Short Story Review: “Mountain Ways” by Ursula K. Le Guin

(Cover by Fred Gambino. Asimov’s, August 1996.)

Who Goes There?

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most lauded SFF writers of the 20th century, by far; it’s not even close. She made her genre debut in 1962, already in her thirties, and while she was a bit slow to start she managed to kick off both of her most famous series by the end of that decade: Earthsea and the Hainish cycle. (I remember some people in middle school reading A Wizard of Earthsea, but I didn’t read it myself until years later.) From the ’60s until her death in 2018, Le Guin was not only crowned as one of the field’s great storytellers but as one of its very few sagely figures; there’s a Twitter bot that posts nuggets of Le Guin’s wisdom daily. Of course, it can be a bit stifling to have to contend with someone who apparently never said or did anything wrong—who is treated by many as a saint. The result is someone who is most fascinating (in my opinion) when she is dealing with human faults and the inherent conflict of sentient existence; she is not, as it were, something to packed inside a fortune cookie or an automated Twitter account.

What’s really impressive about Le Guin is her versatility. Aside from being equally comfortable with SF and fantasy writing, there are also few authors (anywhere, not just in the field) who wear as many hats as Le Guin does. There’s Le Guin the sociologist, Le Guin the feminist, Le Guin the Taoist, Le Guin the anarchist, Le Guin the pacifist, Le Guin the teller of tall tales, and often these hats are not mutually exclusive. Much as I love guys like Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein, they very much have formulas (or in Heinlein’s case fetishes), whereas Le Guin is harder to pin down, and even when she was in the fourth decade of her career she was still, as Joseph Conrad would put it, “striking out for a new destiny.” Today’s short story, “Mountain Ways,” is part of the Hainish cycle, a grand continuity Le Guin had abandoned midway into the ’70s but then returned to in the ’90s. It’s late Le Guin, but that’s not a mark against it!

Now, a brief rant…

“Mountain Ways” won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which is now called the Otherwise Award. The James Tiptree, Jr. Award is bestowed upon SFF which explores gender; it’s a reference to the fact that Tiptree was a pseudonym for a woman, Alice Sheldon, but it also makes sense since much of “Tiptree’s” writing is concerned with gender relations and women’s precarious status in a world where men almost without exception hold the most power. Recently the award’s name was changed, on account of the contentious circumstances surrounding Sheldon’s death. This was really fucking stupid. This is not the same as, say, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer being renamed the Astounding Award; I don’t entirely agree with the rationale behind that award being renamed, but I can at least sympathize with the people calling for that change. The story behind Tiptree is too complicated for me to recount here (I’ll cover her more in-depth later, don’t worry), but I just think that, regardless of how well-intentioned the change was, erasing Tiptree’s achievements like this was monstrously stupid, even in bad taste. It should be corrected as soon as possible.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the August 1996 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. If that’s not good enough then just know it was reprinted online FOR FREE in the March 2014 issue of Clarkesworld, so you have no excuse! We have a few book reprints of interest, including the Le Guin collection The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, along with the Library of America box set containing the entire Hainish cycle. Le Guin is one of the few SFF authors to get LOA editions, although weirdly they have not collected the Earthsea series. There’s also the anthology The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, edited by Alex Dally MacFarlane, which might still be in print? I’m not sure. With this story the reprints are a matter of quality over quantity; it’s hard to go wrong with the options.

Enhancing Image

We get an author’s note from Le Guin at the very beginning, detailing the most unusual aspect of human culture on the planet O: its version of polygamy. I say “version of” because while polygamy is the norm on O, its setup is both convoluted and conservative. You have four people, two mena dn two women, who each come from different clans; you have a Morning man and a Morning woman, as well as an Evening man and an Evening woman. The Morning man is allowed, within the marriage, to have sex with the Evening man and the Evening woman (homosexuality is not taboo here, but as we’ll see there are other problems), BUT he is prohibited from having sex with the Morning woman. While it does involve four people, the plural marriage typical of O is effectively four pairings mingled together with certain arbitrary restrictions.

The main characters of “Mountain Ways” are a Morning woman and an Evening woman, named Shahes and Akal respectively. Shahes is the daughter of a marriage that sadly is now half-empty, since the Evening partners died in an accident, leaving the Morning partners “widowed” despite the fact that they still have each other. The setting, in broad strokes, will strike some readers as familiar, since it is mountainous farmland, not unlike rural Switzerland or the landscape of Alberta, Canada. Also not unlike the rural Swiss, the people of these mountains are a conservative lot, with their strict adherence to their version of polygamy being a fine example of Le Guin subverting our expectations at the outset. In the real world, the traditionalists are always the ones crying for strict monogamy, with even groups with histories of polygamy like the Mormons now being staunch monogamists (just reminding myself to chew out Orson Scott Card when I inevitably review something of his), but here it’s quite the opposite.

The people up there in the mountains are civilized but not very civilized. Like most ki’O they pride themselves on doing things the way they’ve always been done, but in fact they are a willful, stubborn lot who change the rules to suit themselves and then say the people “down there” don’t know the rules, don’t honor the old ways, the true ki’O ways, the mountain ways.

Akal, who goes at first by the religous name of Enno, comes to Shahes’s place as a farm hand, and a pretty able one; she’s taller than the average woman, and while her occupation has been as a religious scholar, she has not exactly lived a pampered life. It takes all of about five minutes for Shahes and Akal to fall in love—and by that I mean they start fucking at the first opportunity. Their love affair is a fast and furious one, and it doesn’t take long for them to pledge their whole selves to each other and all that, except there’s one problem that faces them: they can’t get married. Sure, as Morning and Evening women they could love each other to their hearts’ content within a group marriage, but that would require two extra people. In the area there is one viable (by that we mean desirable) Morning man, named Otorra, but even if he were to say yes that still left the problem of an Evening man.


Shahes suggests that Akal go away for some months and returns disguised as an Evening man; she thinks it’s positive because Akal, who already has a masculine physique, could pass off as a man, and also because people in the area know Akal by her religious name, not her true name. What would happen then if that Shahes would ask Temly, a woman she likes enough and with whom she’s had intimate relations before, to become the Evening woman in the marriage while Akal becomes the Evening “man.”

Akal stared through the dark at Shahes, speechless. Finally she said, “What you’re proposing is that I go away now and come back after half a year dressed as a man. And marry you and Temly and a man I never met. And live here the rest of my life pretending to be a man. And nobody is going to guess who I am or see through it or object to it. Least of all my husband.”

“He doesn’t matter.”

“Yes he does,” said Akal. “It’s wicked and unfair. It would desecrate the marriage sacrament. And anyway it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t fool everybody! Certainly not for the rest of my life!”

“What other way have we to marry?”

“Find an Evening husband—somewhere—”

“But I want you! I want you for my husband and my wife. I don’t want any man, ever. I want you, only you till the end of life, and nobody between us, and nobody to part us. Akal, think, think about it, maybe it’s against religion, but who does it hurt? Why is it unfair? Temly likes men, and she’ll have Otorra. He’ll have her, and Danro. And Danro will have their children. And I will have you, I’ll have you forever and ever, my soul, my life and soul.”

Aside from the fact that there’s no fucking way this plan would work, it’s still an effective subversion of the typical “marriage plot” narriage; you have two people who basically want to be monogamous with each other but can’t due to the staunch polygamy of their culture. Rather than a couple of cheaters plotting to cut out a third wheel so they can be together, Shahes and Akal plot to recruit a couple people. But like I said, this plot is doomed to fail. For one thing (and mind you, Akal is aware of this), you would not be able to fool somebody like this for decades on end; you probably couldn’t even away with it for a month. We’re also not given much detail as to how Akal intends to pass as a man, but if dressing up different really is all she does, then the whole thing is doomed, no question.

There is one thing that popped into my head, and I’m not sure if this was by design or if it was simply an oversight on Le Guin’s part: What if Akal was transgender? Or rather, what if Akal passed as a trans man? How does this culture deal with genderqueer people? It’d be safe to bet that given their conservatism they’d want nothing to do with genderqueer people, but also remember that homosexuality is a non-issue for the people of O. My assumption is that Le Guin didn’t consider this, not that it’s her fault really, but still the conflict would remain if Akal were to fake her gender in this way; if anything it’d be more plausible if she said she was a trans man and fooled Otorra and Temly, but still faced internal conflict because she felt guilty over not being true to herself. The biggest argument against such an alteration to the narrative is that it could possibly come off as transphobic (you know, person lies about their gender to fool others), but you could already make that argument with the story as is.

The words “straight,” “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” never get used in “Mountain Ways,” which I actually like since jargon changes over time and refraining from using such terminology helps the story feel a bit more timeless. On O, biseuxality is presumed to be the norm, but part of the conflict comes from the fact that Shahes is strongly drawn to Akal (to the point of irresponsibility) and Akal is all but said to be a lesbian, although her terrible experience with a former male partner is implied to factor into that. This is by means the first time Le Guin has played with gender (see perhaps her most famous novel, The Left Hand of Darkness), but she’s clearly still playing with tools she had not touched before, combining the conundrum of gender with rigid societal norms. O is not a dystopia, but its culture is shown here to not be very inclusive.

Of course it’s not just a conservative culture that fans the plot: things probably wouldn’t be too bad if Shahes and Akal kept their libidos in their pants long enough to agree that maybe it’d be better if they kept their relationship on the down-low. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it’d be a lot better than to trick a couple people into a joining a marriage, and Akal knows this, being a scholar and considerably more morally upright than Shahes. Like I said, the central internal conflict is Akal feeling bad that she has to lie to herself and other people like this, and correctly she thinks it would be wrong to their other partners to treat them this way. Not immediately apparent, but Shahes is at best a decent person who lets her passion compel her to do some shitty things, and more likely is a manipulative person who all but coerces Akal into going along with what she sees as the only “correct” option. Shahes is not evil (rarely does Le Guin write “evil” characters), but her insistence on doing wrong in the name of true love naturally leads to tragedy.

There Be Spoilers Here

The biggest problem with the scheme is that since Akal is now the Evening “man” and Otorra is the Morning man, they’re expected to have sexual relations, which means Akal will be outed. Conveniently, it turns out that Otorra is straight! Like Akal he also had a bad experience with a male partner in the past, although it’s not clear if he had already thought of himself as straight or if the bad experience put him off of same-sex relations. It’s also not clear if the scene where Otorra confesses his orientation is also the point where he gathers that Akal is actually a woman, but a later conversation implies this is the case. Both Otorra and Temly, at different points, figure out Akal’s true nature, although curiously they don’t make a scene about it and they don’t tell Shahes anything. Indeed Shahes is the last person to be informed that the scheme had failed, which leads to the climax and the story’s most dramatic scene—and also its weakest.

If I had one major qualm with “Mountain Ways” it would be the ending, or rather the fact that there isn’t one. There just isn’t an ending. Like yeah it technically exists, the story does come to a close, but it’s so abrupt and inconclusive that I actually thought there had been a misprint and the story was cut off prematurely. Unfortunately no. The implication I think we’re supposed to get is that Shahes plots to kill… Otorra? Temly? Akal? All of them somehow? But literally nothing comes of it; the story ends without resolution. It’s also weird because up to this point the narration has been third-person, yes, but it’s also been more or less anchored in Akal’s perspective. Suddenly the perspective changes to Shahes’s in the very last page and her growing jealousy and insecurity have apparently reached a boiling point, overhearing the others laughing at Akal being found out.

I can’t believe the plan that was obviously never going to work unraveled in a matter of weeks. I’m not even sure how Otorra and Temly feel about Akal being a woman; they say they had figured out what she was, but we get nothing as to what they intend to do about the fact that the Evening man is an Evening woman. Partly this has to do with Otorra and Temply (especially Temly, she gets next to nothing to do here) being underdeveloped, but I also see this as a case where ambiguity doesn’t actually add anything.

You could probably come up with a defense for the ending, but I have to admit I can’t add it up on either an emotional or intellectual level. It’s unsatisfying on a gut level but it also feels like Le Guin legitimately couldn’t come up with a reaction worth anything for when Akal is inevitably found out. Not that I want to see Shahes stick a knife in one of her partners; quite the contrary, I was hoping Le Guin would refrain from such a option altogether. It’s just so cliched for a love triangle (or in this case a love square) to end in violence, and it’s especially beneath “Mountain Ways” since so much thought was put into O’s customs and norms.

I guess it’s also frustrating that this all wasn’t told from Shahes’s perspective, since her journey from heroine to anti-heroine to villainess (it’s very hard to sympathize with her by the end) feels choppy and somewhat implausible as is. This perspective issue, combined with the lack of a real ending, leads me to think “Mountain Ways” could’ve used one more rewrite, so that maybe it could be ranked among the best of Le Guin’s short fiction.

A Step Farther Out

“Mountain Ways” sees Le Guin in full-on sociologist mode, but it’s also justified in its Tiptree Award win as an examination of gender in the midst of a culture that’s too stuck in its ways to handle such a topic properly. The people of O are strict polygamists, and their adherence to plural marriage is clearly meant to parallel real-life heteronormative crusaders who die on the hill of “traditional marriage.” It’s not perfect. It could’ve been longer, not only to give us a proper conclusion but also to flesh out the charactrs, half of whom existence as little more than plot devices. Is it anti-polygamy? Of course not, and it’s not transphobic either. Le Guin, as she often does, argues that tradition for its own sake is a bad thing, and that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all relationship model. Shahes and Akal would be happy together if they were allowed to just marry each other, but they weren’t and the outcome was a tragic one. How tragic, and in what way exactly? You’ll just have to read it for yourself.

See you next time.

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