Geoff Ryman. VAO. PS Publishing, 2003.

Ryman continues PS Publishing’s run of high quality novellas, as you might expect from an author whose short story output is limited in volume but almost invariably of the highest quality. VAO is one of the shorter of the stories, but Ryman fits a lot of ideas into a neat little story.

VAO is Victim Activated Ordinance – near-future electronic equivalents of land-mines are being used as security measures. As has been postulated before, in the near future the elderly are becoming, or seen to becoming, a burden on society. The older people in Ryman’s stories are our contemporaries, some decades hence. With the threat of Alzheimers Disease still a major problem, life can be pretty cruddy.

The protagonist, Brewster, is an ex-security systems IT geek, now keeping his hacking skills alive despite the surveillance in his retirement flat – a geriatric version of Charles Stross’ Manfred Mancx.

He is brought up to date with news of the self-titled Silhouette, a leader of a gang of senile delinquents who are fighting back. They would be like Robin Hood, except that they hurt and maim indiscriminately.

Brewster is suspected of being the Silhouette, and after secreting his digital hacking evidence in a most unusual place (-wince-), he and his friends attempt to find out the leader of this gang of criminals. The answer is surprisingly close to hand.

The story is packed with ideas (toilet bowls analysing urine streams and making spot-diagnoses, etc.), in a most believable setting, and with a small case of interesting characters the story could well have been longer than it was.

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