Not long ago, I was dragged to the Buffalo County Fair here in Kearney. I am not a big fan of going to the fair that is held in the late summer. It is always hot and miserable, and I don't really enjoy going to where there are a lot of other hot and miserable people who are all walking around looking at hot and miserable animals, not to mention the moldering food and wilting vegetables that are out on display after the judging has been done. But this year was a little different. As I walked into one of the exhibit buildings, I saw a table with a book display and several people manning a booth behind the table. The banner above the display read Central Nebraska Writers Group.
At the tables were three people I now consider friends, and one other that I unfortunately did not get to know yet. I almost fell over when one of the authors, Mari Beck, recognized me from this blog! Another was Brooke Brouillette. Both seemed very enthusiastic about science fiction and we discussed it at some length. I asked Mari if she writes scifi, she said that she had not yet, but she then directed me to a man sitting quietly at a table to my right and told me that is the guy I wanted to talk to.
I was invited to join the group. Again, surprised I said "really?" and was told that bloggers are considered writers too. I got a few of the details of what it means to be a member of the Writers Group, thanked everyone and moved on to the next table where I met the author of the object of this review, Mr. Bruce Schindler.
Bruce and his wife were quietly sitting at the table. I mentioned that the girls next door had sent me over and told me that he wrote scifi. Bruce then proceeded to tell me that he has written some fantasy. He talked briefly about his fantasy works and then told me that his Dust and Cannibals is the first of a series of post-apocalyptic cowboy (I am pretty sure he did use the term 'cowboy') novels. Two things immediately flashed in my mind; first was that film from a few years ago, "Cowboys and Aliens," which I did, and still do enjoy, and second was Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I love a good post-apocalyptic story and made a note of the title to be read sometime in the near future.
I went home and immediately found the Facebook page for the Writers Group and sent friend requests to Mari, Brooke, and Bruce.
Well, on with the review of Dust and Cannibals...
This story centers mostly in and around the south-central area of Nebraska that is Harlan County. It is a place where there are some wide open spaces with numerous farms, ranches, small towns, and nice people that are pretty well laid back, but do know how to take care of themselves when times get rough. Well, in the story, times have gotten quite a bit rougher than probably anyone could imagine when a chain of disasters hit on a global scale.
Solar flares, nuclear exchanges, earthquakes, volcanoes, and resulting tsunamis all lay waste to vital parts of the U.S. leaving the military in charge in many areas, and local law enforcement in others. Resources are dwindling to nothing, communication is almost nonexistent, and martial law has become the law of the land. With chaos all around, Lyle and Adeline Lillard are pretty self sufficient on their small ranch outside the town of Alma, but there are a few items that they will need in order to weather the storm. Lyle knows that something bad has happened, but is not aware of the scale, so he decides to take a ride into Alma on a green-broke horse with a too small saddle. On his way, he finds that he is being stalked by a group of cannibals who have taken up residence along a minimum maintenance road not far from his house. It was probably a good thing that he chose the skittish, half trained horse for his journey, because that may have just saved his life. Upon reaching Alma, he finds that rationing of everything is in full force.
It is only after a couple of strangers arrive on the scene, former soldiers Josh and Mark who have survived and managed to make their way to Harlan County all the way from Afghanistan that Lyle, freshly deputized to take care of the north end of the county, learns of the extent of the destruction and that it is indeed going to be a long term, maybe a lifelong situation. Lyle takes it upon himself to try to bring the people of the county together for the common good, helping others use their talents to make the best of a seemingly hopeless situation.
Lyle and his neighbors soon learn that the cannibals, under the leadership of an imbecile and a former petty criminal, are the least of their worries, because next arrives the Dust. A chemical agent created as a chemical weapon that falls into the hands of terrorists operating in and around Colorado that seem to have a bent on killing everyone that might pose a threat to them.
Dust and Cannibals is a low-tech science fiction story that focuses mainly on the people of Harlan County working together to survive in a situation that would find most of us completely unprepared. It is their isolation in a rural area that helps them avoid some of the problems that come up, but their spirit and sense of loyalty to one another also brings them together to do what the people of Nebraska are best at, that is taking care of each other in times of need. Everyone in this story that are residents of the county use their unique talents to contribute to the whole community as they band together to figure out the problem and come up with a solution. Yes, strangers are welcome, but only so long as they are willing to work and make a viable contribution. This is the single strongest part of this novel. If you want to learn what the people of rural Nebraska are like, here is a perfect case study.
