Life During Wartime – Lucius Shephard (1987)
‘In the jungles of Guatemala, David Mingella is slugging it out amongst the rotting vegetation and his despairing fellow foot soldiers. He knows he is nothing but an expendable pawn in an endless war. On R&R a few miles beyond the warzone he meets Debora – an enigmatic young woman who may be working for the enemy – and stumbles into a deadly psychic conflict where the mind is the greatest weapon. Thoughts are used to kill and escape is impossible, but David is a man with a mind of his own and he will fight to the death before killing the woman he loves.’
Blurb from the 1998 Orion paperback edition
A novel which won much critical acclaim at the time of its publication, LDW is the story of Mingella, a soldier in the US army in a future war between the powers of Capitalism and Communism. Mingella, when R&R is due, goes regularly with his buddies Gibley and Baylor since they have a superstitious belief that they will all be safe if they go together.
One weekend, Mingella meets Deborah, and a bond is formed, since the two are psychics, although on opposite sides of the ideological boundary.
Mingella then gets recruited into the Psicorps, and he is told that Deborah is a Communist agent and that he will someday be assigned to bring her in.
Mingella’s character, affected by training, drugs and the manipulative effects of other psychics, hardens and his treatment of others becomes somewhat cruel.
Mingella does not realise that he is on a journey of discovery and that he will ultimately uncover the secret of who is pulling the strings behind the war.
It is a dense and fantastic piece of literature which is rich with its own odd symbolism and stories within stories. One of Mingella’s psychic trainers for instance, gives him a book of short stories by one of his favourite authors, ‘The Fictive Boarding House’, in which he reads the story of two feuding families, a story which is very much rooted in reality and of which Mingella is unknowingly a part.
Many characters have stories to tell, such as Brandford, whom he meets in the jungle, and who tells him the tale of The Beast who haunts the forest. Later Mingella meets up with his old army buddy Gibley who relates the plot of one of Baylor’s favourite SF novels in some detail, although Mingella realises that Gibley has invented the plot himself.
Then there are the insects and invertebrates which seem to intrude surreptitiously everywhere. Mingella’s base was called The Ant Farm and at one point he falls asleep while watching spiders crossing and recrossing the window. He sees constellations of moths. The pilots whom he befriends wear buglike masks that they never remove and when attacked in the jungle by soldiers berserker-crazed by the drug Dammy, he is saved by an army of butterflies.
Highly literate and complex, it needs at least two readings I suspect, to begin to uncover the nuances.