The OF Blog: Lucius Shepard, Life During Wartime

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lucius Shepard, Life During Wartime

One of the new Sikorsky gunships, an element of the First Air Cavalry with the words Whispering Death painted on its side, gave Mingolla and Gilbey and Baylor a lift from the Ant Farm to San Francisco de Juticlan, a small town located inside the green zone, which on the latest maps was designated Free Occupied Guatemala.  To the east of this green zone lay an undesignated band of yellow that crossed the country from the Mexican border to the Caribbean.  The Ant Farm was a firebase on the eastern edge of the yellow band, and it was from there that Mingolla - an artillery specialist not yet twenty-one years old - lobbed shells into an area that the maps depicted in black-and-white terrain markings.  And thus it was that he often thought of himself as engaged in a struggle to keep the world safe for primary colors.

Mingolla and his buddies could have taken their R and R in Rio or Caracas, but they had noticed that the men who visited these cities had a tendency to grow careless upon their return; they understood from this that the more exuberant your R and R, the more likely you were to end up a casualty, and so they always opted for the lesser distractions of the Guatemalan towns.  They were not really friends; they had little in common, and under different circumstances they might well have been enemies.  But taking their R and R together had come to be a ritual of survival, and once they had reached the town of their choice, they would go their separate ways and perform further rituals.  Because the three had survived so much already, they believed that if they continued to perform these same rituals they would complete heir tours unscathed.  They had never acknowledged their belief to one another, speaking of it only obliquely - that, too, was part of the ritual - and had this belief been challenged they would have admitted its irrationality; yet they would also have pointed out that the strange character of the war acted to enforce it. (pp. 1-2)

The 1980s were a strange time for the American people.  The country was still smarting over its failures in Vietnam and views of war and its purposes were perhaps the bleakest ever in American history.  Several movies about the Vietnam experience and its effects on the soldiers were made, ranging from anti-war movies such as the Ron Kovacs' autobiographical story, Born on the Fourth of July, to the Rambo movies to the Missing in Action movie series.  There were also TV shows such as The A-Team that referenced the war and the indignities that the returning soldiers experienced obliquely.  During this time, the American government continued to be engaged in covert operations in Central and South America to prop up anti-Communist forces in Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, and perhaps most tragically, in El Salvador, which suffered from a thirteen year civil war from 1979 to 1992.  Several novels, realist and alt-historical alike, were written about these conflicts and the psychological traumas that they inflicted upon soldiers and civilians alike.  One of the strongest portrayals of this period and its mindset is Lucius Shepard's 1987 classic, Life During Wartime, which combines the psychological elements of Apocalypse Now with a close look at the small-scale wars in Latin America that perhaps can be viewed as the forerunners for today's conflicts.

Above is a quote taken from the book's introduction.  Shepard immediately removes the reader from his or her comfortable setting and places them in the midst of a conflict that has already embittered and stressed the combatants.  Notice how there are only last names given; no first names nor ranks.  There is a sense of superstitious cynicism about Mingolla and his two companions.  They are together only because they are forced together, and yet that force is not anything formal or commanded, but is an ad hoc reaction to what they have witnessed.  Already there are nicknames for locales - the Ant Farm could as well be Hamburger hill - and there is a tension present, as if at any moment the soldiers might snap.  Shepard sets the stage here for an insightful look at brutality, but he takes it further than what a contemporary war novelist might have written.

Mingolla, whose pre-war life is barely touched upon (he was a high school athlete who entered the military after graduating from high school) except to provide contrasts for his future development, is soon tested for an experimental new army group, the PsiCorps, a group of soldiers who, with the right drugs and training, are able to use their minds to influence thoughts and actions of those who are not gifted with this ability.  As seen in one early scene, this power disconcerts him:

The Cuban eased toward Mingolla's door, his progress tangible, like a burning match moving behind a sheet of paper.  Mingolla's calm was shattered.  The man's heat, his fleshy temperature, was what disturbed him.  He had imagined himself killing with a cinematic swiftness and lack of mess; now he thought of hogs being butchered and pile drivers smashing the skulls of cows.  And could he trust this freakish form of perception?  What if he couldn't?  What if he stabbed too late?  Too soon?  Then the hot, alive thing was almost at the door, and having no choice, Mingolla timed his attack to its movement,s stabbing just as the Cuban entered.

