[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Novel Synopsis


by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1997 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.

This is a synopsis prepared for my film agent of my novel Illegal Alien; this synopsis was written after the book was completed.

Earth, the present day. An object streaks across the sky over South America. At first it's taken to be a meteor, but soon everyone agrees that it's actually a spaceship entering Earth's atmosphere — and it's not one of ours.

The United States aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk races toward the splashdown site in the middle of the Atlantic. Aboard are DR. FRANCIS NOBILIO, special science advisor to the President, and CLETUS CALHOUN, the Tennessee astronomer whose down-home charm has made his PBS science series about stars, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!, an international hit.

The Kitty Hawk reaches its destination. Already present is a Russian submarine, and a Brazilian cruise ship is approaching as well. The object of everyone's attention: an alien landing craft, floating on the waves. Calhoun suggests that the ship is likely capable of landing on solid ground, but deliberately choose international waters for a neutral point of first contact.

The alien ship flashes lights in prime-number sequences. Both the Russians and the Americans respond with flashing lights of their own. The lander lifts out of the ocean, flies over the sub, but then settles down on the aircraft carrier's flight deck — the only place it could possibly land. Russian observers are airlifted by helicopter from the sub to the aircraft carrier, and, while language issues are dealt with, the Kitty Hawk sets course for New York city, so that the alien can be presented to the United Nations.

The lander contains a single alien: an individual known as HASK, who is part of the Tosok race — bizarre creatures with fourfold instead of twofold symmetry. He is able to breathe our air and walk erect in our gravity, but needs to wear dark lenses over his four eyes to shield them from the brightness of our sun.

Hask and his shipmates have been traveling for over two centuries to reach Earth. He says he has business to attend to aboard the mothership (now pinpointed in orbit by Earth tracking stations); Calhoun asks if he can go up with him. Hask agrees, and immediately others want to go as well — but Hask says no. The lander has accommodations for eight passengers; the Tosok mothership originally had a crew of eight, but one died in an accident during their flight to Earth. There is room for one human observer, and Calhoun asked first.

The lander lifts up off the Kitty Hawk, and Calhoun realizes his lifelong dream of getting into space. As he and Hask approach the giant mothership, Calhoun sees that it is severely damaged, apparently by a collision sustained during flight. Hask confirms that it was during the aftermath of this event that the eighth crew member died.

Aboard the mothership, Calhoun sees that the other six crew members are in a state of suspended animation — but not through cryogenic or chemical means. Rather, the Tosoks seem to have a natural ability to hibernate, even for centuries, whenever the air temperature drops below a certain value. Calhoun remarks that this makes them ideally suited to slower-than-light star travel.

It takes several hours for the other Tosoks to revive, including Captain KELKAD (Hask is the lowliest, and therefore most expendable, member of the crew; that's why he was revived first). While Calhoun and Hask wait for them, Calhoun feeds himself by using a monofilament device — a single-strand molecule held between two handles — to slice meat from large, genetically engineered meat source aboard the starship. It's not an animal, says Hask — his kind has long since given up killing for food. It's just chemically grown meat. Only a small amount of blood seeps out from the wound. Calhoun explains that humanity lacks the ability to grow meat; his stories of hunting in the hills of Tennessee seem to intrigue Hask.

The seven Tosoks fly down to the United Nations, where Kelkad addresses the General Assembly. He brings greetings from his world — which, he explains, is a planet in the Alpha Centauri system (Alpha Centauri is a triple star system, consisting of yellow A, orange B, and the red dwarf known as C or Proxima). His ship was badly damaged passing through Sol's Oort cloud. The gravitational interaction between Alpha Centauri A and B had long ago cleared out any debris at the periphery of their star system; the Tosoks had therefore not been diligent in scanning as they approached Sol, and so were unprepared for an impact with cometary detritus. The damage goes beyond their ability to repair by themselves: they entreat humanity to help build replacement parts, offering to let the humans keep any Tosok technology they might acquire in the process.

While the new parts are being fabricated — a process that will take at least two years — the Tosoks tour Earth, traveling from New York to Europe, then Asia, and back to the west coast of North America. They — and the entourage of international scientists traveling with them — are provided quarters in a just-completed but as-yet-unoccupied dorm at the University of Southern California; USC has received the contract to oversee the repair work. Everything seems to be going well . . . until the murder, that is.

Dr. Cletus Calhoun's body is found in his room at the USC dorm. His right leg has been severed cleanly from his body, causing fatal bleeding out through the femoral artery. After death, his torso had been opened wide, and the internal organs removed and examined. His head had been severed from the body and the lower jaw carved clean off the head, and apparently taken away. And one of his eyes had been removed and is missing.

