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Review: Joseph Helmreich, THE RETURN

You decide it's a nice night for a walk. There's a beautiful silver Full Moon out, and surely there will be no problem negotiating your neighbor's fields under the brilliant early March moonlight. You step off the sidewalk, onto a half-bald patch of dry ground, and swing your leg out -- and find yourself being swung around and losing your balance as some sort of cord wraps around your leg. You barely maintain your balance long enough to step beyond the cord and onto what seems to be a grassy hillock and -- damn!, you fall forward, turning the other way as you trip, again barely catching your balance as you jump over the little construction of sticks and plastic somebody put just there to catch the toe of your boot and, with a sigh of relief, you are standing securely on a mat of flat, solid ground, and -- oh, shit!, a rat-trap, set off by the merest pressure of your boot-toe, slams down on your foot, and you lie there flat on the dew-silvered grass, your foot hurting like hell, wondering just what sort of a trap you've fallen into.

Negotiating Joseph Heimrich's The Return is a bit like that, one long, complex mind-trap that has you going from one strange conclusion or implication to the next to the next, thinking at every turn you've figured where the novel is going only to be stunned as you realize the mutation of the story you've stumbled into now is not what the story promised a turn or two back. Amazingly complex, spare and unyielding and utterly deceptive until all is finally revealed at its horrible conclusion, this novel is one of the finest horror stories I've ever been ambushed by.

At first glance, this is a science-fiction novel concerning the abduction of renowned astrophysicist, Andrew Leland, by a UFO in front of numerous witnesses. Six years later, Leland turns up wandering in the Sonoran Desert, denying ever having been abducted and disappearing from the public eye.

Meanwhile, Leland inspires countless cultish devotees most of whom view him as a sort of messiah whose information about the aliens he was abducted by and what those aliens want will change the world for the better. One of those devotees, Shawn Ferris, a young physics graduate student named Shawn Ferris, who is obsessed with finding out what really happened to Leland, finally tracks Leland down. Shawn discovers that Leland has been on the run for years, continuously hunted and hounded by a secret organization that has pursued Leland across multiple continents, determined to force him into revealing what he knows.

When Shawn joins Leland on the run, he learns the truth about Leland's abduction and the real reason for Leland's return, and finds himself caught up in a global conspiracy that puts more than one planet in danger. Shawn is then captured by that organization, Ambius, which claims to put the welfare of Earth and humanity before all things, and also makes other claims that turn out to be damned lies. Shawn breaks free and once again searches for and finds Leland, telling Leland what Ambius did to him. Leland convinces Shawn the Ambius is The Enemy, never to be trusted -- and, after what Ambius did to Shawn, Shawn doesn't take much convincing.

But something Leland possesses fascinates Shawn. It looks rather like an unbelievably beautiful flower, a strange lily with deep violet petals and a gorgeous green bulb in the center. This is the Illumination. Shawn steals it and heads out on his own, only to be taken by Ambius again. The Illumination is in turn stolen from Shawn by Rachel. one of Ambius's top agents. Shawn manages to force Rachel to escort him out of the ancient school that Ambius had taken over for one of its campuses, and as he does, he captures the Illumination again. After getting Rachel to kiss him, he leaves her with the information that he has just forced a cyanide capsule into her mouth and down her throat; it will kill her in half an hour. She could have time to save herself, but she feels so tired and betrayed that she slumps down against a post, not wanting to move, while he makes his way into the nearby forest. In the forest, he decides to burn the lovely, weird plant-like thing, which he does, using a cigarette lighter. Its leaves quickly turn to ash; its globular center begins to collapse like heated tar, then slumps flat and begins to burn. He leaves it there, destroyed, and goes back out into the night.

Maybe Shawn's instincts were truer than he realized. The Illumination was a manifestation of an alien lady with whom Leland had been involved with and had fallen in love with on the other planet. She had convinced him that Earth was inherently evil, the outcast of the galaxy, and that to protect themselves from Earth, the aliens were trying to destroy our world. No evidence was given by her for this, and he had no contact with other aliens, from any world, about it. Hypnotized by what he thought was love, he believed her, and had returned to Earth to try to destroy it by destroying a shield that Ambius had managed to erect around our world so that the aliens would be able to destroy it. Were those aliens projecting onto Earth their own evil? Yes, Leland had known evil men on Earth, known of many more. But to destroy all humanity, and worse, all life on Earth, human and otherwise, at the say-so of his alien girlfriend who was, by the way, herself the Illumination. The thing Shawn destroyed on the Ambius campus was that alien lady, who had the power to create stars -- including one that would replace the Earth in an instant and destroy all its life, not to mention what that would do to the rest of the Solar System.

Who is the villain here? The love-besotted idiot Andrew Leland? Shawn Ferris, who destroyed her? Ambius, willing to do anything to save the Earth, including committing genocide on an entire alien species, stealing all their resources into the bargain? The Illumination herself, and her people? Have fun sorting this out, dear reader -- and keep in mind the sixth commandment: Don't kill wrongfully. Which may add yet one more twist to the mind-trap . . .

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