by Robert J. Sawyer
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Robert J. Sawyer jumps on the legal thriller bandwagon with his latest novel, Illegal Alien. Within weeks of their arrival, one of the first aliens to visit earth apparently murders one of the men who made first contact. Arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department, the alien's attorney, African-American lawyer Dale Rice must obtain a not-guilty verdict in order to avoid an international and interstellar incident.
There are certain parts early in the which don't quite work. Although Sawyer shows Frank Nobilio, science advisor to the White House, shattered by the murder of a close friend, Nobilio quickly turns around and works for the defense of the alien accused of the murder. Recriminations and questions of guilt don't even enter Nobilio's mind, despite overwhelming evidence. A few early sequences in which Sawyer cites CNN broadcasts also ring faintly untrue.
All that occurs in the set-up for the novel. most of the action occurs in the courtroom where the Tosok named Hask, the first alien to make human contact, is on trial for its life. Physiologically, the Tosok are as alien as any of the creatures he created for Starplex or the Quintaglio Cycle. Unfortunately, psychologically, the Tosok are all too similar to humans, too able to understand and assimilate into human culture.
The humans (and, for that matter, the Tosok) are all well characterized, high-lighting the writing abilities Sawyer demonstrated in Frameshift and The Terminal Experiment. Rather than simply be a figure on the bench, Judge Pringle has demonstrates a bias throughout the novel and the trial, at the same time remaining fair to both defense and prosecution. Defense Attorney Dale Rice, a champion in the fight for civil liberties also shows himself to have a personality, perhaps more cynical that one would expect, but with flashes of idealism showing through.
Of course, a legal thriller of this sort is also a mystery of sorts. The question throughout the novel is whether or not Hask committed the crime and, if Hask didn't who did. Sawyer tosses in enough red herrings along the way to leave the question up in the air. Some of these red herrings don't really touch on the question at all, but rather on the plot of the novel. Characters make brief appearances, presumably to foreshadow later events which never seem to occur.
There is little of the traditional sense of wonder in Sawyer's book, but there is plenty of science, served in small, enjoyable doses. Sawyer seems to be at home whether discussing the existance of the Kuiper Belt or the orbital intracacies of the triple star system the Tosoks call home (which Sawyer has set up to be quite sensational). In fact, I would found myself wanting to see a more detailed examination of the Tosok homeworld.
My biggest complaint about the book is that although Sawyer did a fantastic job in describing the physical design of his aliens, I never really felt as if I could see them, perhaps because they sounded and acted a little too human. I would, however, love to see a picture of a Tosok.
The most difficult problem with Illegal Alien will be whether to nominate it or Sawyer's other 1997 novel, Frameshift for a Hugo Award. I've only known a single case of disappointment when reading one of Sawyer's novels, but I have a feeling that a re-reading of that book will prove it to be better written and more enjoyable than I remember it being. Sawyer has consistantly, since his first novel, proven himself to be a first class, high caliber author.
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