LT. JESUS PEREZ of the LAPD leads the investigation. Although Calhoun did have some human enemies — notably the Canadian biologist SMATHERS, who had also been part of the Tosok's entourage — the evidence points to a Tosok having committed the crime. Indeed, a small amount of pinkish liquid is found on the sharp point of one of Calhoun's split ribs, as if the Tosok had cut himself on it while performing the dissection. Further evidence suggests that the Tosok responsible must have been Hask.

What to do? The murder is front-page news the world over, not just for its gruesomeness, but also because the victim was such a well-liked celebrity. 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 says that under Tosok jurisprudence, one is subject to the laws of whatever jurisdiction one is in.

There's no doubt that the crime was murder, and there's no doubt that it took place in Los Angeles. And so charges are laid by the Los Angeles District Attorney against Hask.

Frank Nobilio goes to see D.A. MONTGOMERY AJAX, to try to talk him out of prosecuting the alien. But Ajax is ambitious — he's planning to run for California governor next, and eventually for President — and won't back down from the issue. Nobilio ends up having to arrange a defense for Hask. The six other Tosoks are all scientists and explorers — none of them is competent to defend him. Nobilio enlists powerful black civil-rights lawyer DALE RICE to represent the alien.

Meanwhile, D.A. Ajax is pressured by the REV. OREN BRISBEE, a prominent Jesse Jackson-type, to seek the death penalty against Hask: Ajax already has a record of pushing for the death penalty in murder cases involving black defendants, and Brisbee suggests that black support for Ajax's gubernatorial campaign will disappear if he's seen to be treating a non-human better than he'd treat a black person.

A huge bail is set for Hask — a being with access to a spaceship represents a substantial and quite literal flight risk, after all. But Nobilio arranges for it to be paid, and Hask is released into his custody.

Hask vehemently denies having killed Calhoun. Nobilio and Rice prepare for his defense — and many fascinating pre-trial issues are explored. Is a non-human competent by human standards to stand trial? What sorts of jurors should be disqualified against hearing a case with an extraterrestrial defendant? Can Tosoks be called to testify?

Rice is faced with a difficult case, with only two possible defenses. First, either some human has deliberately framed Hask (presumably to discredit the aliens), or Hask did commit the crime, but was insane by human standards when he did so.

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 at Alpha Centauri. 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 Kelkad's starship. At the very least, other Tosoks will surely be able to come to Earth in less than the two centuries it took Kelkad and company; indeed, it's possible the Tosoks even have faster-than-light travel now, and could be here within days of receiving Kelkad's message. 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 trial begins with voir dire (jury selection). Great care is taken to ensure that anyone with a specific agenda is prevented from being seated.

Assistant District Attorney LINDA ZIEGLER presents the prosecution case. Calhoun's own videos taken aboard the mothership are introduced into evidence. The murder weapon could very likely be the same sort of monofilament Hask is seen using to carve pieces off the shipboard meat-factory.

Kelkad is called on to testify: Hask and the now-deceased Tosok, a female named SELTAR, were revived to deal with the Oort-cloud impact, but Seltar died trying to seal the breach in the ship's hull. As per normal operating procedures, Hask harvested Seltar's organs for transplant, in case they were ever needed; Tosoks can regenerate body parts if given enough time, but in cases of catastrophic injury, transplants are used.

Is it possible, asks Ziegler of Kelkad, that Hask found the cutting of flesh and removal of organs pleasurable? That he would seek out a similar experience again? Kelkad concedes that such madness is not unknown among his race.

The LA County Medical Examiner testifies that the dissection of Calhoun was done by someone familiar with using scalpels and other medical equipment, but completely unfamiliar with human anatomy. And she points out that in addition to the missing eye and lower jaw and neck, Calhoun's appendix — which his medical records imply he still had — is also missing.

The lawyers battle over the Tosok blood found on Calhoun's rib cage. The prosecution wants to subpoena blood samples from all the Tosoks, in order to prove that the blood at the murder scene could only be Hask's. Rice is in his element here: this is clearly a civil-rights issue. No judge would order every black man, or every Italian, or every woman in a community, to give up a tissue sample; how can the judge possibly authorize that 100% of a community — even if the community has only seven members — be forced to give blood samples?

Meanwhile, Nobilio is puzzled by the astronomy of the Alpha Centauri system. Studies show that planets could have stable orbits around Alpha Centauri A only out to about two astronomical units (two times the orbital radius of the Earth) — but Alpha Centauri A is also 50% brighter than our sun. It seems unlikely that aliens from a stable world orbiting Alpha Centauri A would need sunglasses while visiting Earth . . . which means that perhaps the Tosok home world orbits so far out that it is unstable. The Tosoks might not be here just out of curiosity, but rather as the vanguard of an invasion force looking for a new, safer home . . .

