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Life During Wartime
Lucius Shepard
Gollancz, 418 pages

Life During Wartime
Lucius Shepard
Lucius Shepard was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1947. He has travelled extensively in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. He lives in Seattle. Mr Shepard has won 2 World Fantasy Awards including one for his collection The Jaguar Hunter. As well, he has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Two Trains Running
SF Site Review: Louisiana Breakdown
SF Site Review: Louisiana Breakdown
SF Site Review: Green Eyes
SF Site Review: Colonel Rutherford's Colt
SF Site Review: Beast of the Heartland

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Charlene Brusso

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"A true war story is never moral," Tim O'Brien wrote in The Things They Carried. "If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie." O'Brien's focus was Vietnam, but his observations are not bound to any single war, real or fictional, and they clearly hold true for the violent, dirty mess infecting Central America in Lucius Shepard's novel, Life During Wartime, recently reprinted in the U.K. by Gollancz.

The military gear of Shepard's near-future setting hasn't moved too far from the basics. Assault weapons cable into backpack processors which project range data onto helmet-mounted screens. Army-issue amphetamines have been replaced by fast-acting combat drugs like "samurai" that can make any soldier feel like Superman. The twist is the existence of Psicorps, a project born of New Age philosophy and more than a little Cold War paranoia. Psicorps' job is to identify and exploit potential psychic ability in Army recruits. To Shepard's main character David Mingolla, a "sensitive" who briefly considered joining the spooky outfit, they don't seem to do much more than sit around making predictions that are wrong half the time.

Mingolla is Shepard's "Everyman," a nice kid from the suburbs, a high school basketball star now trying to survive in a place so alienójungles shrouded in mist, full of shadowy threats and strange airs -- that it might as well be another planet. Survival here requires more than just dodging ordnance; it demands a respect for the power that lives in the land itself. Mingolla sees the natives living a parabox, "trapped between the poles of magic and reason, their lives governed by the politics of the unreal, their spirits ruled by myths and legends."

Mingolla himself is far from immune to the mysterious forces that surround him. Even among the regular troops, superstition runs rampant. As one soldier notes, "down here everybody's crazy the same way... They're all looking for a magic that will ensure their survival." Mingolla has his rituals like everyone else, little behavior patterns that give him a sense, however wrong, of security. But even these comforting routines aren't enough to hold things together. "You had to admit to mystery, to the incomprehensibility of your situation, and protect yourself against it," he decides. "You had to become the monster in your own maze, as brutal and devious as the fate you sought to escape."

Going on the offensive, Mingolla joins Psicorps and discovers the organization is far more competent than he expected. With training and drug enhancement, his abilities expand until it's clear he has the potential to become one of the most powerful psychics in the world. Before long he's amusing himself by manipulating the thoughts and behaviors of people outside his training sessions. His casual acceptance of cruelty for the sake of amusement is just a symptom of the even greater changes happening within. Shepard is a wise enough writer not to let his character realize the change until it's too late to turn back.

Mingolla's final exam for Psicorps is to assassinate an enemy psychic using the power of his mind. Only after he has done this does he realize what he has become, the monster in the maze. Now he finally begins to question the motivations of his teachers, especially his cryptic mentor, Dr. Izaguirre. The answers will lead Mingolla into the treacherous middle of a global struggle for supremacy between two feuding families whose whims decide the fate of villages, cities, even countries. Ultimately Mingolla must choose a side: support one of the families, or a third side consisting only of himself and the few allies he can muster.

Life During Wartime is masterfully written, taking what could have been a perfectly adequate war story and expanding it to encompass the fate of the world as well as the main character's soul. The opening section (based on the short story, "R&R") is tightly plotted, with vivid, dreamlike clarity and the building momentum of a runaway train. Once that momentum slingshots Mingolla into the ugly world of Psicorps, the plot slows and grows increasingly intricate, exploring Mingolla's attempts to stay human amidst the rush of his growing powers. Shepard's conception of extrasensory powers blends perfectly with the elements of magic realism in his setting. Both are so matter-of-fact that they feel as real as gravity, as rational as Mingolla's ability to sink a basketball from the top of the key -- and that is what makes the book so unsettling, and so memorable. In the world of Life During Wartime, very little is white, some is black, but mostly there are only shades of gray.

Copyright © 2007 Charlene Brusso

Charlene's sixth grade teacher told her she would burn her eyes out before she was 30 if she kept reading and writing so much. Fortunately he was wrong. Her work has also appeared in Aboriginal SF, Amazing Stories, Dark Regions, MZB's Fantasy Magazine, and other genre magazines.


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