SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Illegal Alien > Typical Passage
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
When giving readings at bookstores, I often don't read the opening of a novel;
rather, I look for a typical passage that embodies the flavor and
theme of the book. I find that in a book superstore, where the acoustics
are usually quite lousy, a six- or seven-minute reading is ideal. This is
the passage I often read from Illegal Alien.
Hask's attorney Dale Rice and Frank Nobilio, the Presidential
Science Advisor, went down to Hask's room in Paul Valcour Hall,
accompanied by Dr. Lloyd Penney, a psychiatrist Dale sometimes
used as a consultant. Hask was sitting on the corner of his bed,
propping his back up with his back hand. In his front hand, he
was holding a piece of the disk that broke the night he'd been
"Hello, Hask," said Frank. "This is Dr. Penney. He'd like to
ask you a few questions."
Penney was in his late thirties, with curly light-brown hair. He
was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. "Hello, Hask," he said.
Dale sat down on the edge of the bed as well. The bed had been
modified: a trough ran down its center to accommodate Hask's
back arm when he was resting. Frank leaned against the wall, and
Penney sat down on the one human chair in the room.
Hask was still holding the broken piece of disk. "What's that?"
Hask did not look up. "A lostartd a form of art."
"Did you make it?" asked Penney.
Hask's tuft waved backward in negation. "No. No, it was made by
Seltar the Tosok who died during our flight to Earth. I kept
it to remember her by; she had been my friend."
Penney held out a hand toward Hask. "May I see?"
Hask handed it to him. Penney looked at it. The painting on the
disk was stylized, but apparently depicted an alien landscape.
The other piece was sitting on Hask's desk. Penney motioned for
Frank to hand it to him; Frank did so. Penney joined the two
parts together. The picture showed a world with a large yellow
sun and a small orange one in its sky. "A clean break," said
Penney. "Surely it could be fixed."
Frank smiled to himself. Doubtless keeping a broken artifact
around was pregnant with psychological meaning.
"Of course it can be fixed," said Hask. "But I would need to
return to the mothership to get the adhesive I need, and the
terms of my bail do not allow that."
"We have powerful adhesives, too," said Frank. "A couple of
drops of Krazy Glue should do the trick."
"Krazy Glue?" repeated Hask. His untranslated voice seemed slow,
"Cyanoacrylate," said Frank. "It'll bond almost anything. I'll
go out and buy you a tube today."
"Thank you," said Hask.
Dr. Penney placed the two pieces of the lostartd disk on
Hask's desk. "Dale and Frank have brought me here to ask you
some questions, Hask."
"If you must," said the alien.
"Hask," said the psychiatrist, "do you know the difference
between right and wrong?"
"They are opposites," said Hask.
"What is right?" asked Penney.
"That which is correct."
"So, for instance, two plus two equals four is right?" said
"In all counting systems except base three and base four, yes."
"And, in base ten now, two plus two equals five is wrong,
"Do the words right and wrong have any other meaning?"
"Right also refers to the direction that is to the south when one
is facing east."
"Yes, yes. Right on its own has other meanings, but the concept
of `right' and `wrong,' do they apply to anything other than
"Not in my experience."
Penney looked briefly at Dale, then turned back to Hask. "What
about the terms `good' and `bad'?"
"A food item that has an agreeable taste is said to be good; one
that has putrefied is said to be bad."
"And what about the concepts of moral and immoral?"
"These apparently have to do with human religion."
"They have no bearing on Tosok religion?"
"Tosoks believe in predetermination we do the will of God."
"You believe in a single God?"
"We believe in a single being that was foremother to our race."
"And this God she is good?"
"Well, she has not begun to putrefy."
"You perform no actions that are not the will of your God?"
"Pardon?" said Penney.
"It is not acceptable to speak of God possessively."
"Sorry. You perform no actions that are not the will of the
"By definition, such a thing would be impossible."
"Is there a devil in your religion?"
Hask's translator beeped. "A devil? The word is unfamiliar."
"In many Earth religions," said Frank, once again leaning against
the wall, "there is a supremely good being, called God, and an
adversary, who attempts to thwart God's will. This adversary is
called the devil."
"God is omnipotent," said Hask, looking briefly at Frank, then
turning back to Penney. "Nothing can thwart her."
"Then there is no continuum of behavior?" asked the psychiatrist.
"I have encountered this concept repeatedly in human thought,"
said Hask. "The idea that everything moves from one extreme on
the left to another on the right, or that there are two equal
`sides' to every issue using the word `sides' in a way a Tosok
never would." His topknot moved. "This is an alien way of
thinking to me; I rather suspect it has something to do with the
left-right symmetry of your bodies. You have a left hand and a
right, and although each individual among you seems to favor one
Frank, I have noticed you favor your right, but Dale, you
favor your left in general, you seem to view the hands as
equal. But we Tosoks have a front hand that is much stronger
than our back hand; we have no concept to use one of your
words that does not translate fully of what you call
`evenhandedness.' One perspective is always superior to
the other; the front always takes precedence over the back. The
aspect with the preponderance of power or weight is the side of
God, and it always wins."
Frank smiled. Cletus Calhoun would have loved that kind of
"Let me ask you some hypothetical questions," said Penney. "Is
it all right to steal?"
"If I do it, God certainly must have observed it, and since she
did not stop me, it must be acceptable."
"Is it all right to kill?"
"Obviously, God could prevent one from doing so if she wished;
that she does not clearly means the killer must have been acting
as her instrument."
Penney's eyebrows went up. "Are there any unacceptable actions?"
"Unacceptable: acts that cannot be countenanced. Acts that are
"If you killed someone because he was trying to kill you, would
that be acceptable?"
"If it happened, it is acceptable."
"If you killed someone because he was trying to steal from you,
would that be acceptable?"
"If it happened, it is acceptable."
"If you killed someone because the joke they told was one you had
already heard, would that be acceptable?"
"If it happened, it is acceptable."
"In our culture," said Penney, "we define insanity as the
inability to distinguish moral acts from immoral acts."
"There is no such thing as an immoral act."
"So, by the definition of the human race, are you insane?"
Hask considered this for a moment. "Unquestionably," he said at
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