Illegal Alien – great jurisfictional sci fi!

Who would have thought science fiction could double as great jurisfiction? Well, Robert J. Sawyer has done it with Illegal Alien.

This book was recommended to me as a great piece of jurisfiction. But since it’s sci fi, I wasn’t sure I would like it – this is not a genre I usually read. However, once I started it I changed my mind! It’s a compelling story and I tore through it.

Sawyer, a Canadian, is a hugely successful sci fi writer and one of only eight writers to win all three of the genre’s top awards for best novel of the year. He won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Award in 1996 for The Terminal Experiment;  the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award in 2003 for his novel Hominids; ; and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2006 for Mindscan.

In Illegal Alien, published in 1997, an alien spaceship splashes down in the Atlantic. The U.S sends several scientists to make contact with the aliens – the Tosok, who have four eyes, two mouths, one arm in front and one in back. During the Tosok’s voyage, their ship was damaged and they ask for help with repairs. The Tosoks are an advanced race, highly intelligent and easy to communicate with.

The Tosoks tour Earth, but during a stop in Los Angeles, one of the human scientists traveling with the Tosoks is brutally murdered. The evidence suggests the alien Hask committed the murder, and the Los Angeles Police Department indicts Hask for the crime, even though the aliens don’t understand human laws or crime. The U.S. government secretly arranges for Dale Rice, a leading civil rights lawyer, to represent Hask and he battles to clear Hask of the charges. As the trial proceeds, evidence points to an alien cover-up – and the fate of the planet rests on the jury’s verdict.

I was drawn in to the characters in Illegal Alien, especially Hask, the alien charged with murder. He likes pets; he is idealistic. Sawyer makes his somewhat revolting skin-shedding details very believable. The book’s characters come to life through small details: Rice, Hask’s lawyer, is plus-sized – chairs groan under his weight, his body resembles “an Aztec step pyramid.” An image of Rice formed in my mind and I felt I would recognize him if I met him on the street.

The Tosok’s courtroom testimony in the courtroom is entertaining – Hask is asked about the deceased’s singular taste in music – and he begins singing, “Swing your partner,do-si-do,” to the jury’s amusement. Then the prosecutor asks Hask why, if he was often a guest in the deceased’s room, the jury should believe he was not there when the deceased was killed. Hask replies, “You should believe it because of the presumption of innocence, which is supposed to be the underpinnning of your system of jurisprudence.” This leaves the judge – and readers – smiling.

Sawyer does make frequent reference to the O.J. Simpson trial, which seemed unnecessary at times.

Illegal Alien keeps the reader intrigued, right through to the surprise ending. Sawyer has piqued my interest in jurisfictional sci-fi – and fortunately there are a number of other books in this unusual genre.


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