In these aliens, we are forced to determine what makes us human. First contact with aliens is often met with fear, hostility and xenophobia. Anthropology, culture and language become both barriers and bridges. The direction of first contact can go either way, a visitor to Earth or a terrestrial visitor to another planet. Visitors to Earth tend to force humans to examine themselves while terrestrial visitors are often oblique studies by presenting cultures which vary greatly from our own.
A third possibility is that neither of the two species is human. In the Hainish cycle, the universe is inhabited by a variety of species which evolved from humans to fit their environment. Their physical appearance, culture, history, sex and gender roles, sexual relationships, etc, may vary both from one another and from our own.
The other side of 'alien' is 'familiar.' We judge others by how they deviate from our status quo and by how they challenge our sense of identity.
An alien life form can cause this disruption without any communication between us and them (or those other ones). Alien life has a privilege that non-human terrestrial life does not - the assumption of sentience and of possible communication.
Latent within this theme are old tropes about exploration, the exotic, orientalism and conquest. There is the ever present threat of exploitation. In the Twilight Zone episodes "People Are Alike All Over", the protagonist finds himself an exhibit in a zoo. The title refers to the aliens who have imprisoned him and the recognition that people enjoy the chance to not only study the exotic but also to tame it, to render it innocuous, and to subjugate it. In science fiction, we continually reinact our past sins when one culture meets another.
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