(2007/1987) Lucius Shepard, Gollancz, £7.99, pbk, 418pp, ISBN 0-575-0-7734-4
In one of many deviations from the story in Life During Wartime, main character David Mingolla comes across murals painted by an anonymous war artist. In the midst of a village decimated by war, they seem to represent the moment when all its inhabitants realised their fate. Mingolla's reaction is one of rage against art that represents the worst of war; often, your reaction to this book is much the same. Shepard's 1987 award-winning novel is a startling work, but no easy read. Like a near future Catch-22, except that the humour is sparse and unsettlingly bleak. Now (2007) part of Gollancz's SF Masterworks series, this little-known book is available for reassessment by a new generation of science fiction readers (such as myself). The story unfolds episodically, with small scenes making up Mingolla's gradual journey to Panama, where he believes he will escape war-torn Guatemala. Realising his own psychic abilities, and spurred forward by the revolutionary, Debora, he gradually discovers more about the figures behind this war, and the atrocities committed within it.
Most of the novel follows Mingolla and Debora's progress towards Panama, a supposed haven from the war, but gradually revealed to be something more sinister. The two characters' psychic abilities make them powerful weapons in this war, and Shepard's depiction of these abilities as something visceral and sexual in application, yet empowering and corrupting at the same time, is very original. Rather than being knee-deep in the technobabble and detachment of some hard SF, Shepard tends to use the elements of science fiction to present an ever more surreal and alien world. He has a beautiful eye for prose, and his depiction of the landscapes of Guatemala and the disparate events of the novel can be breathtaking at times. There are moments that are grotesque and absurd that resound with significance: the crashed helicopter that believes itself to be God; the American soldiers laying bets on a prisoner's life. If there is any criticism to be made of his style, it is that there is too much of it. The four hundred-odd pages of this book are crammed with small meaningful episodes, but quite often it is difficult to see where this book is actually heading. Life During Wartime is a hard slog though, and is not a novel for those who want the spectacle and optimism of most science fiction. It is challenging, original, haunting and beautiful, everything you would expect a great book to be. But, then, you won't be rushing to read it again any time soon.
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