In Bannerless (2017), Carrie Vaughn ― perhaps best known for her KITTY NORVILLE urban fantasy series inhabited by werewolves and vampires ― has created a reflective, deliberately paced post-apocalyptic tale with some detective fiction mixed in. It’s about a hundred years in our world’s future and after an event simply called the Fall, when civilization collapsed worldwide. The cities are now ruins, abandoned by all but the most desperate people. Climate change has resulted in, among other things, deadly typhoons that periodically hit the California coast, the setting for our story. What’s left of humanity is living a far simpler lifestyle than most of their twentieth century ancestors.
Along the Coast Road, a largely agrarian society has developed in which people have a reasonably good way of life. People live in small communities, and in group households. They have extremely strict restrictions on use of resources and on population control, which they view as a way to prevent the events that caused the Fall from reoccurring. Childbearing has become a privilege, one that must be earned; official permission for a household to have a child is evidenced by a green-and-red woven banner. Having a “bannerless” child is a major violation of the rules and social code that govern Coastal society. That, like other violations of rules such as overfishing or overplanting of fields, generally lead to the breaking up of the violator’s household and social shunning. A few traces of pre-Fall technology still survive, like (conveniently enough) birth control implants. It’s an interesting world, well-built by Vaughn.
Enid is an Investigator, one of a limited number of people with a law enforcement job that combines the roles of detective, police and judge. There isn’t a lot of crime in their area; bannerless pregnancies and people cheating the system by planting unauthorized crops are far more common than murders or crimes of violence. But Enid and her partner Tomas are called to the community of Pasadan to investigate a questionable death. The death of Sero, a man who lived alone, appears to be an accident … but he had no friends in Pasadan, and the people there are suspiciously close-mouthed about what they might know of Sero and the circumstances of his death. In Pasadan, Enid also unexpectedly finds her former lover Dak, a wandering minstrel with whom she spent a few months traveling the Coast Road some ten years ago. How is Dak involved in Sero’s death … if he is?
Bannerless alternates between two timelines: Enid and Tomas’ investigation into Sero’s death in the current day, and flashbacks from Enid’s youth, particularly her time with Dak, journeying up and down the coast with him and his cherished (and rare) guitar. He lives the life of a traveling bard, singing old and new songs, including one about dust in the wind that he learned as a child from an old man, who told him the song came from “a place called Kansas.” Dak’s renewed interest in Enid, when they meet again after so many years, didn’t seem realistic to me. Enid thinks it’s because she was the one who left him rather than the other way around, but it struck me as just as likely that he was acting charmed by Enid mostly to promote his own self-interest.
Bannerless has a restrained tone throughout, despite the main character’s investigation of a possible murder. It’s not as exciting as some novels about more harrowing dystopian societies, and may not keep you on the edge of your seat with gladiator-like fights to the death or zombie attacks. But it’s a more plausible and even hopeful future. Bannerless emphasizes the positive traits of human cooperation and care for our environment, while at the same time being clear-eyed about human shortcomings and weaknesses. Vaughn is rather mysterious about the particular causes and events of the Fall for the first half of the book; actually, it was a bit underwhelming when the Fall was finally explained.
Bannerless expands the world Vaughn created in the excellent Hugo award-nominated 2010 short story “Amaryllis,” reviewed in our January 23, 2017 SHORTS column, which she’s explored in at least a couple of other short stories. If you’re a fan of contemplative post-apocalyptic novels like Station Eleven, Bannerless may interest you; while it’s not as deep and complex as Station Eleven, it’s still quietly appealing.
It’s hard to pick out what I like most about Bannerless — Carrie Vaughn’s post-apocalyptic world-building is spot-on, and I appreciated the way she incorporated an awareness of climate change and certain technological elements into her agrarian societies. The altered geography of the Coast Road raised so many questions in my mind: Is the salty inland sea the Salton Sea, or a by-product of fluctuating water levels much farther north? Is that ruined city San Diego, or Sacramento, or another metropolis entirely? Meanwhile, the threads of loyalty, sustainability, and community are wound throughout the entire novel; and though Vaughn makes it obvious why Enid’s dedication to proper order and procedure make her an ideal Investigator, other characters are allowed to voice other perspectives, maintaining a quiet refrain of “Yes, but what if sometimes…”
I enjoyed the idea that solar-powered cars and birth control implants play important roles in this new society, since there’s no reason that automobiles would vanish off the face of the earth after the Fall, and human hormones like progesterone (which is used in some currently-available birth control implants) have been synthesized from soy-based plant sources since the 1940s, thanks to Dr. Percy Julian. Vaughn makes the point that survivors tried to save what was important to them, and in a world with drastically reduced resources, it makes sense that people would look at population control as extremely important. Plus, it helps to avoid the sense of sameness that occurs when reading too many post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels, wherein (as Tadiana so rightly observed) there are “gladiator-like fights to the death or zombie attacks” or Big Bad Governments maintaining a life of secret luxury while the plebeians struggle and toil. Vaughn has created a believable world that is still tailored to her needs, and I think she succeeded tremendously.
Enid’s stories were interesting, both in the present-day timeline of the investigation and in the flashbacks to her youthful wanderings with the minstrel Dak. His easy, free-wheeling and carefree nature irritated me because it all read to me as part of a carefully-constructed act, and I agree with Tadiana that I perceived his renewed interest in Enid as more of an indicator of his self-interest and self-preservation rather than a genuine rekindling of his feelings. Enid, for her own part, is far more compelling, and her character is a type that Vaughn seems to specialize in: the intelligent and inquisitive young woman who goes through a few emotional, physical, and spiritual journeys, learning some occasionally harsh truths along the way, but resolving into a fully-earned maturity. Bannerless is about Enid’s journey, and a key part of it is the investigation of a mysterious death — a mystery which I found to be well-written, and no less compelling for its seemingly low stakes — but also her journeys up and down the Coast Road, meeting members of other settlements and people who reject the comfortable life she takes for granted.
The quiet, contemplative tone that appealed to Tadiana was also a big draw for me. Sometimes life is about the small moments, like watching storm clouds roll in over the ocean; sometimes small misunderstandings spiral out of control; sometimes it’s nice to read a novel about people trying to work together and mend a broken society into something different and possibly better. And that, I think, might be the best part of Bannerless: the resilience of humanity against steep odds, the determination to keep trying, and the need to see justice served so that order might be maintained a little longer. I was very glad to see on Vaughn’s blog that she’s working on a sequel to Bannerless, because this is definitely a world I want to spend more time in.