“The Return,” Joseph Helmreich’s science-fictionesque novel, is a spellbinding exercise in the mystical and the mysterious, the prosaic and the poetic, the scientific and the fantastic. The plot is just convoluted enough that the reader might think at first that he or she is reading a group of almost unrelated short stories. But it all comes together at the end in a veritable burst of colors, fire, ashes, and finally hope and love. And this is a love story, a surprising, touching, sad, and hopeful tale.
The love story: A strange male desperately loves an even stranger female, and their love is all-consuming. That male is by turns a renowned astrophysicist, a shameless huckster, a kidnap victim, an alien, a priest, a savior. The female is a flower, a machine, a box, a manufacturer of nuclear fusion, a goddess — and a savior.
There are two protagonists. One is Andrew Leland, the aforementioned scientist, who knows more about quantum mechanics and time travel possibilities than anyone else in this and maybe any other world. He is the kidnapee, taken to a faraway planet, and his return to earth is The Return of the title. Because of his disappearance, he becomes a celebrity in absentia, a figure of both scorn and adultation, and, for some, a god whose second coming is breathlessly — and rather hilariously — awaited.
Main character number two is Shawn Ferris, a gangly, arrogant, young genius/nerd who is kicked out of college and then recruited by a shadowy organization of renegade scientists who convince him that they must have his help to build a special shield which can save the world from an attack by a hostile planet. The unique feature of the shield is that it will hurl would-be invaders into the distant past. Yes, it’s complicated. The group of scientists is nefarious, amoral, and sneaky. And they are using Shawn for their own selfish and destructive purposes.
Leland and Shawn eventually fortuitously meet up and begin a journey together, a journey whose mission is to foil the vicious cabal — and save the world. At this point, “The Return” temporarily morphs into a mini-picaresque novel as the two strive mightily to achieve their twin goals of salvation for earth and realization of their personal dreams. And during the entire exciting trip, they neither like nor trust each other, a situation which, of course, itself hinders their progress.
The stories of Shawn the Young Brat Genius and Leland the Old Mysterious Space Traveler take readers to places certainly previously unexplored. And most shockingly, Leland’s last journey, his ultimate destination, his hopes, and his dream of a Final Return provide us with a unique glimpse into real courage, boundless love, and hope-against-hope adventure — an inspiring rocket shot in the dark. (Review by Jack Kramer)
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Thomas Dunne Books, for review purposes.