Snow & Sanity is the third in the Dust & Cannibals low-tech Science fiction series of stories involving the people in and around Harlan County, Nebraska following a series of events that have changed the political, economic, and physical landscape of our reality into something that is often horrifying and always a little disturbing while being thought provoking at the same time.
This third installment of the series takes the reader into the workings of one of the locations in Harlan (the residents have dropped the County off of the name) called the Wagon Ranch. The function of the wagon ranch is primarily to train horses and riders to help with the many jobs that need to be taken care of including transportation, defense, and delivery of messages and supplies in a timely manner. Operations at the ranch have been disrupted by snow storms that come through every few days dropping massive amounts of precipitation. That covers the snow aspect of the title. As far as the sanity part of the title, where Wagon Ranch is concerned, there seems to be very little of that to go around.
A lot of activity is happening around Harlan, and not all of it is good. At the Wagon Ranch, the appointed manager and his assistant seem to be taking pleasure in torturing Rick, a computer nerd, by making him do jobs around the ranch that have little to do with actually getting anything accomplished. At the same time, a young woman named Gwendolyn is being held in apparent slavery serving four households and being forced to do all of the cleaning and cooking. When Lyle and Mark discover this, they decide to make some changes in an attempt to improve conditions at the Wagon Ranch. While Kevin seemed to be the right choice for manager, it turns out that his personality has changed and so has the personality of his assistant, Duane.
Gwendolyn and Rick are married almost immediately after they meet and are appointed to run the ranch and it is soon discovered that the reason for Kevin and Duane’s behavior is a substance that is hidden in the walls of the buildings on Wagon Ranch. What ensues next is a struggle for control of the ranch, as well as many of the people of Harlan, and perhaps a struggle for the County itself. All the while, there are people who are caught in the middle, some are well equipped to handle the situation, while others that the people of the county count on for guidance and wisdom appear to falter because of moral standards that seem to be deteriorating in this world that is rapidly changing as resources dwindle. Then there are the weather changes that are affecting one of the most important aspects of being civilized; communication.
Once again, Bruce has delved into the area that I would call Social Science Fiction. This series is not so much how a post-apocalyptic society might deal with the lack of technology, but how they might deal with one another in a society that has to deal with the changes resulting from a broken down government, and threats from every angle. Everyone in such a society has to be a productive member by contributing to the welfare of the whole for the good of all, but as we see in the real world, there are those that will insist on taking advantage of a situation to advance their personal agenda, and Bruce demonstrates how this would tend to bring everyone down if situations like this exist. In other words, the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the one. It is obvious that the author has given this aspect a great deal of thought.
At the same time, there has to be someone in charge to help determine what is best for the society saw a whole, and being human, leaders do tend to make mistakes. In the story, Lyle is a wise leader with years of experience under his belt, but even he can be flawed. Lyle has a deep respect for life and does not feel that anyone is expendable, now matter how bad someone might be, he wants to help everyone become a part of the community. He feels that with martial law in effect, he must be careful not to make decisions based on knee-jerk reactions, but sometimes there are situations that cannot be resolved thoughtfully. This story finds Lyle making a decision that did cost lives, and could have cost a whole lot more and plunged the people of Harlan into complete chaos. Fortunately, there are others who see the flaws in Lyle’s decision and take measures to lessen the impact.
One impact that was avoided was the possibility of losing the two people in the county that were best equipped to help restore the communication abilities in the county, that would be the two highest qualified people in the area that understand technology, Rick and Gwendolyn. In trying to save Kevin and Duane, Lyle’s decision not to eliminate them as a threat to the group, caused the couple to re-examine whether they really wanted to be a part of the community or to strike out on their own. I found that as I read, I was also disappointed in Lyle as he put many lives in harm’s way that could have been avoided. Unfortunately, not everyone can be redeemed.
One of the best parts about reading Snow & Sanity is in seeing the growth of the author in his writing. Now, just to be clear, I am not saying that the first two books were bad, but this one was my favorite of the three. The descriptions of the scenery and how it was effected by the weather was quite vivid, as well as the descriptions of the places I which the characters were taking shelter from the weather. The characters also seemed more comfortable in their settings. As always, the stressful elements such as rape scenes, beatings, as well as other such were done tastefully and we're all important parts of the story. I especially appreciate that the violence in the book is not gratuitous, but it is realistic and in line with what a reader might expect to happen within the world that Bruce has created.
That is also not to say that there are not surprises within the pages, and all is not dark and foreboding. There are also some good times and some humor. While the circumstances that created this world from the mind of Mr. Schindler are devastating, the center of the story are the characters he has created, sometimes good, sometimes evil, but always interesting.
I have really enjoyed the books in this series and give my highest recommendations to anyone who likes low-tech science fiction.
Well, there it is…