Communication in Arrival and The Left Hand of Darkness – by Sophie Williams



The science-­‐fiction genre often explores the ways in which we would potentially communicate with people or extra-­‐terrestrials from other planets if we were ever given the chance, but few do so with such an interesting take as the two texts in which I will be exploring and comparing in this essay. My two chosen texts are The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, a classic sci-­‐fi novelist, and Arrival, a more current sci-­‐fi blockbuster. The reason that I have chosen to compare these texts is that they both deal heavily with differing themes of communication but in equally important ways; Arrival looks closely at the ways in which language and breaking down language barriers are of vital importance

in terms of communication and The Left Hand of Darkness examines the ways in which it is important to understand foreign social etiquette and cultural difference. In this essay I am going to be exploring the ways in which they do this.



Paragraph 1: Arrival


Arrival (2016) is a science-­‐fiction film about a race of alien life forms that come down to earth in a variety of gigantic pods that are scattered across the globe. It is the job of linguistics professor, Louise Banks, to try and decipher the aliens’ language in order to work out why they had chosen to come to earth. The film is critically successful, as reviewed by IGN: ‘Arrival is a language lesson masquerading as a blockbuster, though much more entertaining than that sounds. The film features shades of Interstellar, Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but never feels derivative. Rather it’s smart, sophisticated sci-­‐fi that that asks BIG questions, and does a pretty good job of answering them’ (Tilly, 2016).

A lot of science-­‐fiction narratives feature a protagonist who has trained to deal with a specific situation for years, or focuses on a ‘chosen one’, but Arrival breaks out of these tropes; Louise was a single mother who was coping with the loss of her daughter and worked very hard to get to the top of her field, and her research and teaching methods are well valued within her field. She is both an ordinary and extraordinary woman, and her quick thinking is vital to her success in understanding the alien intruders in the film, highlighting the idea that even the average person can be of great importance in a crisis.


Paragraph 2: Arrival


With regards to my theme of communication, I will of course be examining the scene in which Professor Banks first manages to make contact with the aliens. The team sent to investigate the aliens, Louise included, first use whiteboards to try to communicate with the aliens by trying to connect the words written on the whiteboards to the objects. Unfortunately, this tactic did not work properly and they were getting nowhere fast. Instead, Louise acted on impulse and used her initiative, taking off her orange suit so that the aliens could see her properly and approaching the barrier between them as a form of peace offering.

As quoted from the script, ‘Louise then puts her hand on the barrier. Leaves it there. The shorter one (Abbott), drifts close too. And through the vague cloud, something specific: It raises a limb and puts a seven-­‐fingered ‘hand’ on its side. Near Louise’s hand. She smiles, still partly terrified but also reassured. “Now that’s a proper introduction” (Heisserer, 2015, p.45). While only a short moment in the film, this short interaction speaks volumes for the film’s themes; by approaching the alien despite her fears and showing that she wasn’t going to harm them by offering them her hand, symbolic of the handshake, Louise shows the aliens she trusts them, and enables them to trust her in return.


Paragraph 3: Arrival

Another scene in the film that I will be looking at is the film’s climax, where many countries had decided that they saw the aliens as a threat and wanted to eliminate the threat, and so contact was cut from America, who wanted to remain peaceful. Louise knows that the aliens were not harmful, but she just needed more time to work out what they were trying to tell them. And time they gave her; they had the power to properly unlock time and she was able to see into the future the way she was able to negotiate with General Shang of China. In the future, he tells her, ‘“Eighteen months ago, you did something…remarkable. Something not even my superior has done. […] You changed my mind” (Heisserer, 2015, p.110). This links back to the importance of language as a persuasive tool: lives were saved due to the fact that Louise was able to get through to the general. She did this after contact between the countries was about to be cut, too, highlighting the importance of being able to communicate and listen.


Paragraph 4: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of Genly Ai, a human who has travelled to the planet of Gethen in order to negotiate an agreement between the planet to join the Ekumen, an intergalactic alliance between planets; however, the Gethenians do not welcome the invitation, and he is met with animosity and suspicion. While Genly Ai seems to be able to understand the Gethenians’ dialect, he is not well versed in their cultural traditions and social etiquette, and the fact that the Gethenians have a different biological makeup to humans (they have no specified sex) seems to seems to further his confusion in terms of how to interact and interpret the planet’s natives.


Paragraph 5: The Left Hand of Darkness

An important chapter in looking at the way The Left Hand of Darkness explores barriers in communication and understanding is chapter three, when Genly Ai visits King Agraven to try and persuade them to join the alliance. They consider Genly’s offer as insulting, thinking that it undermines their authority as a king: ‘“You want me to believe you, your tales and messages. But why need I believe, or listen? If there are eighty thousand worlds full of monsters out there among the stars, what of it? We want nothing from them” (Le Guin,1992 [1969], p.32). This is an integral quote from the text in terms of communication because it shows that the king viewed all of those who were not from the planet of Gethen as ‘monsters’; in other words, they are something to be fearful and anxious of, which relates to the idea of ‘cognitive estrangement’. As Patrick Parrinder explains, ‘by imagining strange worlds we come to see our own conditions of life in a new and potentially revolutionary perspective (Parrinder, 2000, p.4). Much like the way our subconscious thoughts may materialise as a distorted narrative in a dream, science fiction offers a differing perspective of our own society in which we can see faults and benefits. During this scene, the king’s hostility towards Genly Ai and the foreign planets displays a xenophobic attitude, where they have completely jumped to conclusions and dismissed a partnership that could have greatly benefitted their planet.


In conclusion, through looking at these different science-­‐fiction texts we can see that communication is an integral theme in both of their narratives, one which highlights the importance of our ability to understand each other.




Arrival, 2016. [DVD] Denis Villeneuve, United States: Paramount Pictures.

Heisserer, E. 2015. Arrival (Script). [ONLINE] Available at: http://la-­‐­‐content/uploads/2016/12/arrival.pdf. [Accessed 10 May


Le Guin, U. 1992 (1969). The Left Hand of Darkness. Great Britain: Orbit.

Parrinder, P. 2000. Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia. 1st ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Tilly, C. IGN. 2016. Arrival Review. [ONLINE] Available at:­‐review. [Accessed 10 May