[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Novel Outline


by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1995 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Spoiler Warning! This document discloses many of the details of the plot of the novel it discusses. It's strongly recommended that you not look at this document until after finishing the novel in question.

Not all novel outlines are formal. Susan Allison at Ace Books agreed to buy Illegal Alien, based on this chatty and rather vague 1,300-word outline submitted to her on April 20, 1995.

Dear Susan:

Okay — what do we need to make a successful Rob Sawyer SF novel? This will, after all, be my ninth book — it should be designed to appeal as much as possible to my existing audience. I see four recurring characteristics in my work, all of which I want to have figure prominently in the next book I do for you:

  1. Convincing aliens, appealing to the audience that has enjoyed my Quintaglios (from Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner); my Hets (from End of an Era), and my Ibs and Waldahudin (from Starplex.

  2. A mystery story, appealing to the audience that enjoyed my Golden Fleece and The Terminal Experiment (both of which are SF/mystery crossover novels) as well as the prominent murder-mystery subplot in Fossil Hunter.

  3. A plot that hinges on rigorously researched, carefully extrapolated hard science (something found in all my books to date, and seen in its purest form in Starplex).

  4. A human story with characters worth caring about (even when those characters aren't all human ...)

Combining all of the above, I propose a novel with the working title:


I haven't prepared a detailed outline just yet, but here's the basic premise:

In the year 2021 A.D., an alien spaceship arrives in Earth orbit. It's a small slower-than-light scoutship with a crew of seven beings in suspended animation, sent from a planet orbiting the star Wolf 359. Wolf 359 is one of our closest stellar neighbors, just 7.7 light-years from Sol. Nonetheless, the scoutship was launched in the Earth year 1808 A.D. — although it's much more advanced technically than anything humanity has yet built, it's still taken over two centuries to cover the distance.

The aliens, who call themselves Tosoks but are popularly referred to as Wolves (after the English name for their home star), revive from suspended animation, and head over to Freedom, the international space station, then from there down to Earth.

First Contact — including cracking the language barrier — goes smoothly. The Tosoks are bizarre multilimbed exoskeletal creatures, very different in philosophy and linguistic approaches from humans. There also seems to be a rank or caste system among the seven of them, although exactly how it works is not at first apparent.

The Tosoks send a message from their scoutship to Wolf 359, announcing that their mission has succeeded so far: they have arrived at the target world, and are delighted to report the existence of intelligent life on it. But the Tosoks have only conventional radio — it will take 7.7 years for the first message to arrive home, and presumably another 7.7 years for the reply.

The Tosoks tour Earth, visiting 21st-century versions of Rome, Paris, London, Toronto, and ending their tour in New York City, where the leader, Kelkad, is to address the United Nations. The Tosoks are immensely popular, and crowds flock to see these first extraterrestrials.

But suddenly everything goes awry. Five horribly mutilated bodies are found in Manhattan. Each of the people killed was a scientist or linguist who had been involved in the initial contact with the Tosoks. The murders are brutal, even by New York standards — and all the evidence (including even eye-witness testimony in one case) points to the crimes having been committed by a Tosok. Subsequent forensic tests show that one specific Tosok named Hask apparently committed the killings, although he denies it.

What to do? The seven Tosok travelers have no diplomatic immunity — no formal relationships have been established with their homeworld, after all. There is nowhere to extradite them to. The media and the people of Earth are crying for justice. And Kelkad, the leader of the Tosok scouting party, says that under Tosok jurisprudence, one is subject to the laws of whatever jurisdiction one is in. It soon becomes clear that Hask will have to stand trial for murder in a New York City courtroom (one can see a possible cover painting, with a outlandish alien in the witness box).

At this particular time, the death penalty is available for murder, and the senior state attorney, Olinda ("Linda") Ziegler, is pressured to seek it in this case. After all, she'd push for it if the accused were human; why should an alien get preferential treatment?

Hask will need the best defense possible; the six other Tosoks are all scientists and explorers — none of them is competent to defend him. After an embarrassing incident in which the Tosoks try to pay Hask's bail and hire him a lawyer with hundred dollar bills they have replicated aboard their ship — underscoring just how little of human society the aliens understand, and vice versa — an advocacy group hires Dale Coleman, a giant in the legal community, to defend Hask.

The stakes are very high: although Kelkad has agreed to abide by whatever finding the court makes, even if it orders Hask executed, he also has made clear that he will send news of the trial's outcome by radio to his people on Wolf 359. Remember, two centuries have passed since Kelkad's survey ship left that world; much may have changed there (imagine an 18th-century human trying to predict how a 20th-century human might react). It's entirely conceivable that the Tosok race may take the execution of one of its members as an act of war — and whatever technology the homeworld has will be two centuries ahead of the already highly advanced technology of the scoutship. At the very least, other Tosoks will surely be able to come to Earth in less than the two centuries it took the scout ship; indeed, it's possible they even have faster-than-light travel now, and could be here within days of receiving Kelkad's message ... so while the trial is going on, Earth must prepare for the arrival of more Tosoks — including getting ready in case the Tosoks come to attack ...

The meat of the book will be the trial itself — the scientific evidence against Hask (who, it will develop, really did commit the crimes he's accused of), and the revelation of two separate conspiracies, one involving the scientists and linguists Hask killed, the other involving the remaining members of the Tosok survey team. It will be a puzzle in both pure science (how Tosok is caught, and what world-shattering plots the various conspirators were up to) and in alien psychology (why Hask committed the crimes; what the Tosok surveyors are really doing on Earth).

In the end, Hask will go free (on the basis that the murders were committed in what he saw, by the standards of his own species, as reasonable self-defense). But we'll also discover the Tosoks' secret, which, at the moment, I think is this, although I may come up with something different: the scoutship's mission was to see if Earth contained races that the Tosoks could enslave, but in the two centuries since the ship left, a slave revolt on the Tosok homeworld has left a formerly subjugated group of aliens in charge; upon receipt of Kelkad's message, they dispatch a faster-than-light police ship to arrest the members of the survey party as the last surviving Tosok war criminals. Kelkad and the other Tosoks enlist Martin Coleman to defend them back on the world orbiting Wolf 359 — Coleman becomes the first of many human starfarers, as the humans and the new race become fast friends, and the galaxy is opened up to mankind ...

Obviously, there are a lot of details I still have to work out (but, hey, I just started today ...). Clearly, I'm looking to explore some of the issues surrounding the case against O.J. Simpson and other prominent recent trials (media frenzy involved with a celebrity defendant, and the questions of racism in justice — both magnified in this case by having that defendant being an alien — and the use of scientific evidence, magnified in this case by employing forensic technology thirty years beyond what we've got today). I also want to deal with the issues of science in the courtroom (with sparks flying between my opposing counsels Ziegler and Coleman in the tradition of Inherit the Wind). But most of all, I want to give you an exciting, complex, fast-paced, story ...

I propose delivering this novel to you in ten months, on March 1, 1996.

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