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5:30 RETURN: A short novel Kindle Edition
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"one of the most brilliant dystopian science fiction novels that I have ever had the pleasure of reading."--Red Headed Book Lover
"Social commentary? Maybe. A peek into one possible future? Maybe that, too. But whatever else it is, 5:30 Return is a thrilling, adrenalin-fueled trip through the worst amusement park ever, and I'm glad I was along for the ride." --Ken Stark for Readers' Favorite
"Like the Hobbsian vision of life without society, 5:30 Return by William R. Herr is nasty, brutish, and short. In a good way."--Mary Fan, Author of Starswept
"Deep contradictions do not make for an easy road, but they can fuel compelling fiction, and this dark tale of murder, revenge, and desire for redemption certainly qualifies as compelling. No easy road, but I highly recommend traveling it."--Thomas Watson, Author of The Gryphon Stone
"As always, Herr's writing is rich and full of depth."--Cloud Riser, Author of The Achlivian Cycle--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
- Publication Date : August 15, 2018
- Print Length : 140 pages
- ASIN : B07BWSSPVD
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Publisher : Mechanicsburg Press; 1st Edition (August 15, 2018)
- File Size : 894 KB
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced Typesetting : Enabled
- Language: : English
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,275,905 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The metaphor William Herr used for life... well that’s stayed with me. I’m still thinking about it.
Worth the read
Like the Hobbsian vision of life without society, 5:30 Return by William R. Herr is nasty, brutish, and short. In a good way. It's a tightly written book that's somewhere between a long novella and a short novel, yet a lot happens in those few pages, with a fully realized world, a plot full of twists, and a fascinating portrait of a very, very damaged man.
Narrated in Juan's dry, unfiltered voice, 5:30 Return reminded me of Sin City with a more sci-fi bent, starring a cross between Deadpool and Jonah Hex. The book establishes quickly that Juan is not a nice guy, and it spares nothing when it comes to gritty details. Yet somehow he seems to be one of the few people around willing to do the right thing when it comes to solving Sammy's murder and uncovering a dark conspiracy.
It's a really quick read that draws you in right away with Juan's distinctive narration. If you're looking for the darker, grittier side of sci-fi, this is your book.
Why I picked it up: The author approached me to beta read 5:30 Return. Knowing I wanted to review it, I waited 2.5 years to mostly forget details and read afresh the published version.
Thoughts: This book is part dystopia sci-fi, part hard-boiled murder mystery; a near future-scape, almost post-apocalyptic deadly sin driven modern Western. Told from Juan's POV, it's jaded, sarcastic, gritty and dark, but he has just enough concern for the one person he cares about to hook the reader’s emotional investment. While one might feel disgust at Juan's unfiltered mental tirade (which sometimes appears like it's phrased for shock value), you can't miss that Juan has little time for lies, from others or from himself, and that he'll get the truth of the thing, whatever it is.
There’s a lot of information given in a short number of pages, key of which is that this is set in a drug tourist Arizona. Drug. Tourism. People come from across the nation to PAY to take a specific drug (slang name “jack”), to fully succumb to its effects, and to participate in a plethora of activities entirely sanctioned by the local and state governments. There's no limit except murder, as Juan says to his client. Everything is legal.
“Jack”, essentially, is a mix between methamphetamines, an instant-solvent, and the fictitious pharmaceutical Antitol. Antitol disrupts neuro-receptors that acclimate you to experiences, thus making everything exactly like the first time you did it. Note that Herr’s point is not the simple enjoyments of life, but the depravity of human beings – from brawls to rape to gluttony to cutting, etc. – and the lengths they’ll go to prolong the “new” in anything, even if, when they finally get the jack flushed from their system, they live with the revulsion and shame of their actions for the rest of their lives.
