In her new sci-fi novel Bannerless (paperback, digital), writer Carrie Vaughn — who’s best known for the Kitty Norville urban fantasy series — delivers what she calls calls a post-apocalyptic murder mystery. But in talking to her about it, it’s clear you shouldn’t think of this as Mad Max meets The Maltese Falcon.
Photo Credit: Helen Sittig
Let’s start with the basics. What is Bannerless about?
Bannerless is a post-apocalyptic murder mystery. Almost a century after economic and ecological collapse, a network of communities is surviving and rebuilding, and Enid is one of the people tasked with investigating crimes and enforcing the rules. The suspicious death of a loner leads her to uncover cracks in the society that most people would rather ignore.
My understanding, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that Bannerless has its roots in some short stories, including one called “Amaryllis” and another called “Bannerless.” When, in writing these stories, did you realize they were part of a larger story?
I’ve written a handful of stories set in that world as a way to explore different aspects of this setting. At first, I didn’t have an overall story in mind, just the setting. When I got to the short-story version of “Bannerless,” I discovered Enid and she jumped off the page for me. She seemed like a classic detective, full of curiosity and bravery, very engaging, and I realized I could write a lot more about her. Exploring this particular post-apocalyptic world through the structure of classic murder mysteries suddenly seemed perfect, so I went for it.
So did the short stories get folded into the novel, or are they something separate?
The short stories are separate from the novel, which is a whole new, stand-alone story. And while they’re not included in editions of Bannerless, they are available in my short story collection Amaryllis And Other Stories.
Cool. As you said, climate change figures heavily into the plot of Bannerless. In figuring out how it would impact the impact the world, did you do any research or did you base it more on fictional sources?
I couldn’t not do research for Bannerless, since so much of the information is right there in front of us. It’s hard to get away from the real-world implications of climate change at the moment.
I was particularly interested in changing weather patterns and changes to various coastlines due to a rise in sea levels. There are some great websites that show maps of what various coasts will look like given five, ten, twenty feet of sea level rise, and so on. What that does to river estuaries is particularly eye opening. These changes will have impacts a lot further inland than people may realize. Also, tropic diseases such as dengue fever are moving northward as average temperatures rise. In the current political situation where some politicians are trying to defund the very scientists and agencies set up to deal with these issues? It’s all right there.
Speaking of those politicians, are you at all concerned that people won’t want to read Bannerless because it involves climate change?
I’m not. Likely, people who wouldn’t want to read it because of that wouldn’t like the book anyway, for various other reasons. Really, there’s a whole lot of other things going on in the novel as well. The primary story really is a classic murder mystery, that just happens to be set in my own variation of a post-apocalyptic society. The story is less about the apocalypse itself than it is about survival and hope.
As you mentioned, the main character in Bannerless, Enid, is an investigator. Did you base her techniques on real cops or did you just watch a lot of C.S.I. and other police procedurals?
Cop shows are notoriously bad sources of information for how detectives and investigators actually operate. While I do have cop friends who I tap for information when I need it, Bannerless put me in the strange and fun position of getting to make up from scratch a whole lot of how Enid operates. It’s almost a hundred years after the collapse of modern civilization, so police work and forensics and investigative procedure as we know them are entirely out the window. Much of the technology used by current investigators, even something as simple as fingerprinting, isn’t available to her. If anything, I went back to look at what tools and techniques 19th century detectives were able to use with their level of technology.
You’ve said that Bannerless is the first book in a series. What can you tell us about the series in terms of how many books it will, and so on?
I’ve already turned in the sequel to Bannerless, though we’re still debating what title to give it. But I don’t have a set number of books planned. Really, this has the potential of being an open-ended, ongoing series, like so many classic mystery series where we follow a beloved investigator from case to case to case. That’s where I see Enid going.
One of the interesting things about Enid in Bannerless is that sometimes the story takes place when she’s a teenager, and other times when she’s an adult. Why did you feel this would be the best format for this story?
I wanted to explore as much of Enid’s world as I could, and I felt that a good way of doing that was showing her as a young person who goes traveling. That gave me an opportunity not only to show a lot more of the Coast Road than just the one town where the investigation takes place, but also show how Enid became the investigator she is, and what her values really mean to her.
Were there any other writers, or specific novels, that were a big influence on Bannerless, but ones that aren’t a big influence on your writing style as a whole?
Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed helped me in a couple of ways. First, as a demonstration of how to write about a society with an unfamiliar political system. But it also alternates chapters between the main character in the “present,” during the main part of the story, and also as a young man, becoming the person in that present storyline. It’s really powerful and I wanted to use that in my own novel.
Also, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz is quite possibly one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written. I especially like it because it deals with what information gets saved, how it gets saved, how patterns from fallen societies continue on into new ones, which is definitely something I touch on in Bannerless.
I also really enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which is a fantastic near-future post-apocalyptic story.
How about non-literary influences? Do you think that any movies, TV shows, or video games were an influence on Bannerless?
I’d say the whole post-apocalyptic genre in film and TV is an influence, but not necessarily in a positive way. Rather, in Bannerless I’m reacting against a lot of the usual post-apocalyptic tropes. I love the Mad Max movies, but the idea that within a generation society will descend into complete wasteland and anarchy, isn’t entirely realistic. People will save things, they’ll save bits and pieces of technology and culture. Many communities will hang on to some semblance of order, even if it doesn’t look the same. I wanted to write about people who learn from prior mistakes and try to build something new rather than immediately descend into utter chaos.
Speaking of movies and so on, has there been any interest in adapting Bannerless into a movie, TV show, or video game?
Nothing definite yet. But I do like the idea of a detective-style TV show starring Enid. Something that straddles both the post-apocalyptic sci-fi genre, but also the standard weekly mystery genre. I think that’d be fun.
If that happened, who would you suggest they cast as the two Enids?
You know I hadn’t even thought about it. There’s no reason why someone in her twenties couldn’t play both, I think. I think I’d want an actress who isn’t conventionally pretty — there’s not a lot of makeup and hair products on the Coast Road — but someone who conveys physical toughness as well as charisma. I’ll keep my eyes open for someone who fits that bill.
Finally, if someone enjoys Bannerless, and they’re looking for something to read while waiting for Bannerless II: Electric Boogaloo to come out, what would you suggest they read and why that?
I’ve been jokingly calling the sequel Solar Electric Boogaloo.