He executed perfectly. (p. 52)

Shepard's use of limited third-person perspective to show just what was happening to Mingolla during his development is superb.  Mingolla's thoughts, his reactions, all of this feels "natural" and not too rushed or too explicit.  Shepard integrates well the psychic training that Mingolla has received with the harsh brutality of the Guatemalan jungle warfare that is occurring between the American-led forces and the Cuban/Communist opponents.  But before the reader begins to think that this will settle into a sort of psychic/psychological game of cat-and-mouse, Shepard introduces a wild card:  the mysterious woman named Deborah, who may be a spy for the Sombra group, the counterparts to PsiCorps.  Shepard easily could have made Deborah into a sort of Bond seductress, but in one key scene about halfway into the novel, he shows the other side of the conflicts that Mingolla and others have been experiencing during the jungle campaign, one that is at least as brutal as anything the soldiers have undergone:

"Maybe I should tell," she said.  "Maybe it'll explain why I was so reticent with you at first."

"Back in Emerald?"

" see there were a lot of reasons I didn't want to get involved with you like this, and one was I was afraid it wouldn't be any good between us."

"You mean sex?"

She nodded.  "It hadn't ever been good for me, and I thought nothing could change that, not even being in love.  But it is good, and I keep getting scared it won't last."


"Because it's so perfect...the way you fit me, how you touch me.  And everything before was so imperfect."  She turned away as if embarrassed.  "When they brought us in for interrogation...the government..."

"Your family?"

"Yes.  She let out a sigh.  "Why they brought us in, I knew they'd rape me.  That's what they always do.  I prepared for it, and every day that passed, every day it didn't happen.  I grew more afraid.  I thought they must be saving me for something special, some special horror."  (p. 266)
Rather than just simply continued, tortuous rape, the Communist regime has something even more nefarious in mind with this delay and the subsequent raising of hope:

"I was beginning to think the major just wanted me to sit there and look nice.  Then about two o'clock he came to his door and said, 'Debora, I need you now.'  Just the way he'd ask a secretary in to take dictation, just that offhanded tone.  I went into the office, and he told me to take off my underwear.  Still very polite.  Smiling.  I was afraid, but like I said, I'd prepared for this, and so I did what he asked.  He told me to get down on my hands and knees beside the desk.  I did that, too.  I shed a few tears, i remember, but I managed to stop them.  He pulled out a tube from his drawer, some kind of jelly, and...and he lubricated me.  That was almost the worst part.  And then he dropped his trousers and came inside me from behind, the way you..."

"I'm sorry;" said Mingola.  "I didn't..."

"No, no!"  Debora's hands fluttered in the dark, found his face, cupped it.  "Sometimes I wanted you to do that, but..."  She sighed again. (p. 267)

Shepard manages to navigate between the treacheries of being too casual with such a scene and overplaying the brutality of the repeated rapes Debora had to endure before she would accept her training as a psychic agent.  Debora's inhumane treatment, underscored by the sheer callousness of the major's hum-drum approach to degrading her by utilizing sex as just another manipulative tool, contrasts nicely with the character development of Mingolla and certain other characters in the first half or so of the novel.  These vivid scenes serve not just to develop the mood, but to further the plot, until the narrative tensions builds to a crescendo that comes crashing down in a finale that lives up to the promise of the slow psychological buildup.

Life During Wartime is one of the best psychological SF stories that I have read.  Shepard's prose is outstanding through.  His characters feel "real" and their traumas, subtle and obvious alike, are woven into a taut plot that furthers its thematic exploration of war and the traumas inflicted by it.  There are very few weak points to discuss, if any.  Perhaps a character's arc could have been furthered a slight bit further, but it would be at best quibbling over what really is an outstanding work of fiction.  Highly recommended.

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