Another strong point is how well Bruce has hit on a plausible chain reaction of disasters in what he told me was this alternate reality (which I hope continues to stay alternate). At first, it seemed somewhat far fetched to think that this many things could go wrong all at the same time, but after giving it more thought, it became clear that everything could begin with a solar flare that knocks out communications and power grids next leading to misunderstandings and a nuclear exchange between nations that have already unsteady relationships. Throw in with that several earthquake faults that are described as "overdue" for activity and the result would be catastrophic for a large number of people in many locales. It is all a little scary.
That brings me to the most compelling aspect of Dust and Cannibals, that is just how scary and somewhat depressing it was for me. The first thing that comes to mind is how ill prepared a huge number of us are. We all rely on the internet for so much, electricity, fossil fuels, and have become very, very comfortable with our lives. We can just take a quick jaunt to the store for whatever we want or need at a moment's notice and if something is forgotten, it isn't a problem to just go back because we know that whatever we want is there. We complain and take personally almost every minor inconvenience we run into, no matter how small, and then make these problems into major disasters, blasting rants onto the social media which we have come to rely upon for a sympathetic ear. We lounge in our air conditioned/central heated homes in the inclement weather and watch the world go by. Every now and then, we see that a city on the other side of the world is destroyed and that there are hundreds dead and injured, and we say, that's too bad. I know that I, for one, am probably too comfortable and not anywhere near prepared enough for even the most minor disaster. Bruce's book gave me pause to think about that.
As I became immersed in the story, I found myself wondering where I was during all of this? Where was my family? My friends? I know and work with many people who have cabins on the Harlan County Reservoir. Many of them are people that I care a great deal about. This story not only entertained me, but touched me on a personal level probably because to is set so close to home. Where I live, the locations that Bruce points out in the story are all within a 90 minute drive. I have been to many of the places he mentions in the book. I found myself becoming very uncomfortable with what I read. For me at least, Bruce not only wrote a very entertaining story, but a thought provoking one.
In any case, I highly recommend this book as one that is a good low tech scifi yarn that might also get you thinking too. While the writing style is not the same as Stephen King, I found that there were several aspects in the writing that made me think of that master of horror, somewhat reminiscent of the Dark Tower series as well as other stories he has written. If there is anything that I would have liked to seen added to the book, it would have to be a map of Harlan County to help put into perspective how far distances can become when conventional modes of transportation are no longer viable.
Dust and Cannibals is not Bruce's only work. He also offers the sequel to this novel titled Mud and Horizons. He has also penned an Urban Fantasy novel, Touch Stones, as well as a genealogical Fantasy story The LaGrange Legacy. His works are all available from SmashWords, Amazon.com (in both print format and as an e-book), and by special order from any bookstore. If you live here in the Kearney area, go to the Sequel Bookshop here in town. Finally, you can order your books directly from him by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org or from his Facebook author page.
If you want to learn more about Bruce Schindler and his work, Facebook seems is one way to go, or you can read what he writes about himself...
"There is a place so exotic and remote, the Marrakesh Express gets nowhere near it. Even in Kathmandu, this place seems a world away. Its inhabitants call it Harlan County, and describe it as being in South-Central Nebraska.
Many people get within a few miles of it, but fly over it without knowing. Others drive past or even through, and have no idea anything just happened. This is because of a magical veil. It is impervious to the most sophisticated equipment, and makes most people choose not to see.
In Harlan County, the distance between this reality and every other reality is very thin. Some of the inhabitants cross over routinely, and come back with strange tales, spun as though they are the same world as ours.
When I was young, I listened while they told those stories around the fire. The tales were long and involved, and I probably nodded off from time to time. Because of that, some details are a bit fuzzy, but I pass along the stories as faithfully as I can.
I came to Harlan County for love, and found it. I got much more, finding a friend, a muse, and a goddess. That alone was more than enough, but more blessings came: horses waiting impatiently for more hay and a macaw loudly demanding pizza. There is also our ShihTsu, a psychic dog who projects her thoughts, making me do as she wishes.
Life before Harlan County now seems less real than all other realities about which I write. My main indicator about the real world comes when the horses, macaw, and dog make their needs known.
In this, the real world, I find pleasure in sharing these stories. Since there is no way to give escorted tours, they say I must call them fiction - science fiction. You and I know they are real."
Well, there it is...