Post-apocalyptic fiction is often suspicious of civilization. Either it’s a delicate exception to a natural state of barbarism, or it’s a cage that’s made people soft and unable to cope with existential threats. Post-apocalyptic young adult fiction takes this one step further, suggesting that once civilization is gone, any new society will rebuild at the expense of something fundamentally human, like emotions, memories, or free will. Bannerless, a new novel by Carrie Vaughn, subverts all of this, and in the process, transcends an otherwise light plot and limited world-building.
Bannerless is set on the California coast a few generations after a climate change-induced social collapse. Most scientific and technological achievements have been lost, and superstorms have ravaged cities. The people who survived did so through peaceful cooperation, and the result was a loose confederation of villages called the Coast Road. A nebulous central authority imposes regulations to avoid overtaxing the environment, including mandatory birth control, waived only for families who have proven themselves responsible enough to raise a child.
This has all the makings of an oppressive future society, but the Coast Road seems practically utopian, combining slow-moving agrarian simplicity with an egalitarian acceptance of different races, genders, and sexualities. Its residents are community-minded, tolerant, and reasonable, all the way back to the original survivors, who prioritized reinventing contraception because the apocalypse was more bearable with sex. (That’s a nearly verbatim plot point, not subtext or inference.) Real-world reproductive control schemes are almost inextricable from prejudice and eugenics, but Bannerless generally takes for granted that the policy works as promised, is enforced with good intentions, and operates with the consent of most Coast Road inhabitants.
Bannerless is too broadly sketched to be a referendum on whether or not Vaughn’s society could exist, or a meditation on trading individual freedom for the greater good. Its world is a backdrop for the modest (by science fiction standards) story of young Coast Road “investigator” Enid. Along with her more experienced partner Tomas, Enid is dispatched to solve a rare suspicious death in a small town. Soon, she’s drawn into a local power struggle, which may hold the key to solving the murder — if it’s a murder at all. The story is split between her current investigation and flashbacks to her travels up the Coast Road alongside an old lover, who has since cured his wanderlust and settled in town.
These comparatively small stakes are Bannerless’ most solid and mature element. We’re not thrown into a saccharine world clearly hiding a dark secret, but an imperfect one where some people make impulsive and selfish decisions. But Bannerless doesn’t always offer enough substance to make us care. Enid may technically be too old for the book to qualify as YA fiction, but it’s written with the genre’s straightforward and workmanlike style. The story can’t stand alone as a tightly plotted mystery or character-driven drama, but it also stops short of deep social commentary. The book only lightly touches on prejudice against the titular, illicitly conceived “bannerless” children, and Enid doesn’t question the system enough to establish whether her faith in it is well-placed.
Stories about ordered future states favor individualists encountering the dark side of their society, so it’s intriguing to have a protagonist whose core values are unshakably communitarian. But it’s hard to tell whether Enid is a realist who understands the hard truths of why the banner rules are necessary, or if she’s too ready to believe what she’s told.
Despite this, Bannerless is interesting because it feels like it was imported from another, less cynical era. Being hopeful right now amounts to declaring that humanity won't be parboiled into extinction, egalitarianism and tolerance won't be eroded too badly, and people are not motivated at their core by resentment and fear. Bannerless posits a world where we've faced disaster and come out, if not stronger, at least kinder and more responsible. It just hasn’t found the right way to tell a story in it.