A human envoy from a collection of planets known as the Ekumen, Genly Ai arrives on a planet known as “Winter.” This other world is mostly glacier, with a thin strip of habitable land which several nations share uneasily but peacefully. The people of Winter vacillate between genders, living most of the time as neither man nor woman, but regularly and briefly changing into one or the other to partner. The envoy’s solitary mission is to welcome them to the Ekumen, but to do so he must first find welcome himself. In her world-building, Le Guin asks us to expand what it means to be human; in Genly’s story, we can only assent.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, a terran named Genly Ai travels as envoy to the planet Gethen, known as “Winter” for its ice age climate. There, he visits one of the Fastnesses, where a reclusive people practice foretelling. He asks a question, and is answered, and later talks with Faxe, the weaver of the foretellers, about the experience:
“You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”
“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong questions.”
I pondered that a good while, as we walked side by side in the rain, under the dark branches of the Forest of Otherhord. Within the white hood, Faxe’s face was tired and quiet, its light quenched. Yet he still awed me a little. When he looked at me with his queer, kind, candid eyes, he looked at me out of a tradition thirteen thousand years old: a way of thought and a way of life so old, so well established, so integral and coherent as to give a human being the unself-consciousness, the authority, the completeness of a wild animal, a great strange creature who looks straight at you out of his eternal present....
“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. If it were proven that there is no God, there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion....Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”
“That we shall die.”
“Yes. There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer....The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”Le Guin, The Lefthand of Darkness, page 70