Pivotal to the plot are the class divisions. One of the future-technologies in the story is the use of badges. It’s your ID, bank card, cell phone, business credentials, GPS tracking, and drug test all in one. At the top of the totem pole are the entitled Gold badges, the rich, famous, and powerful. Their badges get them anything, and anyone, and do not visibly indicate if they’re under the influence of jack. Silver badges are law enforcement; as far as I could tell, their badges also do not visibly indicate drug influence. Silvers are mostly corrupt, and if they aren’t, they soon will be. Blue badges are the folks that “keep things running” – the business owners and other emergency type personnel. Their badges turn purple if they are exposed to jack, and if exposed enough, turn red. Second to last are the White badges, usually tourists. Their badges turn red when they have jack in their system. and are appropriately dubbed Red Badges, or jacks and janes (depending on gender). Finally, at the very bottom, are the Grays. Grays are people who were hooked on jack for too long and experience an irreversible break in the motivation center of their brains. They are permanently under the influence, but can’t overdose, and literally don't care enough to commit suicide. These are the nameless laborers, usually doing the jobs no one else is willing to. Grays are considered expendable because there’s always another one to take their place. They're also considered waste because they require housing a food but take forever to "vacate."
Juan, in this world, is a professional extractor, and very, very good at his job. Juan is expensive, and he is known by his reputation, which includes hunting down missing clients and using whatever means necessary to retrieve them. He’s hired by tourists to provide them with a white badge, transportation to downtown Tucson (jack central) to get their first hit, and then, regardless of where they go or what they choose to pursue, he extracts them exactly 24 hours later. They spend another 24 hours having a saline-flush of their system at a clinic, and then Juan takes them back to the airport to go home. Such a tourist is Mildred Pierce, or “Church Lady”, as Juan dubs her. She’s the reader’s first introduction to the drug tourism world, and the constant drag back to it as the novel progresses.
Juan is called “the Monster.” This is both because of who he is as a person, and because of the active staph infection in his face, courtesy of his time in the military. He’s technically a disabled veteran, and a recovered jack addict to boot. Once upon a time, before the book begins, he was put on Antitol by the Veteran’s Administration to “help” treat his infection, but it did… well, jack. He was on Antitol so long that his face became irrecoverable, and he descended into Gray. Only through the help and dedication of his friend Sam and former-priest turned clinician Padre Martinez did he miraculously claw his way back out, something no one else has ever done. No one. It left him damaged, and with a rage that frequently comes out to play.
At the onset of the story, Juan’s face is at a stalemate between the staph infection and the sterile worms that were specifically introduced to eat away the the rotting skin. As they eat, they lay eggs and die, and then the new worms continue eating the infected flesh. The worms eat as much putrid cells as new cells grow, which get staph infected just as quickly. If Juan cleans out the side of his face every night, the stalemate holds. But he knows it’s not for long. The infection will mutate again, and then he’ll lose more than just an eye.
How do people not vomit at the sight of him? They sometimes do, if the synth skin over the infection slips.
The damage to his Juan’s face reflects the damage to his heart and his spirit, the struggle he endures of what good is left of Juan the person as it is consumed by Juan the Monster. Rage, Antitol, jack, and the general corruption around him poison and putrefy who he used to be and turn him into the creature he is. Even the synth skin is a metaphor - his reputation and moral compass, no matter how skewed and confined, are what cover the ever-present rot.
So Juan is not only cynical, abrasive, and mutilated (literally and figuratively), but also very logical and analytical, and therefore possesses keen emotional awareness - he's constantly analyzes his thoughts and his reactions to external stimuli and is therefore cognizant of inner shifts, though very sarcastic about it, from a monster doing monstrous things, to a man doing monstrous things to bring justice where justice otherwise would not go.
His pursuit of justice is most clearly seen in his resolution to find his friend’s murderer. Sam, the same man that pulled him out of being Gray, is found at the most divey of dives with his arms and legs sliced up, the fatal cuts being in his armpits and throat. Juan, angry at himself, at Sam, and at the nameless face of Sam’s killer, throws himself into playing detective, but on his own terms. Juan discovers Sam booked a gig running a daily pick up and drop off at a local pharmaceutical lab. He decides to fill in where Sam left off, hoping to uncover clues as to why Sam would kill himself, or why someone would make it look like he did. But he’s not prepared for what, or rather who, he’s ferrying.
Number 12 is the little boy, born Gray because his mother, also Gray, took jack during her pregnancy. Number 12 does not speak, does not play, does not pay any sort of attention to anything. He is led by a harness and leash; he can stand, walk, sit, crawl, and presumably use a bathroom. Juan is baffled why a pharmaceutical company would be interested in Gray children, but he has moral compass enough to want to treat this stunted child – who he dubs “Sammy” – as more than a lab rat. The longer Juan drives Sammy, the more he blends Sam and Sammy into one person, creating a one-sided emotional bond. At one point, hoping that it will disrupt the monotonous routine of Sammy’s existence, he buys a toy for Sammy, made of bells and string and tiny wooden dowels. It makes such a pure sound that it becomes rooted in his mind as a symbol of innocence and happiness. As foolish as he thinks it is, he wants Sammy to somehow respond, to break out of his mental cage. And, he reasons, a kid is a kid; even if it does nothing, every kid should have a toy.
