Series: THE BANNERLESS SAGA
Genre: Ecotopian; Cli Fi; Post-Apocalyptic
Ratings: Violence—3; Sensuality—3; Humor—2
Publisher and Titles: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Bannerless (e-book, paperback, audiobook—7/2017)
The BANNERLESS world is set about a century after the Fall—which comprised a series of disease pandemics and climate disasters (mostly flooding)—that nearly destroyed the world, killing off the majority of its people and leaving the physical structure of their civilizations rotting away into dust or skeletal metal ruins, depending upon how buildings were constructed. In the small towns, "The shadow of that world still remained, the streets in the same places and the foundations of buildings still visible. But a new skin had been put over it." For the most part, the pandemics have ceased and the oceans remain stable at their highest levels, but gigantic, destructive, hurricane-strength storms still sweep across the land at frequent intervals.
On her blog, Vaughn discusses the first novel of the series: "Bannerless is a more subversive, relevant novel than it was when I wrote it a year ago. In it, I posit a cascading failure for civilization. As more and more infrastructure and support gets knocked out, disasters like storms and epidemics become more difficult to recover from, until recovery is impossible. (For example, imagine Hurricane Harvey happening in conjunction with an epidemic on par with the Spanish flu of 1918…)."
The life style of the descendants of the original survivors is reminiscent of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, but with the addition of some of the knowledge and technology of the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, the people make heavy use of solar panels to heat their homes and also use sun energy to power a handful of cars. Fishermen go out to sea in fiberglass boats dating back to pre-Fall days—patched up over and over again to keep them afloat. Medics use a combination of old and new drug formulas to produce antibiotics and other medications to fight off epidemics. During the Fall, the survivors had to choose what to save. If a product or idea did not directly contribute to survival in this new world, it was tossed aside and forgotten, so there are no video games, televisions, diet Cokes, Pringles chips, or any other frivolity—not even computers. ("Mysterious plastic boxes with slots and wires and dead lights. Screens that stayed dark. Mysterious and a little bit sad.") This generation knows about these unnecessary things only from reading about them in old books or, in the case of computers, seeing them stacked on dusty shelves.
The survivors also learned some lessons from the past about the perils of overusing natural resources, the evils of hoarding, and the horrific effects of overpopulation (i.e., famine and starvation). They have books and hand-written diaries from before and during the fall in which they read about the famines that swept across the globe when resources were depleted, partly due to natural disasters but also because of greedy hoarding by the rich. They are determined to avoid taking that pathway, which would inevitably lead them to a second Fall.
In the section of the country seen in this series (at least in the first novel), people live in households, which combine to make up villages, which are run by elected committees. The villages lie along the Coast Road, which borders the ocean (probably the Pacific). The series heroine is Enid, of Serenity household, which is part of the town of Haven. Almost everyone belongs to a household, and the ones who do not are viewed suspiciously as untrustworthy outsiders. Every person in a household is required to pull his or her own weight, doing whatever tasks he or she is capable of doing. Those who don't work are thrown out of the household and are unlikely to be welcomed in any other household.
Two major edicts are of utmost importance in the laws of this society, and both are enforced by Investigators (of which Enid is one).
&>1. Preventing Overpopulation: A man and woman are not allowed to produce a child until they set up a productive household and prove that they can feed and care for the child properly. If their petition to the town's Committee is approved, they are issued a banner—"a piece of woven cloth, a foot square...a red-and-green-checked-pattern for blood and life"—which they proudly display in their home. Both men and women are free to choose the parent of their child after each receives a banner. Usually they do not marry, but they frequently live together in the same household along with several other adults and children. Each female of childbearing age receives a birth-control implant in her upper arm that cannot be legally removed until she earns her banner. "This was one of the bits of technology they'd worked hard to save after the Fall. Because if you could manage birthrate, you could manage anything, and they had the statistics to prove it." If a bannerless pregnancy occurs (either by accident or by illegal intent), the Investigators must determine what action is required to settle the case. Banners are the rewards that every household strives to receive.
