Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Eric Frank Russell's "The Witness": (short story, science fiction): Should this refugee be granted asylum?

Quote from short story titled The Witness by Eric Frank RussellThis must be among the most entertaining from Russell. Very interesting court room drama, crisp dialogs, emotionally charged atmosphere - & sometimes amusing too.

There is something I noticed in common with Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations": if you are asked to pass guilty or not guilty verdict against two individuals, & where all other things are equal, the verdict is different depending on whether the accused is a man or a young girl! There is a strong undercurrent of this in both stories.

There is a short outside court room part near end of the story. But most interesting parts are in the court room scene. I had a feeling that some of the emotions, at least through part of the court room drama, were similar to Ayn Rand's "The Night of January 16th".

If you intend to read this story soon, please stop here. Reading summary below will seriously spoil the fun.

Story summary.

Maeth aka "Spike" is an alien, & "it came from some planet in the region of Procyon. Three feet high, bright green, with feet that were mere pads, & stubby limbs fitted with suckers & cilia, it was covered in spiky protrusions & looked somewhat like an educated cactus. Except for its eyes, great golden eyes... A toad, a wistful toad".

Date is "May 17, 1977". Court is somewhere in the US - a "special court, held by international agreement". Maeth is the accused - an illegal alien. Case has received worldwide publicity. Public, media, & some of the judges seem to have already concluded the accused guilty. "A minority of spectators hoped for life, many lusted for death, while the waverers compromised in favor of arbitrary expulsion".

Case hearings will be publicly broadcast. Jury is all of public (I suppose American adults), & there is some kind of voting system that will decide the verdict!

Maeth "can neither hear nor speak, but can comprehend us telepathically & respond visually." This "respond visually" comprises of writing answers with chalk on a blackboard. It also has many other abilities we will learn through the drama: telepathically paralyze someone to defend itself, move through glass as if there were no barrier - leaving a hole its shape in the wake, ...

Charges are "generally of illegal entry into this world known as Earth & specifically into the United States of America."

Alien apparently landed in the cultivated fields of Samuel Nall, causing some damage to crops. Panicky man called the cops. Samuel claims Maeth didn't show any remorse - never mind he cannot read any emotions on Maeth's face, or that alien cannot be expected to understand valuable crops just on landing.

Joseph Higginson, the cop, tried to shoot the alien! In self defense, alien telepathically paralyzed the cop, "but it wore off after a couple of hours" without any lasting effects. Alien "therefore obstructed a police officer in the execution of his duty, assaulted a police officer, and resisted arrest"! Never mind that alien cannot recognize a local cop as such.

Dominic Lolordo, owner of "a sea food restaurant", is accusing Maeth of theft. It entered after closing hours, "walked in through the window... leaving a hole its own shape. It went out the same way, making another hole. No broken glass around, no splinters, nothing." Alien apparently came to eat "Lobsters and oysters" - "In other words, a square meal".

Winthrop Allain, "a resident professor of zoology", has studied Maeth for a while, & seems to be unemotional & factual. He tells the court the alien is not only intelligent, it's as intelligent as "we are, though in a different way." His testimony will be tweaked by prosecution attorney, & we see a lot of fear mongering about hoards of alien invaders.

Many witnesses later, we will learn the story of Maeth. Its people have a hive-mind - only its parents were biological freaks & had their own individual minds, & passed the trait on to Maeth. Parents were killed "for having minds of their own"; Maeth was being hunted to be killed when it escaped by stealing a short range spaceship. It rode first asteroid it met that was moving in some random direction away from home world. By chance, it was headed towards earth. Last leg - off asteroid & to earth - was again in the stolen ship. That is how it ended up here.

Near the closing of proceedings where the public voting of guilty is a near certainty, defense attorney drops his bombshell - with the help of Prof Winthrop Allain. We learn that Maeth is "Fairly young... Not quite an adult." And a female. That is the turning point. Civilized people don't prosecute "a small & lonely female", right?

Happy ending, but after some more drama.

Fact sheet.

First published: Other Worlds Science Stories, September 1951.
Rating: A
Related: All stories of Eric Frank Russell.