One of the other major characters of the story is the goddess-like Porche Delacroix, head of the project using Number 12. Miraculously, between being dumbstruck by her assets and fantasizing about them, he learns enough in two days about the lab’s research to cause him severe alarm for both Sammy and Porche’s safety, and to set his rage to defending them as only the Monster can. With both of them, he experiences role reversal - he becomes the rescuer and Porche/Sammy becomes the victim – and with Sammy in particular, psychological projection - he transposes Sam onto Sammy and protecting Sammy the boy becomes a quest for vindication because he failed to save Sam the man.
Almost all the characters in 5:30 Return are pitted against Juan’s deep-seated suspicion and judgement. Most of them deserve it. Some might not. Perhaps his ire is an unconscious inner drive to find each person’s fatal flaw and thus prove that all people are monsters, they just don’t wear it on their faces. Or perhaps it’s a defense mechanism against the disappointment he feels whenever a subconscious longing for hope is dashed yet again by a hope-less and hopelessly corrupt society. Whatever the reason, the conflict between how Juan sees a person, and who they actually might be, is most clear in the character arcs for Padre Martinez and Church Lady. It brings into sharp focus the cynicism and skepticism inherent in human nature – the distrust of others' motives, and the question of whether our own are entirely without self-interest. Which then leads to: do ANY of us do things entirely without self-interest? Utterly devoted to duty, all morality or altruism an act of sacrifice, or because somewhere in our subconscious, there's a payoff?
The first time I read 5:30 Return, I started thinking along the above lines. I started wondering, even justifying, that I do things because it's right, not because I get a dopamine rush. That, I believed, was one of the major lynch pins of 5:30 Return. Not limited to just the question of altruistic behavior, but the broader question of human motivation and drive.
However, after my re-read last weekend, I picked up another theme; subtle, and almost taken as ironic. I believe Herr not only interwove psychology and biology into this story, but also the philosophy of forgiveness. Those readers familiar with any redemptive faith will recognize two of the major pillars: repentance and grace. Padre Martinez was guilty of arrogance and sadism (sorta), and Church Lady guilty of rampant lust, but in both cases, find their resolution in the mercy of their God.
Juan judges Padre Martinez harshly, regardless of Padre’s repentance, because “being a priest is supposed to mean something.” Yet he shows leniency to Church Lady because she never actually commits “the” sexual act; she pursues her sins with rabid intent to consummate, but her drug-addled mind paints him the embodiment of Wrathful God come for her, so she always runs at the last possible second. Somehow, she ends up at Padre Martinez’s clinic, and finds that the enjoyment she feels from aiding the helpless is entirely guilt-free. She’s the first to actually surprise Juan; he never imagined that anyone could find such an innocent pleasure feedback loop.
I think buried inside Juan’s festering heart, along with everything else, is the question of personal redemption. He calls himself the Monster for the face he has and the things he’s done, but his moral compass includes a relentless pursuit of justice where justice otherwise won’t be found. Playing anti-hero may be three-fold: 1. his own type of penance, 2. his vindication, and 3. retribution - a way to fight back against the injustice of his past. Unlike God, with whom all sins are equal, and thus the extending of grace equally profound, Juan ranks vices and weighs the question of deserving. Consciously, he denies the existence of God and lays all blame for behavior squarely at each person’s feet, including his own. Everyone is f***ed up, no exceptions, and everyone deserves their consequences. Subconsciously? He wants to be free of what and who he is. He wants the dead flesh cut away, all the way away, even if he loses the eye. Somewhere in his heart he knows Sam saving him the first time wasn’t enough. It simply delayed the inevitable. More is needed. So until given a better way, he does the only thing he knows how: be the Monster so others don’t have to be.
Don't tell him I said that, though.
I’m at my character limit, otherwise I’d say more. Support self-published authors, especially when you want them to keep writing.
As Sam and Juan, would say, Winners get sprinkles.