Much is made in the trial of Calhoun's missing body parts. The Rev. Brisbee takes the stand to contend that the human eye is proof of mankind's divine creation. But he is countered by a scientist who argues that the eye (which is wired backwards, with neural tissue obscuring part of the retina), the throat (which allows choking on one's food), and the appendix (a useless leftover) — are proof of random evolution. Still, it's not clear why these parts were taken by the killer . . .

A human fanatic shoots Hask, and another Tosok has to operate on him in a Los Angeles hospital, aided by human doctors. During the operation, we learn that Tosoks have four hearts, all of them located low in the body cavity.

As the trial continues, a shocking revelation is made: Seltar, the supposedly dead Tosok, is still alive. Although the accident in the Oort cloud was real, Hask and Seltar took the opportunity to fake her death, putting a few organs they had personally regenerated into cold storage to make it look like her body had been disposed of.

At the conclusion of the defense case, Rice puts Hask on the stand. Under cross examination by Ziegler, Hask admits that Calhoun had discovered that Seltar was still alive, and had been about to tell everyone this, including the other Tosoks. Hask tried to prevent him from spilling the beans, but Calhoun was adamant. Needing a way to restrain him, Hask used the only tool at hand — his meat-cutting monofilament. He sliced off Calhoun's leg (which, in a Tosok, would regenerate). To his shock, Calhoun rapidly bled to death because of the wound: humans have valves in their veins to keep blood from flowing backwards as it makes its way up the body toward the heart, but, because the heart is located near the top of the body and gravity feed usually aids the arteries, no such valves exist in human arteries. Tosoks, with hearts low down in their bodies have valves in both their arteries and their veins — the cut would have sealed itself in a Tosok.

Although shocked and saddened at the death of his friend Calhoun, Hask had a larger purpose. By accident, he's ended up with the first chance a Tosok has had to examine human anatomy in detail, and so he begins searching for the one thing that can save mankind: proof that humans are divinely created. But, to his sadness, he finds that Calhoun is clearly the product of evolution.

The astronomical puzzle falls into place: the Tosok home world has a substantial natural greenhouse effect, allowing it to have Earthlike surface temperatures even though it orbits at the outer rim of the stable zone around Alpha Centauri A. Centauri C — Proxima — orbits around A and B every million years; at its closest approach to A, it drags the Tosok world enough that it ceases orbiting around hot, yellow Centauri A and instead orbits for the next half-million years at the outskirts of cooler, orange Centauri B, plunging its surface temperatures below freezing. Life on the Tosok world has evolved its natural hibernation ability to survive these periods.

Contrary to Nobilio's invasion theory, the Tosoks have no desire to leave their own world for another. But the Tosoks live in fear that during their next half-million-year sleep, aliens from one of their stellar neighbors will leapfrog past them technologically and they will awaken to be slaves or worse. So starships were sent out to scour the planets of Sol, Tau Ceti, and other nearby stars clean of life. Indeed, the Tosoks would have done that unannounced from orbit by turning their fusion exhaust onto the planet, but the accident in the Oort cloud made contact necessary so that repair parts could be manufactured.

The Tosok religion had originally held that Tosoks were created by their God; their studies of evolution shattered their faith in that. Clearly, they had evolved — but their religion held that God must have divine children somewhere. Hask and Seltar belonged to an underground who opposed the policy of sterilizing other worlds; they had lied and cheated to get assigned to one of the starships — just as some humans lie and cheat to get on juries to force a particular verdict.

There's no doubt now that Hask is guilty, but in an act of jury nullification, the jurors return a verdict of not guilty: "We let him go so he wouldn't be executed," says the foreman. "We thought that if the Tosoks saw we were a compassionate and forgiving people that maybe, just maybe, they wouldn't wipe our planet clean of life."

Perez arrests all the Tosoks on conspiracy to commit murder — the murder of every human being alive. But then another starship arrives. Kelkad had, of course, signaled the Tosok home world when they'd reached Earth — but humans had hoped for at least 8.6 years (roundtrip time to Alpha Centauri at light speed) before any reply, let alone any other ship, arrived. The new ship is fantastically advanced — it is, of course, two centuries more recent than Kelkad's starship. Everyone is prepared for the Tosok retaliation — but the crew aboard the new ship are not Tosoks. Rather, they are members of a starfish-like race, and they require spacesuits to exist on Earth.

These aliens come from another planet Tosoks had tried to wipe clean of life. But they triumphed over the Tosoks and, along with other survivor races have formed a nascent interstellar commonwealth — and they invite humanity to join. They request that the eight Tosoks be turned over to them for war-crimes trails. Humanity agrees — and Dale Rice, sensing the real trial of the century — volunteers to defend them, making him one of the first humans to journey out among the stars.

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