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Illegal Alien
Robert J. Sawyer
Ace Books, 292 pages

A review by Leon Olszewski

Murder mysteries and science fiction are similar in that both expect the reader to think. There is a rich history where the two have been melded together: Asimov's Robot stories, Mike Resnick's Whatdunits, and George Alec Effinger's Marid Audran stories, to name a few. Fantasy, too, has its share of murder mysteries: Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy and Simon R. Green's Hawk and Fisher tales. Many of science fiction's authors have also been honored with Edgar nomination and awards. To this illustrious list we can add Robert J. Sawyer. His novel Illegal Alien does more than just bring a murder mystery into a science fiction setting; it also brings the legal intricacies of a courtroom drama into the story.

Sawyer does not sacrifice science in order to tell the tale; instead, it is integral to the plot. An alien spacecraft lands in the Atlantic, and America sends the President's Science Advisor, Frank Nobilio, and Cletus "Clete" Calhoun, the host of Great Balls of Fire, a popular PBS astronomy program. The alien visitor, Hask, quickly learns English and explains his mission. He is one of eight beings that left Alpha Centauri 210 years previously. On entry into our solar system, a meteorite from the Kuiper belt has left one crew member dead and the ship damaged. In order to return home, the crew will need the help of humans to rebuild their ship.

Hask takes Clete up to the mother ship, and revives the remainder of the crew. The Tosoks, as they call themselves, then make an appearance at the United Nations, and make a world tour. In order to get their ship repaired, they are willing to trade their technology for replacement components. The most suitable companies are located in Southern California, and the crew is housed at a spare dormitory at USC. Both Frank and Clete are part of the aliens' entourage, as well as technicians and security.

However, the precautions are not sufficient to prevent Clete from being brutally murdered and mutilated. When the LAPD investigates, evidence points to Hask, who denies the deed. Frank, grieved over the loss of his friend yet unwilling to believe Hask committed the murder, arranges for a leading civil-rights lawyer, Dale Rice, to handle the defense. By doing so, Frank (and hence the reader) receives an education in the process of law. Sawyer was obviously interested in some of the major trials that occurred in Los Angeles, making references to both the O.J. Simpson trial and the Rodney King trial.

Sawyer also gives us a taste of world-building, describing not only the Tosok's quadrilateral symmetry, but also how their world is affected by being in a trinary star system. He uses evolution, biology, astronomy, and religion to explain much of what happens during the story.

The structure of the book means that most of the exposition is done via dialogue between characters, both in and out of the courtroom. Fortunately, Sawyer has a good ear for conversation, and the pace is swift. Yet it also means that characterizations are not as deep. The result is that the focus is on the story, rather than on the people. This is a bit unusual in a murder mystery as many mysteries rely on establishing motive as a means to describe the characters.

I found the book to be fast-paced (not always what I would have thought as courtroom drama), and a refreshing change from the usual SF novel. The questions raised about religious views regarding a species' creation versus the results of the evolutionary process are thought provoking.

Copyright © 1998 by Leon Olszewski

Leon Olszewski has read science fiction and fantasy for most of his life. He works at Spyglass, Inc. as their Manager of Network Services.

Illegal Alien
Robert J. Sawyer
The winner of the Nebula Award in 1995 for The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer has also won three Aurora Awards, Canada's award for excellence in science fiction. His novel Starplex was a finalist for both Hugo and Nebula Awards. In addition, he earned the Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

His other books include Frameshift, End of an Era, Golden Fleece, and the Quintaglio Ascension trilogy (Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner).

Mr. Sawyer resides in Thornhill, Ontario -- just north of Toronto, Canada.

Robert J. Sawyer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Steven H Silver's Review of Illegal Alien
Steven H Silver's Review of Frameshift
Steven H Silver's Review of Starplex
Steven H Silver's Review of The Terminal Experiment

Past Feature Reviews

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