. It often translates to our challenging rules or authority.

As with Vigilance, powerful technology, eminently plausible based on where we are today, plays a major role in the plot. And as in that novel here too the major conceit harkens back thematically to many other works, such as the Star Trek episode "Arena," the Kobayashi Maru in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Coming of Age," and countless novels and stories, including early Heinlein's Space Cadet and Starman Jones. But this relative lack of macro-originality actually works in The Test's favor, affording more room for psychological nuance and attention to detail. Indeed, one of the reasons The Test works so well is Neuvel's skill at immersing us in the minds and thought-processes of our main characters. Though this is a short book, we come to know a great deal about what makes each individual tick, about their values, relationships with others and sense--or lack thereof--of community.

Intimacy is built into the very fabric of the story, but Neuvel goes even farther, raising fundamental questions about consciousness, memory and identity. As a reader I couldn't help but wonder what decisions I'd be making at key points if I were in the characters' shoes, particularly Jalil's. Neuvel's gripping tale is a brilliant example of how fiction can serve to heighten our empathy, and perhaps that's the test of character that ultimately matters most.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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