Review of Illegal Alien by

Book cover for Illegal Alien

In Illegal Alien, Robert J. Sawyer manages to convince me that aliens from Alpha Centauri have come to Earth and need our help repairing their spaceship. He fails to convince me that the California District Attorney could try one of those aliens for first degree murder.

Sawyer recognizes the improbability of such an event, because he doesn't even try to justify it. The president mumbles something about the federal government not being able to interfere with the case because the state has jurisdiction and it's an election year. Yeah, because staying ahead in those polls is way more important than diplomatic relations with an alien species. And no one else so much as lifts a finger to try to stop this insanity. Speaking of which, Sawyer briefly digresses into the amorality of the Tosok, who believe in a female God who predestines all events, proving that Hask is insane by human legal standards. Not that it matters: Sawyer is determined to wring a trial from this Tosok, because that is where the story lies.

OK, so let's set aside the fact that trying an alien in a human court of law is silly. It's the story Sawyer has given us, and we have to work with that. To be fair, once one gets past this premise, the whole concept is intriguing. How exactly does one go about arguing the guilt or defending the innocence of an alien being? It's more than that though. Although Illegal Alien is, at times, very pedestrian in its tone, Sawyer manages to use his contrived courtroom drama to explore more than just the legal issues. He disguises his exposition as testimony, just as parents hide vegetables in the mashed potatoes, and suddenly readers find themselves learning about alien biology, technology, and philosophy even as they wonder if Hask will be acquitted—and whether he wants to go free.

Let me be clear: the writing in this book is bad. The characters are flat, even stereotypical at times, and prone to that mode of generalization that passes for narration in a Sawyer novel. By this I mean, every thought that passes through a character's mind happens to be fundamental reflection on something integral to the plot. For example, take a thought running through the mind of Dale Rice, Hask's lawyer:

Still, there weren't many times when it was an actual advantage to be African-American. He was used to the screwups in restaurants. Waitresses bringing him the wrong meal—mixing up his order with that of the only other black person in the entire place. White people constantly confused him with other black men, men who, except for their skin color, looked nothing like him, and were often decades younger.

But the one time it perhaps was to his advantage to be big and black was when he wanted to go for late-night walks.

Now, I'm not Black, so I'm not going to pretend to know whether this characterization is accurate. I suspect, as with all anecdotes, it's true for some and false for many others. Regardless, my point is that Sawyer handles the whole issue of race about as deftly as clog dancers dance in cement shoes. Still not convinced? The detective in charge of the murder investigation is Jesus Perez—and that's pronounced Hay-soos, he is quick to remind us every time he appears.

When it comes to enthusiasm for cutting-edge developments in science, Sawyer is among the best writers out there. His near-future science fiction is thought-provoking, when it comes to the science parts, but his characters consistently fail to impress me. And his dialogue does not fare much better. Unfortunately, Illegal Alien is mostly dialogue, because the middle of the book consists of little more than dialogue-laden courtroom scenes broken up by interstitial moments of tension during recess. Maybe those more amenable to legal thrillers might tolerate such a high degree of dialogue; it certainly works for movies. But the sheer amount of time spent exchanging words in that courtroom, witnessing every single instance that Dale says, "Objection!" … rather than make me turn the page because of tension and interest, I turned it so I could finish the book faster.

OK, so let's set aside the incredible premise and the bad writing. What have we left … oh yes, the aliens. Sawyer uses the courtroom as a theatre to tell us all about the Tosoks. Despite their taboos about discussing internal biology (comparable to our taboos on having sex in front of other people), we learn about the Tosoks' internal organs. We learn how they shed their skin, how they reproduce, how they count their familial relations. There are myriad ways Sawyer could have chosen to expound on these subjects; he chose the courtroom, and that decision works well. Although the legal question alone is intriguing, combined with Sawyer's sneaky world-building, it almost makes Illegal Alien downright compelling. (Almost.)

It is hard to believe that the same author who wrote this also wrote WWW: Wake. I guess now that I've read this, that, and the Neanderthal Parallax series, I've seen examples of Sawyer at his best, worst, and middling. Unless there is something about this book's description that makes you salivate and throb in all the right places, this isn't the Sawyer novel I'd pimp to you.

Engagement

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