Aliens are often depicted in science fiction in a variety of ways, from the absurdly humanoid and mysteriously genetic compatibility of the Star Trek universe (which was finally explained in the Next Gen by the common origin through interstellar seeding concept) to extreme instances where aliens are, by their very nature, inscrutable by human perception. In both cases we have the crown of decent types (E.T., The Day The Earth Stood Still) to malicious (To Serve Mankind, War of the Worlds, Independence Day). As I examined these (and many other, far more extreme) examples, I noticed something. Can any culture, regardless of it's independent development, remain completely alien?
If the common idea behind alien culture is that, by having senses completely foreign to ours, it is somehow rendered incapable of understanding ours (or us theirs), then it suffers from several serious flaws. Take someone who is born without sight or hearing: are they therefore not human? Obviously the answer is "of course they are"! Yet how can beings in our midst lacking two of the major means of communication relate to us at all? Anyone who's read the work of Helen Keller knows it can be accomplished. Why would having merely different senses therefore render an alien culture permanently incomprehensible?
I have to believe that it can't be. I suspect that, once interaction and study of any depth at all occurred, that a form of cultural contagion similar to what has happened to this day all of this planet would ultimately produce a fascinating mix. The risk I almost ran when developing the plot I'm working on now was that I almost generalized an entire species of being, exactly as it has been done in the above films I mentioned.
Could there have been an E.T. that was a real bastard and thought of humans as nothing more than animals? An Independence Day alien who was a pacifist that thought the wholesale destruction wrong?
Of course...but the stories would have grown too complex, and the resulting take at the box office not as great if people are too troubled by such moral permutations. A lot of such ethical fuzziness is often eliminated between the book and the screen...while not dealing with an alien species per se, Peter Benchley's "Jaws" had Hooper having an illicit affair with Sheriff Brody's wife, who felt cut off from her husband's affection. Instead of a sense of pure, common purpose despite their differences (get the shark) there was this tension, and Hooper pays for his betrayal by dying in the jaws of the shark. In fact, it's the air tank he's wearing that is eventually blown up by Brody, and not the rather forced (literally) situation of the tank being hand fed to the shark. Kharma in it's finest form: redemption through death and destruction of a greater evil.
Fuzzy dualities make for more interesting situations, but for small box office and smaller book sales. Aliens with mixed motives and a range of human to completely inhuman interactions and motives are a reflection of the same attitudes that make people feel uncomfortable with shades of grey.
One of the themes I'm exploring is the relationship of these dual lines of thought as it relates to religion, how different faiths can render us as alien to one another as evolution in a different star system can. Look at the current middle east situation, and even the lingering hatred and distrust in N. Ireland as perfect examples of how a common ancestry, senses, and even language are not an answer to eliminating the alien.
So, what IS the answer?
I'll have to sleep on that a bit more.