Illegal Alien, Robert J. Sawyer

Ace, 1997, 292 pages, C$30.95 hc, ISBN 0-441-00476-8

In interviews, Canadian Science-Fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has often stated his love for both SF and mysteries. He even said that he’d like to take the time to write a “straight” mystery—if the market would allow it. In Illegal Alien, Sawyer has fashioned a compulsively readable hybrid of the two genres that will undoubtedly entertain scores of readers.

In an industry where an author producing one book a year is considered prolific, Robert J. Sawyer managed to release two hardcover novels in the span of six months: June 1997 saw Frameshift (Hardcover from Tor) and Illegal Alien (Hardcover from Ace) arrived just in time for the Christmas’97 holidays. While publisher politics are reportedly responsible for this schedule, Sawyer fans suffered from an embarrassment of riches with the release of the author’s seventh and eighth novels.

These two novels also mark a change of style and direction for Sawyer: While his earlier End of An Era, Golden Fleece and more particularly Starplex represented the kind of old-fashioned, gloriously wondrous whiz-bang SF, his two latest books (and, to a lesser extent, his Nebula-winning The Terminal Experiment) are much more introspective in nature, reflecting (said Sawyer at Can-Con’97) the kind of SF he would now want to read.

Frameshift surprised a lot of readers -including this reviewer-, especially following the exceptional Starplex. Illegal Alien is closer to Sawyer’s previous novel, but still illustrates where Sawyer is now headed.

Plot-wise, Illegal Alien‘s premise is summed up in its title; shortly after first contact, a human is found, murdered. Forensics establish that the murder weapon is of alien origin. Before one can say “California has the death penalty, right?”, an alien suspect is arrested. This isn’t the OJ Simpson trial, and Illegal Alien takes great care to distance itself (and even illuminate) America’s favourite murder trial.

(Of course, things won’t stay that simple for long. Revealing more wouldn’t be ethical.)

This strong premise is, as usual, carried by a style that’s more descriptive than polished. This isn’t meant as a criticism: For one thing, Illegal Alien benefit from the same strong narrative drive that ensured the success of Sawyer’s first novels. Readable in a single afternoon, and even perhaps in a single sitting, the novel breezes along without stretches.

Sawyer obviously did his research regarding California’s judicial system, and it shows. Even such topics as jury selection reveal themselves to be tantalizingly fascinating. Sawyer’s law proves to be as exact as his science. The result is an air of authenticity that goes a long way toward grounding Sawyer’s aliens in the realistic framework.

Illegal Alien could conceivably be used to “convince” mystery readers to take a look at the SF genre, and vice-versa. While the novel begins and ends in SF mode, the remainder is as good a legal mystery as anything else this reviewer has read in the genre.

While Illegal Alien isn’t as brilliant (read: impressive, overwhelming, awe-inspiring) as Starplex or The Terminal Experiment, it is only fair to say that it’s a more balanced work. There is scant to dismiss and a lot to like here: As usual, Sawyer delivers a well-crafted piece of thoughtful entertainment that will only solidify his reputation. Illegal Alien is a recommended purchase in paperback, and a suitable gift in hardcover.

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