The Return by Joseph Helmreich will appeal to anyone who has ever wondered … what’s out there?
What begins as an astrological fluff piece for a local news station—a lunar eclipse on the winter solstice—becomes an international sensation when renowned physicist Andrew Leland is pulled into the sky by a strange green light. It’s the first proof of intelligent extraterrestrial life and the first alien kidnapping to be televised.
Fast-forward a few years later: the world gets an influx of alien invasion films, students change majors to focus on science, and then Andrew Leland reappears in a New Mexico desert—emaciated, bearded, and apparently with no memory of what happened to him. He disappears soon afterward.
Except Shawn Ferris, brilliant physics student at Brown University, believes that Leland does remember his experiences and needs to share his story with the world. Via online chat groups, Shawn finds the answer he’s looking for: the address where Leland supposedly lives. But when Shawn arrives to speak to his idol, he finds more than he bargained for.
Joseph Helmreich’s The Return is a break-neck-paced novel (I finished it in a day) imbued with all the things you want in your sci-fi thrillers: extraterrestrial contact, theories on time travel, explosions, an intergalactic love story, and scrappy scientists taking on conspiratorial establishments.
First, the kidnapping: we’ve all read about alien kidnappings, complete with single eye-witness accounts. So they’re easy to dismiss, yeah? The Return removes any ambiguity about Leland’s kidnapping. There are multiple witnesses. There’s a television feed. It happens on a hill in California and not some small desert town.
While Lloyd Bruno, the cameraman, runs away from the huge structure coming over the mountains, he leaves the camera running and Bill Allenby, the reporter, behind:
Bruno would be correct to say that Bill Allenby initially fled. But unlike Bruno, Allenby didn’t actually leave the scene. Rather, as he would later detail at lectures and fund-raisers and countless media award ceremonies, he, along with several of the naval officers and some brave members of his crew, crouched behind a production tent and did his best to watch from there. It is hard to know what Allenby or these other eyewitness accounts would have amounted to had Lloyd Bruno not left the Astral running. As it stands, their testimony serves mainly to verify the authenticity of the images that were captured by that camera and witnessed by the public.
The image of Leland, standing still, facing the expansive view and staring up at the stars. The image of the strange and brightly lit green structure moving over the mountains in the distance and toward the cliffside, toward Leland, with breathtaking speed. Of Leland being lifted up into the air by some unseen force and over the edge of the cliff, surrounded on all sides by a haze of green coruscating light.
Finally, the last bit of footage captured by the Astral camera and watched by 1.6 million residents of Los Angeles that night and over 150 million people in the next two weeks and billions more over the next several years, the image of Dr. Andrew Leland, washed-up celebrity physicist, rising higher and higher into the night sky.
And the world changes.
Then Andrew Leland returns. And disappears again.
This sequence of events leads Shawn Ferris, bright physics student, to throw everything over—his schooling, his career, his bright future—so that he can just speak to Andrew Leland and pick his brain.
When Shawn arrives at the address he supposes is Leland’s, he instead finds himself hauled into the back of a van and carted off to a compound in the middle of nowhere. This is Ambius, a top secret group of scientists determined to save the world from the alien threat. It is here Shawn is informed that Andrew Leland was working on a project but died before it could be completed. They need Shawn, who has been studying Leland’s theories for some time, to finish the legendary man’s work.
But, like so many things in life, Ambius isn’t what it appears to be either—and Leland isn’t dead.
Shawn finds himself way over his head—both metaphorically and literally—when he tries to escape Ambius by leaping into the river bordering the grounds.
Barely conscious at this point, Shawn felt himself suddenly grabbed by the arm and pulled in close. He shut his eyes, everything slipping away, and when next he opened them, he was lying on his back on the riverbank, expelling water from his lungs in violent bursts. When he was done coughing he lay there panting and looked up at the figure staring down at him, a dark shape silhouetted by the moonlight, a tall and wiry man with a shaved head and no discernible expression, though Shawn could only just barely make out his face.
It was a face he would have known anywhere.
From there, Shawn and Leland are on the run. Dodging hit squads, attack drones, and random citizens who would recognize Leland anywhere—thanks to that very popular video—they move across the American southwest. Throughout it all, Shawn tries to convince Leland to talk about what it was like out there in space.
What’s interesting about Helmreich’s approach to the relationship between Shawn and Leland is that the two of them never see eye to eye. Leland is determined to keep his experience among the stars a secret. Shawn thinks Leland owes the world his story. And, even though they’re both running from the same group, neither of them agrees on the best approach to dealing with Ambius.
The Return is an action-packed debut novel that doesn’t let up, even on the last page. Joseph Helmreich has developed a fascinating sequence of events filled with characters who have sharply defined motivations—which are sometimes hidden, leading to twists and turns that are both entertaining and fascinating.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.
Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.