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The Return (The First Voyagers book 4) by Ben Bova

01/10/2009. Contributed by David A. Hardy

Buy The Return in the USA - or Buy The Return in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 464 page small hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $32.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-0925-9).

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It should be made clear at the outset that this is Book IV of the long-running 'Voyagers' series and almost certainly the last (the first book was published in 1981). I'm sure that I have read the first two, but I may have missed a couple. So I discovered only from the cover blurb and prologue that Keith Stoner, who had investigated an alien starship which visited Earth in the 1980s, then become trapped inside it and cryogenically frozen after which he discovered that he had alien powers has built a new starship and returned to Earth.

But it seems that the Earth he has returned to does not quite match the one that he remembers leaving, which he puts down to the multi-dimensional nature of the universe. Although almost the same, this parallel Earth is suffering from over-population, disastrous flooding and the other effects of global warming and the greenhouse effect and is heading towards nuclear war. Of course, this ploy may have become necessary in order for the author to explain the changes that have actually taken place since he wrote that first novel!

Stoner, with his wife, Jo, and son and daughter, Rick and Cathy, takes it upon himself to change this. But it takes him a long time to make contact, since the xenophobic authorities on Earth refuse to believe that he has come from the stars, in contradiction to all religious teachings, so they take the easy option of ignoring him. He even produces spectacular aurorae in the skies in order to convince them of his powers, but their reaction is to impose a curfew so that the populace will not go out at night...

In most of Ben Bova's novels and especially in his 'Solar System' series ('Mercury', 'Mars Life', 'Saturn', 'Titan', etc.), the New Morality, the fanatical religious organisation that now controls and effectively governs most of Earth, plays an important part . Indeed, it seems to have become more important as the series progressed, at least to the USA. In this volume, Bova seems to be using it more than ever as a vehicle to get onto his soapbox and proselytise on the dangers of allowing religion into politics and other, normally secular areas of public life. Elsewhere, the Chinese and Islamists are similarly dominated by religious extremists, leading to highly repressed societies all round, in which science is treated with suspicion or even banned and generally the mentality is that of the twelfth century. In contrast with this, the bases, colonies and space stations on and around the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn and their moons are much more enlightened. For instance, they use nanotechnology, long banned on Earth, for many purposes, from building spacecraft to curing all ills including cancer, keeping their bodies in tip-top condition and ensuring long lives.

The main protagonists in this novel, apart from Stoner himself, are Raoul Tavalera, who has just returned to Earth after six years on the Goddard habitat out at Saturn and finds it much changed and not for the better. Sister Angelique, who has quite a high position in the New Morality but aspires to a much higher one and the obese and ailing Archbishop Overmire, who refuses the 'evil' nanotechnology which could cure him, but accepts Stoner's offer to help him persuade the major powers to disarm and destroy their nuclear weapons. Angelique's ambition leads her to try to destroy the one person who could get the Earth out of its dire predicament, Stoner, who is quite capable of compelling the people of Earth to do what they need to, but prefers to re-educate them instead. But this proves more difficult than even he suspected!

The main problem with this story is that Stoner and his family are in effect super-beings. They can read minds and teleport, though they cannot take other people with them when they do so. So Stoner can beam himself down from his orbiting starship into any closed room or office - even inside the Pentagon, appear like magic whenever he wishes and when he does have to pass through security checkpoints and the like we are reminded strongly of Obi Wan Kenobi, 'You don't need to see my pass.' This makes the whole scenario much less believable than most of Bova's previous novels and whereas they usually encompassed great sweeps of space, most of this one takes place on Earth, with occasional dips into the Goddard space station, where Tavalera's sweetheart, Holly, remains. Some of the Stoner family take it upon themselves to make changes to humanity which are on very shaky ground, from a moral or ethical standpoint. So while this is a good read, especially if you are a follower of Dawkins, and, like me, are worried by the increasing Creationist trend in the United States and the refusal to accept scientific facts such as evolution, it offers little in the SF genre that we have not seen before.

David A. Hardy

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This book has 20 votes in the sci-fi charts

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