‘Bannerless’ by Carrie Vaughn, is a gentle, thoughtful, book that uses a murder mystery to tell the story of an Investigator’s life and to display the post-apocalyptic community she was born into.
‘Bannerless’ is a book that’s easy to under-estimate. It’s not Hollywood Blockbuster material. It’s quietly original and combines truth with hope. It sets aside all our post-apocalyptic dystopian tropes, most of which either mourn what was lost or try to revive it or revel in the chaos and cruelty of the new world. Carrie Vaughn gives us a different view, She lets us see the world after The Fall, through the eyes of Enid of Haven, a woman who was born after The Fall, for whom Before is a set of stories of wonders, nightmares and mistakes passed on in her childhood by the oldest among them. She comes from a generation with nothing to mourn. A generation for whom the world is not a dystopia but their home, a place to be cherished and enriched.
The book excels at showing rather than telling. Instead of infodumps or potted histories, we learn about this world by learning about Enid. Enid’s story is told through two inter-cut timelines. In the main one, we see Enid in her early thirties, taking the lead in an Investigation for the first time after three years as an Investigator, supported by her mentor, a man she has known since childhood. In the secondary one, we see Enid in her teens, leaving home for the first time, to travel the Coast Road, the only human settlements within a thousand miles, to follow her first love, a charismatic bard, who takes his guitar and his voice and his wide smile from village to village where his arrival always triggers parties and celebrations.
Enid’s work as an Investigator gives us a look at the underbelly of her society, at the things that aren’t working and which people can’t or won’t fix for themselves but it also shows us the values the Investigators are upholding and the how these values change the way in which an investigation is done. This is a world where pride comes from forming a household that is productive and stable enough to earn a Banner that entitles that household to birth a child and where shame comes from Bannerless births or breaking quotas and growing or catching more than you need. It’s a world that remembers billions of deaths as being caused by the unending pursuit of more and the prioritisation of me and now over us and the future. It’s also a world were violence is uncommon and murder is almost unheard of,
As I watched Enid investigate a suspicious death, I was fascinated by how different her role is from our own police. Investigators aren’t trying to wrangle the criminal herd, doing their best to enforce laws that are often broken and collecting evidence for others to decide guilt or innocence. They Investigate by consent. Their presence is requested. They Investigate to resolve disputes or to discover whether someone has done something that places their needs above the rules designed to allow everyone a sustainable opportunity to thrive. They are there to pass judgements against which there is no appeal. Yet, perhaps the biggest difference is that, when Enid asks her mentor for advice on how an Investigator should behave, his answer is ‘Be kind’.
Inevitably, the investigation is shaped by Enid’s own experience, which guides not only how she investigates but why she does so. The storyline that shows Enid in her teens gives us a view on how Enid became who she is as well as showing us the world she lives in. Her youthful passion for her travelling minstrel took her everywhere on the Coast Road, from prosperous settlements to settlements struggling to survive or settlements that chose to sit at the edges of the world, doing just enough to get by and then on to the ruins of an old city, reduced to rusted stumps of buildings and slabs of crumbling concrete where a small number of people scrabble for a living rather than accept the Banner-driven rules of the Coast Road settlements. Through all her travelling two things became clear about Enid, firstly, wherever she went, she felt the urge to help, to get involved, to fix things and secondly that she wanted to go home, to a place that was hers where she could be with people that she loves. In this way, Enid embodies the values the Coast Road is built on.
‘Bannerless’ gave me a character I believed in and liked, showed me that an apocalypse is not the end, that life will find a way if we let it, and that the next generation might not mess up a second chance. I liked that is showed the apocalypse,’The Fall’, as something that had no definitive date but as something that happened slowly enough for us all to get used to it without being able to prevent it. The Fall and the creation of the Coast Road community that followed were made up of what one chapter calls ‘The Things History May Not Remember’, the personal tragedies that ended one way of life and sometimes led to the starting of another. That seems very real to me.
The only thing I didn’t like about ‘Bannerless’ was the publisher’s summary which seems to have been written by someone who either read a different book to me or had been hoping that Carrie Vaughn would give them an easy-to-sell-to-the-SyFy-Channel post-apocalyptic thriller. Here’s the first paragraph of the summary. It’s in bold type to let you know it’s the pitch:
‘A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.‘
‘Bannerless’ won the Philip K Dick Award in 2018. I think I think it’s an excellent piece of speculative fiction as well as an intriguing mystery. I’ll be reading the next mystery that Enid investigates in ‘The Wild Dead’ shortly.