Originally published in 1997, Robert J. Sawyer‘s novel Illegal Alien tells the tale of Earth’s first contact with an alien species. Inspired (at least in part) by the O.J. Simpson trial, Sawyer weaves a story of intrigue, while layering in courtroom drama in a book that bucks the typical science-fiction expectations, and keeps readers engaged until the very last word.

Synopsis for Illegal Alien:

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When a disabled spaceship enters Earth’s atmosphere, seven members of the advanced Tosok race are welcomed by the world. Then a popular scientist is murdered, and all evidence points to one of the Tosoks. Now, an alien is tried in a court of law-and there may be far more at stake than accounting for one human life.

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Cover-illegalalienIt’s hard to find anything initially wrong with Sawyer’s work in Illegal Alien. Indeed, it immediately grabs the reader, and is a page-turner in every conceivable way. Though not exactly what one would expect, based on the synopsis, the courtroom scenes are well written, and show a deep and accurate knowledge of legal proceedings. Though preceding it by several years, Illegal Alien is in many ways similar to Sawyer’s Mindscan, in style, if not in substance; that novel, too, revolved deeply around courtroom proceedings.

The characters introduced in the novel are both memorable, and intriguing. The Tosok race in particular is an interesting species, though Sawyer reveals precious little about their culture, beyond a few sentences that fill in a bit. It’s hard to imagine any alien encounter that doesn’t involve countless hours of question-and-answer sessions with everything from scientists, to mathematicians, to theologists. Not just the aliens are memorable, however, as the human characters are as well. In particular, Clete Calhoun, the celebrity scientist seems to jump off the page, and endear himself with readers. Each of the Tosok characters are presented fairly uniquely, and therefore lend further credence to the world-building that Sawyer has done in the novel.

Though the story intially begins with the introduction of the Tosok’s, and the events surrounding their appearance on Earth, the story quickly–and dramatically–takes a turn. A human is murdered, and all clues implicate a Tosok. From here out, the story revolves almost exclusively around the courtroom and legal procedures that take place in the prosecution of the alien. It’s interesting to see how humanity deals with the implications the trial will have both on the current, and future relations that Humans and Tosoks will have with each other. Unfortunately, because the novel takes so much time delving into the justice procedures, it does tend to drag a bit from time to time–not in a way that will prevent users from continuing to read, but in the way that seems to avoid the subjects that readers may be most interested in; just when the conversation starts going down a road that will actually reveal some interesting details about the Tosok race, an objection, or cut-off answer leaves the reader hanging. Also frustrating is the lack of exploration of the knowledge about the local stellar neighborhood that the Tosoks may be able to provide.

Illegal Alien is an interesting story of first-contact, and depicts a believable, intrinsically different species, obviously evolved from different life-forms. In many ways, it’s exactly what one would expect of a first-contact scenario. This book’s page-turning pace, and fascinating subject matter will keep readers well-entertained.

– Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown