Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book Review: 'The Return' by Richard Maynard

4 / 5 Stars

This paperback edition of ‘The Return’ was released in 1988 by BMI (Book Margins, Inc.). The book was first published in 1987 in Britain as ‘The Quiet Place’.

‘The Return’ starts with a voyage into interstellar space by a team of seven British astronauts. Their goal is to travel faster-than-light to the Alpha Centauri system and back, a journey which should take the equivalent of sixteen years of Earth-time. Unfortunately the ship encounters navigational problems and goes off-course; by the time the crew corrects the error, they have been traveling for 15 years ship-time. The crew must confront the awful fact that perhaps as many as 60 years...or as many as 400 years.... have passed on Earth since their departure.

When the ship reaches Earth orbit, there is a disturbing absence of radio communications. The crew proceeds with splashdown into the Atlantic and find that no ships or aircraft have come to greet them. They inflate their emergency life-raft and slowly make for the coast of France. Upon arrival they are stunned to discover that the countryside is devoid of lights and traffic; everywhere the landscape is covered with bushes and trees, suggesting that civilization as they know it has ceased to exist. 

And the humans that populate these landscapes are semi-literate savages wrapped in animal furs and toting spears. And they are not friendly, as the starship crew soon discovers….

Can our intrepid Brits discover their inner Cro-Magnon in time to survive in a world they barely recognize ? Can they uncover the reason for the decline of civilization into barbarity ? Does there anywhere exist a remnant of their era, or has the entire planet lapsed into a Stone Age culture ?

‘The Return’ is one of the better examples of 80s post-apocalyptic SF novels. It is a violent book, with as much bloodshed and mayhem as Neal Barrett Jr’s ‘Through Darkest America’, Piers Anthony’s ‘Battle Circle’ novels, or the 'Mad Max' movies. The episodes of conflict between the hapless spacemen (who arrive on their home world unfortunately lacking laser rifles, grenade launchers, and railguns) and the inheritors of the planet are well-written and suspenseful, and maintain the narrative’s momentum on to the last of its 240 pages.

Indeed, rather than SF proper, ‘Return’ belongs more in the sub-category of Western adventure novels in which naïve, too-trusting white settlers or adventurers (think of ‘A Man Called Horse’ by Dorothy Johnson, or ‘Black Robe' by Brian Moore) come into contact with hostile Indians and endure all manner of ghastly abuse, all the time wondering, bleeding and bewildered, why no one wants to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbayah’.

‘The Return’ isn’t perfect; I for one was turned off by the too-frequent sentences in which the first-person narrator indulges in Portents of Doom (‘had I only known, I would not have let Pip and Barry take that fateful journey…’). Our heroes often do rather dumb things, as the author uses these plot mechanisms in order to thrust his characters into yet another dangerous encounter. And the reason given for the downfall of civilization struck me as more than a little contrived.

However, its faults aside, ‘The Return’ is a very readable, downbeat take on a familiar SF theme and worth searching out by fans of the genre.

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