Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn is a murder mystery set in a future where society as we know it has collapsed due to climate change. As the two main characters investigate the crime, their journey reveals more details about what life is like after the collapse. This makes for both a suspenseful murder mystery and a fascinating exploration of what life might be like after a major societal collapse caused by climate change.
The story takes place in the Coast Road region, a loose network of small but relatively stable communities that forms the basis for a new society built on the ruins of the old. At the beginning of the story, Coast Road seems downright utopian in most regards. There’s not much in the way of advanced technology because most of it was lost during the collapse, although some remnants like a community-owned solar-powered car still exist. People have adapted to this new low-tech reality by keeping their settlements within walking or biking distance of each other and making or trading for all of their necessities with the technology they have available. Serious violent crime is almost unheard of because everyone’s basic needs are met, there’s not much wealth inequality, and households work together to support each other, the community as a whole, and the other communities in the network.
The one big dystopian element that comes to light early on in the novel is the fact that reproductive rights have been sharply limited. Everyone who reaches the age of fertility receives a mandatory long-term contraceptive implant. When their household demonstrates that it’s productive and stable enough to provide for a new person, they receive a new “banner” which entitles them to have another child. The goal of this system is to encourage households to contribute productively to society while also discouraging the infinite growth mentality that led to the collapse.
This system of implants and “banners” is an interesting adaptation to life after the collapse. It’s objectionable to present-day readers who value reproductive rights, but most people in this future society accept it more readily. It’s the system they’ve grown up in, and it makes sense to them as a way to avoid another collapse. It does, however, lead to some contention over who in the household and the community gets to have banners for the sake of having children. There’s also a stigma for people and households who don’t have banners.
Part of what I find fascinating and enjoyable about Bannerless is that on the surface, it’s a fairly simple and effective murder mystery story. In the process of investigating this murder, however, the characters and readers alike learn more about the society in which it takes place.
Two Investigators travel along the Coast Road to investigate a suspected murder in a distant town. Murders are rare on the Coast Road, and the trip to investigate this one is longer and more suspenseful than it would be in today’s society. The Investigators don’t know what exactly the town they’re traveling to will be like or how they will be received. Investigators are often regarded with suspicion even in the best of times, so they know that their arrival will not be celebrated. The big question, however, is whether or not they will receive enough hospitality and cooperation from the locals to determine if there was in fact a murder — and if so, who committed the crime.
Their journey and their investigation reveal a great deal about their society. For the reader, the road trip and murder investigation both serve as very natural and engaging forms of exposition for the characters and setting. I enjoyed learning more about this society, bit by bit, as the Investigators traveled to new places, reached their destination, and poked and prodded witnesses and suspects to determine who exactly had the motive and opportunity to commit the crime.
There was also a portion of the story where the main character learned more about what life is like in the ruins of the old society that lie at the edge of the Coast Road. For most of the book, the reader is learning things about the world that these characters already know: how the banner system works, how communities relate to each other, what love and relationships are like in the new society, and so on. For the journey into the ruins, though, it was interesting and suspenseful to learn right along with the main character and her companion what the sprawling ruins of a major city looked like after the collapse. The people of the Coast Road mostly know what life is like in their rather sheltered and largely utopian part of the world, so a glimpse into life in the ruins is shocking both to the characters and to the reader.
Overall, I found Bannerless to be a compelling read. It’s a very creative yet also very believable depiction of life after the collapse of society as we know it. I would definitely recommend it both to people who are looking for a murder mystery with a twist and to people who are looking for compelling stories about the climate crisis, with an emphasis on how old societies collapse and transform into new societies. One of the underlying messages of Bannerless is that even when a society collapses, some people survive, and the survivors come up with a variety of good, bad, and just plain different ways of living in response to the collapse. The climate crisis probably won’t lead to the extinction of our entire species, but it may lead to waves of catastrophic collapses and reformations that transform fundamental aspects of how we live together in human societies.
As our own real-world societies face grave threats such as climate change (and pandemics!) that may very well lead to various forms and degrees of collapse, Bannerless is food for thought about what those collapses may look like, and what choices we’ll have to make along the way to the creation of a new society in the ashes of the old.
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