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Lucius Shepard, 1943-2014

I never read as much Lucius Shepard as I should. Or want to, really. I own plenty of his books.

Part of the reason is that Shepard was not the most prolific author, accounting for seven novels and a dozen or so short story collections. Shepard was a brilliant and talented writer, and as such, doled out his work in quality over quantity. I spotted the news of his death last week, and he had passed away March 18th at the age of 70—the first news posts I saw put him at 66—a ripe old age. Yet still gone too soon.

His first novel was Green Eyes, a SF novel where the protagonist is a revivified dead man. A zombie novel done up in the trappings of science fiction, circa the cyberpunk era. I own that one. That was around the time he won the Campbell award for Best New Writer. His Nebula award came from “R&R,” a 1986 novella that I have read. It perfectly encapsulated elements of the late-’80s zeitgeist: a war novel reflecting America’s post-Vietnam ennui, its manipulation of Central American conflicts, and the war on drugs (in the form of mind-expanding, psionics-providing psychotropics fed to the characters). Along with some of his other short stories, it was collected as Life During Wartime. I own that one too.

Both of those novels have languished in my to-read-pile, a grab bag full of books and assorted paraphernalia I used to take with me when I travelled, and for one reason or another I’ve always found a reason to pass them on and read something else. Which is a shame—there are just too many books compared to days of the week—because the short stories I’ve read of Shepard’s were impressive. “R&R” has a literary lyricism and dry wit to it that makes it stand out vividly in my mind. Read:

One of the new Sikorsky gunships… 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…. To the east of this green zone lay an undesignated band of yellow that corssed 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.

His writing is hard to categorize; his works have been categorized as science fiction and fantasy, lumped in with cyberpunk or horror. Many of his stories have strong elements of magical realism; he wrote stories in the same vein as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, refusing to conform to mere reality through the introduction of some science-fictional or fantastical element. The main overarching element was his use of Central/South America—not just as a setting, but incorporating its themes, gleaned from his travels in the region—especially in Life During Wartime and The Jaguar Hunter. Which, of course, leads to inevitable comparisons to Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges.

Thus, the irony where I’ll become more familiar with an author after their passing, rather than the years they were alive. Farewell, Mr. Shepard. I look forward to getting to know your works better.

A few memorial posts: