The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

the merchant and alchemists gate

Like Old Joseph from Book of Genesis, Fuwaad Ibn Abbas is pleading innocence before Caliph explaining the strange turn of events that resulted in his current predicament. Fuwaad‘s narrative forms the periphery of this novelette, and is centripetally enhanced by three separate stories, whose subtle concatenations are enough to capture readers attention till last page. And it involves time travel and alchemy.

There are two streams that are generally favoured in time travel stories – one where the changes in timeline are retroactive(Heinlein’s By his Bootstraps or Predestination), and the one where they are cumulative(Gerrold’s Man who Folded Himself, or the movie Singularity or Steins Gate). Also there is a third one that does everything the plot demands to, like King’s 11.22.63. Chiang has crafted his tale around the first philosophy, where excising oneself in the past could have implications in future of same timeline, rather than creating another stream of altered reality. I absolutely adored the little details behind working of Gate, and his for-dummies explanation of the same. By keeping the clause of no-past-beyond-manufacturing-date, Chiang was aligning ancient alchemy of his story with Ronald Mallett‘s modern scientific argument, without losing the archaic feeling of former.

There was this translated story vibe around it, like it originally belonged to a foreign folk lore , enriched by centuries of oral tradition. And I loved that. Not to mention the nostalgic Arabian Nights atmosphere the premise invoked. The crux of the story by its ending, felt in close agreement with the ideas of Chiang’s other shorts; particularly What’s Expected of Us: free will might be an illusion and Story of Your Life: the past, future and present are happening now or has happened already no matter the choices you make. Also, Bashaarat‘s shop was a medieval middle eastern Way Station (Clifford Simak) If you squint your eyes into past and look closely.

The time travel plot and story inside a story frameworks were nothing new, but the whole experience stands out, if you can ignore the little preachiness.

“Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.”


I found a free pdf copy of the story over net in this link.

This Hugo and Nebula winner was originally published in 2007 by Subterranean Press and reprinted in the September 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (source: wiki)



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