The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

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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)

 

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War feels a lot like Halo, with Captain Mandella playing a novice Master Chief against the Covenant looking Prophet less Taurians. For a novel written in 1976 on horrors of Vietnam war with an Interstellar undertone, this hard science fiction feels so surprisingly contemporary and expedient. Or accurately prognostic.

Humanity is at war with Taurians, an alien civilization we know very little about except the fact that they initiated the conflict on the very first contact, attacking Earth’s outpost in farther space. Planet’s elites, the ones with IQ above 150, are soon absorbed by UNEF and then send to Charon for revenge and recon. Many couldn’t survive the rigorous training itself, and a lot more were killed during the first post-hypnotically suggested initial combat, thanks to the alien environments and weaponry. Soldiers travel intergalactically through Collapsor jumps (worm holes), with enigmatic relativistic effects, by the order of centuries back on Earth, making them alien to the world whose very future they’ve been fighting for.

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Sci fi is often metaphorical in nature, and in this novel Haldeman depicts the horrors he experienced in Vietnam war, without recreating it essentially. I don’t think any other linear work directly dealing with the subject of war could have accurately conveyed the essence and remained ageless at the same time. Another book I know which did a similar job, though not essentially similar is Slaughterhouse Five, which portrayed war through a nonchalant non linear life, where everything felt preordained with time travel.

Peter F. Hamilton calls this “damn near perfect” for a novel and I couldn’t agree more. Haldeman’s vision for future covered almost everything in Taurian war, where survival was only by mistake.

  •  Unaccounted combat units either slaughtered or lost or crawling through normal space at near light speed to a Earth, which by their arrival would be centuries ahead.
  • Heavily outsourced job scenario, where most of the countries are promoting homosexuality as a strategy for population control.
  • Temporal lingua franca with which a soldier could communicate with someone contemporary of his/her double digit time grandfather or grand-kid for that matter.
  • Wormholes and collapsor jumps making some one feel like Galileo meeting Einstein or Genghis Khan meeting Mass Effect’s Shepherd in terms of military tech (future shock).

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Couldn’t help but notice the areas Interstellar borrowed from this one, including the final letter between Marygay and Mandella. Even though this was a dystopian military sci-fi novel, it had a pleasant aura around it, and subtle humour, with a very satisfactory ending. Like Hamilton says- “damn near perfect.”

Bones of the Earth by Michael Swanwick

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Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” meets Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”, yup dinosaurs and time travel paradoxes. It was more than enough for picking the book up, though not so much to keep me reading once the lure went off. And for the intro, “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur”, the short it’s based on, is a more fitting read than the novel.

I think Swanwick might have been a huge Jurassic nerd or something, with a lone bullied childhood and stuff. It could explain him creating this group of dinosaur obsessed paleontologists to geek out on extinct species, continent drifts, evolution and the possibility of testing out all hypothesis postulated so far with time travel. Though I was already sold with the plot, majority of the nerd talks had me struggling to get a hold on. Then again I was in constant expectation of something – to have my mind blown, thanks to the terrific short this novel was based on.

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It was annoying to see future people teasing their past heroes for the deeds they are gonna do, or themselves for that matter, like starship crew fangirling the first contact doctor guy in Star Trek. And for a technology this awesome, for no reason whatsoever, Paleontology is the most benefited branch of science, which kind of meddle with causality. With outposts at various time periods and scientists recruited over a span before and after the availability of time travel, this usually patronized research field is at its golden age.

Yet, this book takes time travel seriously, keeping divergent timelines in one common reality, for which I give my eternal respect. And for a book on dinosaurs and time travel, it managed to stay pretty mature with two story lines – a group of future scientists stuck in Mesozoic age and another group far in future to meet the Unchangings.

It also provides the best available interpretations for readers to ponder on things like why aren’t ears evolved in dinosaurs, how grass changed the laws of evolution, or is an extinction aftermath better than survival of fittest for species diversity. Story goes sloppy and frustrating at many points with forgettable characters and non uniform pace, where author conveniently swerves off the questions readers are left with. But it does do depict one thing accurate – publishing driven current scientific community. Other than that, in terms of expectations, this book moves into the realm of might-have-beens.

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I admit to googling Cthuluraptor for some weird results and ending up re-watching Kung Fury for Laseraptors. And now I am left with absolutely non show off-able intricate informations such as difference between ranching and domesticating, cold blooded-warm blooded animal distinctions and their likes.Who knows, some of these infamous infos might be a better pick up line than pac-man, in some future timeline.

So bottom line, hell- yeah for Scherzo for Tyrannosaurus and an usual yeah for Bones of the Earth.