[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

SFWRITER.COM > Novels > Illegal Alien > Typical Passage

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 arrested.

       "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.

       "Dr. Penney."

       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?" asked Penney.

       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, sad.

       "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 Penney.

       "In all counting systems except base three and base four, yes."

       "And, in base ten now, two plus two equals five is wrong, correct?"


       "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 factual matters?"

       "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?"

       "The 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 God?"

       "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 biology-based answer.

       "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?"

       "Define unacceptable."

       "Unacceptable: acts that cannot be countenanced. Acts that are not reasonable."


       "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 last.

More Good Reading

Illegal Alien Opening Chapters
More about Illegal Alien
Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
Short stories by Robert J. Sawyer

Want to receive Rob’s very occasional email newsletter?

About Rob
Book Clubs
Press Kit
How to Write
Email Rob
Canadian SF



Copyright © 1995-2020 by Robert J. Sawyer.