SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Illegal Alien > 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
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
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
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
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
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