>2. Maintaining Quality of Life While Conserving Resources: Each household has a quota that it is required to meet in terms of crop production, woodworking, blacksmithing, or any other helpful product that is necessary for the prosperous existence of the village. The goal is to hit the quota squarely—not over and not under. Although exceptions are made for accidental or unavoidable divergences from the mandatory quotas, punishment is swift if Investigators suspect fraud in any form. For example, if a household plants a secret field of wheat or corn so that the harvest can be hoarded away from the other households, members of that household (and anyone in the village who assists them) will pay severe consequences. This quota system keeps natural resources from being used up too quickly and is based on a long-term outlook that allows fields to lie fallow for alternate seasons and for trees to be cut down only when absolutely necessary. On her blog, Vaughn sums up the economic system this way: "Bannerless depicts a society where economic strength is measured by whether or not everyone is healthy and taken care of, not by how much profit is accumulated."
The only people who do not follow these laws are the outliers who barely maintain a hardscrabble existence in the ruins of the pre-Fall cities. No one from the villages ever visits the ruins. The townsfolk are content with their lives and happy to have had strong ancestors who survived the Fall, and they strongly believe in learning from their ancestors' bitter experiences.
Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.
Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?
In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.
Sero, the Pasadan victim, is rumored to have been a bannerless man. He lived alone by choice and was known by the townsfolk to be quiet and standoffish. Sero's body was found on the floor of his immaculately kept wood shop with a gash on the back of his head. To Enid and Tomas, it is immediately obvious that the three Committee members are in major disagreement about having Investigators in their town. The eldest, Philos, insists that Sero's death was obviously an accident, while Ariana (who called in the Investigators) appears to be holding back information.
Enid has been an Investigator for just three years, but this is her first time as Lead Investigator in a murder case, so she is a bit nervous. She and Tomas look over the crime scene, interview the villagers, and consign poor Sero to his funeral pyre (which is the means by which bodies are disposed of in this world). As clues begin to surface, it soon becomes obvious that Sero's death was no accident. Someone slammed his head into a beam, killing him almost instantly. Who is the murderer? (There are several suspects and motives.) Is this case more complex than it seems? Is there another crime the Investigators need to solve?
Interestingly, the arts have value in this world. Before Enid’s former lover, Dak, settled down in Pasadan, he earned his keep by walking the length of the Coast Road singing songs for the townsfolk and teaching their children to play his guitar. In the even-numbered chapters, if you look carefully at the subjects of some of Dak's songs, you might recognize them. In one, "the chorus was about dust in the wind, and how everything would eventually blow away and come to naught." Dak explains that he learned it from an old man who said that it "came from a place called Kansas." This is a marvelous example of the informational twists that occur as songs (and stories) are handed down generation to generation, and the song itself is a terrific metaphor for this series. (If you don't get the joke, click HERE.) Another of Dak's songs is "about lemon trees and love gone wrong." (Click HERE to hear a performance of this one.)
I have always enjoyed Carrie Vaughn's novels, and this one adds another winner to my Vaughn list. Enid is a fascinating young woman living in a seemingly simple society that is—at the same time—quite complex and layered. I love this mythology, which Vaughn says that she created more than a year ago. On her blog, Vaughn talks about the new relevancy of the BANNERLESS world, "now [that] we have an administration that has proposed cutting, if not eliminating, so many of the support structures that are specifically designed to help our society survive and recover from disasters." As I write this review, Houston is just beginning to recover from the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey, yet the U.S. has pulled its support from the international coalition of countries trying to solve our world's worsening climate problems (which include an ever-increasing number of severe storms and a relentless rise in sea levels).
Don't get me wrong, Vaughn's novel is by no means a screed against climate change. It is a riveting story about a society that remakes itself on the ashes of the society in which we are living right now—a cautionary tale with wonderful characters, a suspenseful story line, and just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing all the way to the end.
If our world were to collapse as this one did, what would our descendants make of a fidget spinner or a piece of dead electronic wizardry (like a cell phone or a Fitbit)? Will all of our scientific knowledge be locked into unreadable files on dead computers? Will paperback romance novels be the only books available for our descendants to study the history of the 21st century? (That last one makes me smile!)
FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Bannerless is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.
BONUS: Here is a preview of the second novel, which has a publication date of 7/17/2018:
Decades after environmental and economic collapse, pockets of settlements struggle to maintain a much-reduced civilization by strictly rationing resources—including the ability to have children. Enid of Haven, an investigator in this community, travels to a far-flung village with her new, inexperienced partner to settle a minor resource dispute. But while there, the murder of an outsider demands her attention, and leads to explosive secrets.