Author imagines a dire future to prevent it

Published: July 6, 2017 By

CU Boulder grad Carrie Vaughn’s latest science-fiction novel takes aim at 'generational short-sightedness,' while her collection of short stories wins Colorado Book Award


Since publishing her first short story in 1999, science-fiction and fantasy writer Carrie Vaughn has published an astonishing 20 novels and more than 50 short stories, becoming one of the most successful American science-fiction and fantasy writers of the 21st century.

She has climbed the heights of the New York Times best-seller lists with her long-running series of novels about Kitty Norville, a Denver DJ who just happens to be a werewolf. She's been nominated several times for the genre's most prestigious award, the Hugo. And in May, her 2016 collection, Amaryllis and Other Stories (Fairwood Press) won the 2017 Colorado Book Award in the genre fiction category.

Along the way, Vaughn, who earned a master's degree in English at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2000, has made a habit of cheerily shattering conventions.

Take her infamous (her word) 2003 story, A Hunter's Ode to His Bait, which upends sappy, sweet conventions of the classic unicorn tale with a story that is simultaneously bloody, sexy and empowering. And her two "Golden Age" novels feature the daughter of two superheroes who goes to work for her parents' archenemy.

Carrie Vaughn Photograph

Carrie Vaughn, author of 20 novels and 50 short stories, has won the 2017 Colorado Book Award for her 2016 collection, Amaryllis and Other Stories. Photograph from Carrie Vaughn.

No surprise, then, that when she decided to try her hand at the too-often-hackneyed post-apocalyptic subgenre, she turned away from standard tropes.

"I told a friend I was writing a post-apocalypse novel," she says. "He said, 'Please don’t tell me it’s a zombie apocalypse!'"

It's not. This is Carrie Vaughn we're talking about, after all. Bannerless, due from Mariner Books on July 11, is a mélange of murder mystery, post-apocalyptic world-building and a serious argument in favor of sustainability and responsible social policy.

"I wanted to write a post-apocalypse novel, and whether or not I wrote about the actual apocalypse, I wanted to think where it came from," says Vaughn, 43, who lives in Longmont, Colo, with her American Eskimo dog, Lily, fancies horses and likes to fence in her spare time.

"What happens if it all happens at once — epidemics, antibiotic-resistant disease, climate disasters, flooding, storms — and society doesn't have strong enough economic and social footing to survive? What happens to the satellites, to GPS? What happens to broadcast, to water treatment, to the sewage system? Once you start losing things it ripples outwards."

Vaughn grew up all over the country as an "Air Force brat," picking up the science-fiction and fantasy bug from her parents. Her mother started it off when she was 8 with Red Planet, one of Robert A. Heinlein's famous "juveniles" — what would today be called YA fiction — and her father, who served on bomber crews in Vietnam, followed up by plunking her down in front of Stanley Kubrick's and Arthur C. Clarke's seminal science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. She soon began to write her own stories (including G.I. Joe fan fiction, some of which she reluctantly posted only in 2014, at the insistence of fans).

After earning a bachelor's degree from Occidental College, she attended the intensive, six-week Odyssey Writing Workshop in New Hampshire before coming to CU Boulder for her master's degree.

A lifelong interest in myth and literature has continually informed her work. Her story Draw Thy Breath in Pain, for example, imagines that Shakespeare was inspired by a literal encounter with a certain deceased Danish prince, while In Time injects a bit of the fantastic into the story of the death of Emily Dickinson's beloved dog Carlo, and "Fishwife" plumbs the wet and creepy depths of Lovecraftian horror.

"She has an extraordinarily wide range," says Jeanne Cavalos, founder of Odyssey.

The late Edward Bryant, who for decades helped midwife the careers of countless Colorado science-fiction and fantasy superstars through his Northern Colorado Writer's Workshop — including perennial award winners and bestsellers Dan Simmons and Connie Willis — called Vaughn "a major, major talent" early in her career.

Of late, Vaughn has been expanding her oevre, publishing three young-adult novels, including Steel, included in the 2012 Amelia Bloomer list for its treatment of feminist themes. With Amaryllis and Bannerless she is seriously speculating about a dire future in hopes — as the late Ray Bradbury argued good science-fiction should — of preventing it.

In Bannerless, the apocalypse arrives as a sort of slow-burn environmental and economic implosion. Years later, Enid of Haven, trained to mediate disputes in the Coast Road region in central California, must now investigate and resolve something much more serious: the suspicious death of an outcast.

"My hope is that the familiar pattern of the murder mystery — there is a body and we must find who did it — will draw readers in as they explore this setting," Vaughn says.

The fictional Coast Road community is successfully rebuilding, thanks to the concerted efforts of its founders to preserve important technology, such as vaccines and solar power.

But the novel never lapses into what legendary science-fiction author and critic Brian Aldiss has called the "cozy catastrophe," in which — with apologies to R.E.M. — it's the end of the world as we know it, but our protagonists feel fine. Vaughn is interested in what the reality might really be like.

Take, for example, the common post-apocalyptic trope of the abandoned city: "You see it still standing," she observes. "But if the fire department is gone, there is no water, fire is going to be a huge problem and cities won't stand. … Asphalt decays very quickly, and without upkeep, the roads will be gone."

What happens if it all happens at once — epidemics, antibiotic-resistant disease, climate disasters, flooding, storms — and society doesn't have strong enough economic and social footing to survive?"​

The novel, vigorously pro-science, explores the rational use of resources, population control and social engineering, and is dedicated to her friend Paolo Bacigalupi, the Paonia, Colo., science-fiction superstar whose own best-selling, Hugo-winning novels and stories have put him at the forefront of environmental speculation.

"My conversations with Paolo really helped me when I first started to write stories set in this world," Vaughn says. "It's about the need to convince people that these are real problems we need to do something about, to overcome cultural conditioning on such things as birth control and vaccines. It's not the technology that is the obstacle here, but social and cultural mores that are centuries old."

Coast Road citizens, for example, no longer assume that everyone can, should or will, have children. Birth control is mandatory and people must justify and earn the right to reproduce.

"What happens when you have to explain why you want to have a baby," Vaughn says, acknowledging that the question is personal, "instead of having to explain why you don’t want to have a baby?"

To her dismay, Vaughn sees political developments since she began writing the novel as driving society in the wrong direction to avoid catastrophe.

"I see more steps, more clearly, in how we get from there to here than when I started. Step one is defunding the very tools we have for surviving," she says, citing plans to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency, National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration and other agencies.

"They develop the technology and techniques for tracking storms and climate change; if we don’t have CDC to manage a major epidemic, we’ll be in trouble," Vaughn says. "I know there are some people who think there is too much government and want all those agencies to go away. But without them, how do we respond to a major epidemic? How do we handle major storms; what if Katrina and Sandy happened in the same year?"

If funding is drastically cut, society will lose ground, and years of expertise, but the problems aren't going away, she says. "We’ll end up covering a lot of the same ground again."

Vaughn sees our current dilemma as a case of "generational short-sightedness."

(Title Image from Doctor Chas/Flickr)