Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lucius Shepard, Life During Wartime (1987) SFMW 66

Lucius Shepard's Life During Wartime (1987) conjoins the standard Apocalypse Now reading of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness with the author's own experience of living in Latin America and use of hard drugs, whilst Scarface plays on a constant loop in the novel's background.

The story arc is an unholy mess, emerging unconvincingly from the first section ('R and R') which was originally published as 'a Nebula award-winning short story' in its own right.

One can only assume it must have been a slow year for the short form of genre fiction.

The Wikipedia entry for the novel currently provides more detail about this dreary, preening work than I am prepared to waste further time rehearsing here. Suffice to say the idea that the titular war, not to mention the totality of the global economic and political structure, are being manipulated as part of a psychically-conducted vendetta between two ancient Panamanian families is preposterous in the extreme.

In the interests of fair balance, it should be noted that when the fit takes him Shepard is capable of writing beautifully, and has the keen eye of a miniaturist: 'her blue skirt swayed like a rung bell' (p. 64); 'over the bumpy hill road in the hotel's Land Rover[...] they seemed to be pulling the night along with them' (p. 116). However, the author's ambitions appear to have exceeded his abilities over the duration of the 418 pages of this work. Perhaps Shepard's aspiration did not extend beyond writing a novel of some weight, if not of any substance. If so, he achieved his target only at the expense of some uneven characterization, a meandering, repetitive, and parchment-thin plot, and occasionally lurid prose.

If Life During Wartime must remain in your slush pile, be sure to put it at the bottom. Not only is that where it deserves to be, but the heft of this weak addition to the SF Masterworks series will provide a solid base for the books above it to rest upon.


tflynch said...

Whoa - bit harsh! Not having read the book I can't say you're being unfair, but how can I read the book now, having read this?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

I have to concede that I did give free reign to my invective in the above, but I'd encourage you to at least skim the book before being swayed by my personal dislike of it :)