The fact that ‘Ai’ and ‘eye’ are homophones is no coincidence. Genly Ai functions as the ‘eyes’ of the Ekumen, observing the Gethenians. Furthermore, although Ai states that ‘The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone’, he has selected all of the elements of the novel – it is ultimately experienced through his eyes.
Of course, ‘Ai’ also sounds like the word ‘I’. The novel is a personal tale of Ai’s life-altering experiences on Gethen. His own self-image changes during his travels with Estraven, to the extent that his Ekumen colleagues appear like ‘a troupe of great, strange animals’ in comparison to gender-neutral Gethenians.
Many Gethenians deny Genly Ai’s status. He encounters scepticism about the existence of worlds beyond Gethen and is labelled a liar and a ‘pervert’ due to his physiognomy. Ai’s name (‘I’) functions as a protest that he should be considered equal and capable of independent opinion.
However, no Gethenian makes this linguistic connection. When Estraven initially enquires about Ai’s name he perceives the sound differently. He hears in the answer ‘a cry of pain from a human throat across the night’, illustrating instead his own fear of the alien ‘other’.
The reason is not just that Gethen is isolated. Karhide and Orgoreyn are locked in a cold war, without contact, struggling for domination without war. In the same way that Gethen sees itself as alone in the galaxy, both realms refuse to cooperate with each other. As far as each is concerned, they alone are ‘I’, holding out against the ‘other’.
In short, Genly Ai’s name acknowledges that he is a reader surrogate, but also serves a narrative purpose, highlighting the conflict with characters that he encounters.
Submitted to Coursera as essay 09 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 3