by Geoff Ryman
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Geoff Ryman presents a cautionary tale of the near future in which the cost of managed care has become increasingly unaffordable in V.A.O.. Although some lucky people who have massive savings can afford to live in placed like Happy Farms, others, like Ryman’s protagonist, Alistair Brewster, must resort to illegal means to garner the necessary cash to pay for their lifestyle. Many more retirees are finding themselves out on the streets, trying to eke out an increasingly difficult living.
Ryman manages to infuse humor into the proceedings while also examining societal problems which already exist and will only get worse in the future and the number of retirees grows and the average lifespan lengthens. Brewster is in better shape than many, not because of his successful experimentation with Victim Activated Ordinance, the V.A.O. of the title, but because he is able to hack his way into other people’s bank accounts to siphon off enough to not only pay his living expenses, but also provide some graft for the director of the facility.
Brewster’s attention turns to life outside Happy Farms after his granddaughter is attacked by a gang of old men who have adapted V.A.O. to fail to recognize people in its database. When the security system turns on them, the old men go in for their robbery. Given his own ties to V.A.O., the authorities suspect Brewster has something to do with the gangs, possibly even being their leader, the enigmatic Silhouette. Brewster decides that finding out the identity of the Silhouette is his only way of clearing his name.
The identity of the Silhouette is reasonably obvious from his earliest mention, but the way in which Ryman makes that information known to Brewster is both credible and interesting, managing to carry through the reasonably short story without seeming to be stretched thin by the author.
Although Ryman provides only small roles for most of his supporting characters, the other residents of Happy Farms come across as interesting and just a bit mischievous. They have the appearance of teenagers who refuse to believe that they’ve actually grown up and still want to have the adventures that they remember from their youth. This feature makes them seem extremely sympathetic and helps drive home that fact that anyone who lives long enough will be in the same general position of these residents of Happy Farms.V.A.O. is an excellent mystery story couched in terms of upcoming social problems. Although Ryman doesn’t explore real solutions to those problems, he does raise awareness of them in the course of the story.
(Cities, including A Year in the Linear City, The Tain, Firing the Cathedral, and V.A.O.)