Life During Wartime is an episodic novel made up of novellas, two of which, “R and R” and “Fire Zone Emerald,” previously were published separately. “R and R” won a Nebula Award in 1986.
David Mingolla is an American soldier involved in a Vietnam-type war in Central America. During a period of rest and recreation (R and R), he meets Debora, a woman he finds himself drawn to even though he suspects that she is an enemy agent. He witnesses one of his companions being killed after running amok on drugs, and his other companion deserts for Panama. Mingolla is aware that he has latent psychic ability. After considering deserting, he decides instead to volunteer for Psicorps.
Mingolla trains on a Caribbean island with Tully and the mysterious Dr. Izaguirre. His training involves heavy use of drugs and unleashes a rage in him that can lead him to acts of cruelty. It turns out that he is an amazingly strong psychic. As a final test, he is sent to kill an enemy psychic, de Zedegui, who is hiding out in a prison settlement. De Zedegui seems almost eager to die, but before he does he reveals that the war is actually a continuation of a four-centuries-old feud between two families of psychics, the Madradonas and the Sotomayors.
Mingolla’s next mission is to kill Debora, who is also an enemy psychic. After first being captured by a rogue platoon of American deserters, he finds her deep in the jungle. They become lovers and find their psychic abilities strengthened as a result. They desert and set out to find the cause of the war. Along the way, they meet up with Tully once more and are joined by Ruy, whose lust for Debora puts him at odds with Mingolla. Their journey is hazardous, including tests put in their way by Izaguirre, who turns out to be the leader of the Sotoma-yors. Ruy also is a Sotomayor.
In Panama, they find that the two families are trying to negotiate peace. Debora becomes an enthusiastic supporter of this process, but Mingolla is suspicious, especially when he finds himself trying to alleviate the condition of people who have been permanently brain damaged by the psychic experiments of the two families. Peace is declared, but it is short-lived, a ruse to allow one family to attack the other. Mingolla and Debora flee to the Panamanian hinterland.