If Star Trek is anything to go by, it isn't that hard to glue a few rubber ridges to someone's forehead and call him an alien. He can have the same desires for food, for love, for friendship, for success, for personal and spiritual fulfillment -- as long as they're skewed slightly from ours.
Of course, science fiction (including Star Trek) has a long tradition of using the ostensibly alien to illustrate our human assumptions. These aliens eat their dessert first, and they therefore have a whole different idea of what it means to truly live in the moment, seizing happiness wherever they can get it, celebrating life without our cumbersome self-punishing concepts of the order of dinner.
Lots of us read science fiction for an injection of the strange, for a glimpse at some of the real possibilities of our expansive universe. I'm no scientist, but I'm pretty sure that no alien we ever encounter will stand on two legs, shake our hands with one of its two arms, and grin beneath its ridged forehead.
So if there's one thing we can be sure of regarding alien life, it is that it will be weird. Not Uncle Hiram weird, either: weird like those horseshoe crab carcasses you find on the beach or those fans of fungus growing from the sides of trees.
And here, in the Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel The Mote in God’s Eye, we meet a truly alien species.
The Mote in God’s Eye is one of the classic first contact novels. The aliens, called Moties by the humans who find them, are so fascinating and compelling in their alienness that the large sections of the novel that seem like a travelogue might actually be more interesting than the action sequences.
These are fully-realized aliens with a unique culture emerging logically from their unique biology, and unique customs emerging logically from their unique needs. Few books so clearly portray the relationships between our physical and cultural selves. The Moties are the rational consequence of their history in a way that most fictional alien species aren’t.
Some of the best science fiction works offer intriguing experiences of the alien, and this book easily exceeds that standard. It is a thought experiment: what could humans do if they encountered a species with superior technical ability and breeding rate? The Moties are not a traditional hostile force -- but their cross-purposes with humanity are just as deadly.
The book is a mystery: the crew of the INSS MacArthur must discover what the Moties are hiding, and they must figure out how humanity can respond to the threat. The answers they find, like in most good science fiction, provoke some deeper thoughts about the issues of sustainability, war, and culture we face on Earth.
If you're looking for an excellent summer read, something to take you away from the beating sun and sweltering heat of our world, you could do far worse than to read The Mote in God's Eye. This book offers the best of science fiction: a true experience of the alien with all its strangeness, no punches pulled, no compromises made.