Popular culture began absorbing the trope of post-ness more than two decades ago. That trope has so transformed the way we parse reality that it is difficult to remember what it was like thinking without it. And so when in 2011 a book title begins with "after" and ends with "age," it inevitably invokes post-ness of one sort or another. In the case of Carrie Vaughn's After the Golden Age, the "age" in question is the golden one. Does "the golden" refer to the golden age for reading SF—i.e., twelve? If so, whoever chose the title did not mean to invoke post-ness at all. Or does it refer to the Golden Age of comics? If that is the case, surely the post-ness indicates that the text will be offering critical beyond-ness of some sort.
I like titles that are ambiguous or ambivalent. They seem to promise a sophisticated level of consciousness in the writing and a desire for thought in their readers. In this case, "seem" is the operative word. After the Golden Age tells its readers, over and over, apparently everything that the author knows about the characters and events in the narrative—about, of course, every flip of heroine Celia West's stomach and every "twinge of self-consciousness" that "she felt whenever she encountered any members of the Olympiad," and that her father’s clenching his jaw is "a bad sign" (p. 39). Such overwriting may not be deliberate, but simply be due to the need for a more stringent line-edit than the book got, given how loaded the narrative is with filtering language—"He let his body lean close to her . . . she could feel his breath through her shirt" (p. 54)—and adverbs that make one stop to wonder what possible difference they are supposed to make in the meaning, as for instance the difference between "smug" and "intensely smug" (p. 50) and the frequent use of "honestly."
An overwritten style doesn't necessarily shut down readers' imaginations, but what does do that, however fast a read it might produce, is revealing, through continual, extensive flashbacks, the story's "backstory" in order to explain those twinges and stomach flips, which After the Golden Age does throughout. One of the pleasures of reading fiction is the imaginative play that often forms a part of the reading experience, particularly the play of eking out the novel's backstories and in doing so deriving a richer understanding of the novel's events and characters. After the Golden Age denies readers that pleasure, instead offering them the distinct impression that the heroine's adolescent backstory is of much more interest to the narrative voice than her post-adolescent present is. When a novel's flashbacks compete with a present that is not merely a frame, that present, however action-packed, has a tendency to lose its fizz. I can only wonder why Vaughn didn't simply chose that story to start with.
In the novel's present, Celia West is an adolescent in her mid-twenties, the daughter of two powerful superheroes, Olympus and Spark, who are wealthy celebrities. Her personal narrative is that of the "poor little rich girl" who resents having such parents (particularly since she seems to have no superpowers herself) and resents her identity as their daughter. In the back story several years in the narrative's past, she rebelled against her parents by going to work for one of Commerce City's archest of arch-villains, the Destructor (who had briefly kidnapped her when she was sixteen), and did her best to betray them. Now she is a forensic accountant who is helping the District Attorney's office to prosecute the Destructor for tax evasion (since that's the only way to get him permanently put away). Celia is smart, has red hair and according to her friend Analiese is "hot," and she knows how to use her connections to get information when she needs to. But the chip on her shoulder, combined with her feeling that being the daughter of rich, powerful superheroes is a curse, makes her personality less than winsome.
The narrative introduces her as she's undergoing one of the many abductions she's had to endure since the age of sixteen. The opening sentence of the novel identifies Celia as a "young workaholic professional" riding the bus home from work (p. 9). In the third sentence, a guy sitting in the seat behind Celia pulls a gun on her and forces her off the bus and into a waiting car of thugs. They've captured her, they tell her, solely to "send her parents a message" (p. 10). More than she's frightened at being menaced by thugs, Celia is enraged at once again being thought of simply as her parents' daughter. Besides being angry (partly with her parents), she is bored and blasé, since she's been there and done that so many times before. She sneers at her captors because she knows what they are too stupid to realize: that the Olympiad of superheroes, which includes a telepath who knows exactly where she is, will soon be arriving. She thinks about how her captors don't realize she is "expendable." She's tempted to piss off the thug in charge so that he'll hit her and treat her to a black eye, since that would "make things . . . go so much more badly for him later on" (p. 13).
After her expeditious rescue, she has an acrimonious exchange with her superhero mother Spark, who wishes that if Celia won't live in their fortress of a luxury apartment that she'd at least let her parents buy her a car so that she wouldn't be vulnerable to being snatched while riding the bus. Celia, "feeling sixteen years old, all over again" (p. 16), lashes out and tells her mother that it's her and her father's fault she is continually being abducted, which is when readers are given to understand that Celia's boast to Spark that she hasn't "taken a cent from you in years" is all about punishing her parents for not being normal, and nothing to do with her becoming an independent adult. Someone prone to abduction can afford to be careless for her own safety only because she knows her parents will always arrive in time to rescue her; even as she enjoys the luxury of taking her safety for granted, Celia resents her parents for the abductions as well as for their rescuing her from them. Her bitter thought about "being expendable" reflects her anger at her parents' taking the preservation of peace in Commerce City as their primary mission in life. They have never actually "expended" her—or even, it turns out, missed her graduation from college though she had estranged herself from them.
Smart characters as emotionally immature as Celia is can be appealing for adult readers, but such characterization takes clever writing to accomplish. I would certainly have found her more sympathetic if she'd been sixteen, matching her emotional age, instead of in her mid-twenties. But as the narrative tells us, "She'd left so quickly, without a backward glance. She hadn’t been given a chance to grow out of the teenager she’d been" (p. 88). "She hadn't been given a chance" is a curious choice of words, since it renders Celia a passive casualty of her own decision. The narrative continues, "Instead, she'd had to smash that teenager utterly and try to build something decent to replace her. In doing so, she'd burned a lot of bridges" (p. 88). No one can "smash" who they are and "replace" themselves with a new person. And so the primary narrative of the novel purports to be the story of how Celia comes to terms with herself and her parents. But since the narrative is told through comic-book tropes, involving a series of action sequences that are fairly incidental to the main story, Celia's maturation simply happens through her somehow just feeling better about herself and for no particular reason forgiving her parents for being who they are. In addition to the action sequences, the novel also features a couple of romantic subplots, which might have offered opportunities for showing Celia's coming to terms with who she is, but these subplots are in one instance frivolous and in the other instance icky. And like everything else, they just sort of happen because they happen. The narrative basically works out to pretty much one damned thing after another, where the action and romantic subplots are largely irrelevant to the larger narrative and distract readers from what is not happening.
The comic book setting and characters and situation could have delivered a satisfying read if the narrative style had been fun and playful. Having a human torch for a mother with the superhero name of Spark could have made for exhilarating, even comical fun. But beyond occasionally mentioning small domestic details (for instance, how useful such a superpower can be in the kitchen), the narrative does little with the comic book elements, perhaps because it is related in the dreariest of realist styles. The choice to separate the flashy, playful side of the novel's comic book tropes from the narrative's fleshing out of them seems deliberate, for as the narrative notes, "When the costumes came out, they ceased being her parents and became the four-color heroes of legend" (p. 251). The "costumes"—the "four-color heroes of legend"—don't really have much to do with Celia's story and don’t often appear in the narrative. (Hence, I suppose, the post-ness of the title.) Instead, the narrative takes the usual stock figures of superhero alter-egos and writes them straight, their personalities drawn flat in black-and-white. The flatness of the characterization and the mix of flashbacks with action sequences need not have interfered with the story of Celia's growing up. But that story, it seems, is harder to tell than one might suspect, particularly when the character needing to grow up is a young professional who frequently finds it necessary to remind herself that she isn't sixteen anymore.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.