Life During Wartime is the 66th book to be released in Gollancz's SF Masterworks series. Originally published in 1987, it's an anti-war novel, set in a near-future world that has been plunged into chaos at the height of the cold war. The war is dirty, fuelled by drugs and fought by elite psychics who are able to manipulate the emotions of those around them. It's never entirely made clear who America is fighting in this war. There are references to Afghanistan and a nuclear weapon that destroyed Tel Aviv, but as we quickly learn, the war itself is a façade—a political front designed to mask the true powers at work, the warring families of the Sotomayors and the Madradonas.
The psychic powers themselves are not unlike those seen in The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. The members of Psicorp have the ability to shape and project emotion onto others. So, if they project trust, their target will instantly feel a bond with them; lust, that person will want to sleep with them; fear, and if it's strong enough, that person will die.
At the beginning of the novel, we follow David Mingolla, a disillusioned war veteran who is on R&R in Guatemala, trying to unwind from the horrors of the conflict. Whilst there, he bumps into the enigmatic and beautiful Debora, whom he falls instantly in love with. They quickly become involved but, terrified at how quickly his feelings have developed, Mingolla flees her, opting to return instead to the front line where he understands himself better. We later find that Debora is a psychic who has defected to the other side and that Mingolla's feelings for her are probably the result of mental manipulation on her part—an attempt to control him because of the apparent threat he poses to her side's plans.
It's a good opening and, in fact, the entire thing is the short story, "R&R," for which Shepherd won a Nebula in 1986. As a short story, it's pretty damn good. Mingolla is presented as a distracted but likable character who is just trying to make some sense of the chaos around him. Debora is a refreshing contrast to his somewhat stereotyped depiction of a battle-scarred hero, coming across as an empathetic and self-assured woman. The whole thing is presented to us in a well-written package that, if not entirely original, at least reads well enough to keep you interested in what will come next. The problem, however, lies with the 300 pages of novel that follow this auspicious opening. Problem? They simply don't fit.
When Orson Scott Card wrote the novel Ender's Game (published in 1985) to accompany his short story Battle Room (1977), he went right back to the beginning, asked questions of his universe, dissected it down, and distributed the good elements throughout what became a well-written novel. The same can be said of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels (1968—2001), based on her earlier short story "The Word of Unbinding" (1964), or William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), based on "Johnny Mnemonic" (1981), to name just three off the top of my head.
What Shepard tries to do with Life During Wartime, however, is piggyback enough material for a novel onto the tail-end of what is already a polished and well-concluded story. The result is a top-heavy mish-mash of ideas that reads, in places, more like a series of interconnected short stories than a novel in its own right. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but Shepard has a nasty habit of getting sidetracked when writing. The book is needlessly long, padded with pointless passages and Philip K. Dick-esque drug-hallucination sequences that, following in the wake of such a razor-sharp opening, leave you wondering what went wrong. Not only this, but Shepard seems to use such moments to reveal to us how many adjectives he knows. Take this passage, for example, that comes immediately after the end of the short story, "R&R":
Paths that lead to the most profound destinations, to moments of illumination or change, have nothing to do with actual travel, but rather negotiate a mental geography. (p. 89)
As an opening line to a novel, it's hardly the strongest. It's also a very long-winded way of saying, "self-discovery comes from within." But he keeps it up. Literally pages of such purple prose go by before it's even revealed to us that years have passed since we've last seen Mingolla and that he, too, has undergone the drug treatment that will turn him into a psychic. He looks set to become one of the strongest Psicorps have ever produced in fact, but the change has altered his personality. Gone is the likable, confused Mingolla of the opening chapters; he is nothing but a half-crazed killing machine now, addicted to frost—a highly addictive form of coke—and virtually friendless. When he's given a mission to find Debora and bring her in as a defector, he jumps at it with gusto. Not just because he loves her, but because he knows that the only reason he feels the way he does is because of her mental raping of him so many years before. It takes three chapters to cover this much ground in the plot.
When the prose settles down and stops being so in love with itself, the story is actually pretty good. It reads something like Apocalypse Now on steroids. We're introduced to a cast of fascinating characters in quick turn: a helicopter that thinks it's God; a man whose brain chemistry is somehow wired to that of butterflies; not to mention the members of the families—the powers that lie behind the war. But it breaks away from this far too often, wondering off into completely superfluous passages that feel fidgety to read, restless and skittish. Whilst one could make a point of this being thematically appropriate, it was an effect that quickly got on my nerves. When you just want the characters to get from A to B in the story, the last thing you need is swathes of miscellaneous subplot getting in the way.
The most unbelievable moment of all probably comes as Mingolla and Debora are finally reunited. After spending the last hundred pages moaning about how much she has wronged him, Mingolla instantly leaps back into a relationship with her, a relationship that is suddenly true love both ways. All his drug addictions vanish and once again he becomes a "nice guy" in the space, literally, of a paragraph. He too decides to defect with Debora and join the fight with her against the families. Leaving everything he has ever known behind him, he sets off with her to Panama to face their true enemy. It's a rites of passage moment upon which the entire plot seems hinged, but coming out of nowhere after chapters of waiting around, it isn't convincing.
To be fair, Debora is a far stronger character than Mingolla and the novel picks up a lot once she re-appears, but too often she is pushed into the background, portrayed as continually being wrong. Her motivations and personality appear confused. She is neglected for whole chapters because it is inconvenient to have her around and yet, without her, the story loses its emotional core. Shepard clearly realises this too, because he keeps trying to shoehorn her into places where, frankly, she shouldn't be. She melts into the background, where she "helps out with negotiations" whilst Mingolla runs around in the foreground like some one-man army, a cavalier who is always right and whose presence as a main character I quickly learned to hate.
I know these criticisms will hardly matter to many people. There are those out there who will buy anything with the word "Masterworks" on its cover, if only for the sake of owning a complete set (I'm one of them in fact). But please, read this one when you have absolutely no others left to read. It's clichéd Heart of Darkness-style war fiction masquerading as SF, and it offers nothing new to either genre. If you like your plots unfocussed and meandering, your characters inconsistent, and your writing style over-exposed then by all means, read this. All others, avoid.
R.J. Burgess is from Crawley, West Sussex and has wanted to be a writer for most of his life. A recent recipient of a Creative Writing degree from Middlesex University, he is still relatively new to SF but is quickly finding his feet.