But that’s not the point. Read his paper—it’s interesting—and his books—they’re wonderful.
There are a couple of things I find interesting about the proposed communication. First, the passion that exists in us to connect with the alien other, and second, the idea that we could understand someone so utterly alien without coming to blows—or death-rays.
We’re the guys who can put ourselves in the shoes (or extra-terrestrial equivalent) of people who see (or otherwise detect) the universe from a perspective and from basic assumptions so unlike our own we can barely recognize them—if at all. That’s one of the roles of science-fiction, and several brilliant writers have explored it, including David Brin.
At the same time, too many of us can’t even cope with people identical to ourselves apart from microscopic differences like melanin or dudes wanting to hold hands with other dudes. Actually that last part is probably an example me failing to grasp the underlying presumptions in the psyches of people with a microscopic difference from myself. Do gay men think in terms of dudes? I don’t know. But as far as I’m concerned, they can hold hands anywhere they like. I think it’s adorable. Which is itself another example of the inability to grok the alien other (for those of you who never read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok). “Adorable” is an outsider judgment.
It presents a problem for me as a writer because, well, darn it, some people are gay. They just are. So some of the people in my stories would have to be gay, too. That’s just statistical probability. But I’m not gay. If I wrote a gay protagonist, would I fail to grasp, or even have words for, something about that experience that is critical to a reader? Many of my protagonists have notably darker skin pigment than mine, and I frequently mix and match geographical origin of first and last names, but this is in a hypothetical homogeneous society. I don’t think I could write from the perspective of a black character in modern America. Am I projecting too many differences on that person, or is there a genuine experience gap? Many of my characters have more melanin than I do (and brown is the least interesting pigment they might have), and a reasonable number of the supporting cast are married to people of the same sex, and I’ll try to do better in future. In the upcoming Lovecraftian urban fantasy, Red Queen Does Something Vaguely Eldritch, the antagonist “marries” an extra-dimensional demon goddess and has a brood of millions of subhuman grubs with which to conquer the universe, so you can’t get more open-minded than that! Well, actually, I try to discourage that kind of thing.
CJ Cherryh is my all-time favorite writer as far as exploring the conflict between the self and the alien. Her Foreigner series deals heavily with the psychology of alien minds as they relate to the human psych. The story itself is absorbing, but when I step back to observe its effect on the reader (namely me), I’m fascinated by the way the reader struggles to attribute human feelings and motives to alien minds. Can we ever genuinely understand what goes on in an alien psyche? Will we inevitably project our own natures? We want the atevi to love us just as I would suppose they would want us to become attached to their associations. Good lord, the English language just doesn’t quite convey that, does it?
Here’s a leap: I have a similar reaction to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series. The protagonist is a sociopath and a serial killer. He ecstatically tortures and kills people—off the page, thank goodness, because who wants to see that—and the reader is able to accept it because his targets are themselves monsters. He becomes an avatar for our own sense of helplessness in the face of evil. (For another example of adopting the monster to subdue the monsters, see Shaft, the movie starring Samuel Jackson. Or don’t; I could barely sit through it).
The reader likes Dexter. He’s charming, funny, puts on a façade of friendliness, but underneath that, he isn’t what we want him to be. He doesn’t like us. He doesn’t hate us, either. He doesn’t have any feelings at all toward anyone other than himself. He would kill us without a qualm if we fit his internal “rules” for who is a potential target. Dexter is an alien in human form. Yet we continually try to project our own feelings onto him. We think, “Oh Dexter, you really do love your sister, you just don’t realize it.” We have a powerful need to project our own psychological foundations onto other people. We’re supposed to do that, actually. It’s the basis of empathy, and it allows us to function morally in a social environment, but it breaks down when we don’t have enough information to grok the other. That failure triggers a war in Foreigner when humans and atevi misinterpret each other’s driving impulses.
Given that science-fiction can’t go beyond human experience to truly understand the alien other, our efforts to imagine our way out of our own heads at least give us a chance to recognize that there are things we can't grok, places where we need to tread eggshells lest we provoke interplanetary war. And we should learn that we can survive differences even if we don’t understand them. Learn to stand outside the alien mind and recognize that you don’t get it, but it’s kind-of cute. Okay, there would probably be alien habits that wouldn’t be cute—like inviting the Earth ambassador to the royal burrow for dinner whereupon everybody vomits into the communal food bowl then picks up a spoon and tucks in. I just don’t see humans adapting to that. Ever. But maybe the human could cook up a vomitous-looking goulash and tip it into the bowl to the accompaniment of polite gagging noises.
Yes, we love the idea of other intelligent life; we love our fictional aliens. Some of us are sure that any species advanced enough to master interstellar travel must be intellectually enlightened far beyond war or hatred and will share that enlightenment with us along with cleaning up our pollution and giving us the secrets of clean energy. Or they will be warlike, and the human race will finally abandon squabbling among ourselves and unite against a common enemy. Are we calling out for Mummy and Daddy to come home because we want a higher authority to fix everything regardless of whether they come with candy or spankings? If there’s one thing I believe with certainty, any aliens we encountered would not be the grown-ups we are looking for. Maybe we should be working harder to understand our own aliens before sending out for extra-terrestrials that might stretch our powers of empathy beyond what we can bear.