The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

Read December 2015
Recommended for fans Baghdad bazaars, time travel
 ★    ★    ★    ★    ★  

he Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is made up of four intricately woven stories: the titular story, “The Tale of the Fortunate Rope-Maker,” “The Tale of the Weaver Who Stole from Himself,” and “The Tale of the Wife and Her Lover.” As Fuwaad the fabric merchant wanders the bazaar of Baghdad, he discovers a new merchant with a marvelous assortment of goods. Perhaps impulsively, the merchant Bashaarat decides to show the him one of his more unusual alchemical experiments, a hoop whose sides are separated by time:

“Using the Gate is like taking a secret passageway in a palace, one that lets you enter a room more quickly than by walking down the hallway. The room remains the same, no matter which door you use to enter.’
This surprised me. ‘The future is fixed, then? As unchangeable as the past?’
‘It is said that repentance and atonement erase the past.'”

Bashaarat shares the stories of a few of the users of the Gate and how they attempted to influence their lives. Unsurprisingly, the stories reflect both fulfilling and unsatisfying ways the Gate may be used. Plotting is intricate and occasionally mind-bending in a timeless atmosphere of Baghdad and Cario. Language is evocative. Winner of both a Hugo and a Nebula, it is the kind of tale develops more that it is re-read.


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6 Responses to The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

  1. neotiamat says:

    I’m reasonably sure that no author has as lopsided an awards-to-publications ratio as Ted Chiang. He’s written fifteen short stories since he started writing in 1990, and yet he’s won four Hugos, four Nebulas, four Locus awards, and a Campbell.

    Part of me deeply wishes he’d tackle something more classic — write a novel, basically. But I suspect that particular Ted Chiang magic wouldn’t survive the transition. Thinking back to the stories of his I read, his focus is on developing to the utmost a very creative story conceit (these gates, the tower in the Tower of Babylon, the hyper-intelligence in Understand), and then layering on period detail (something this story, with its Arabian Nights stylings, shows well). He doesn’t, however, tend to have complex plot or characterization in the conventional way of things, and the short story format allows him to skip them in a way that a novel probably wouldn’t. Pity, really.

    • thebookgator says:

      Funny, you are spot on in your characterization. I didn’t realize until I looked him up how short his bibliography was compared to awards. I suspect he has found his perfect form, and while he may have one or two excellent novels in him, I don’t mind him sticking with what works. It reminds me a little of Zelanzy–I really love his shorts far more than his longer works, perhaps for similar reasons in creative ideas.

      • neotiamat says:

        Intellectually, I agree that if it works for Chiang, all good! It’s just a tiny part of me weeps at the idea of one of the most creative authors of the generation spending most of his day as a tech writer in Seattle.

  2. thebookgator says:

    Oh, no, really? Still working as a tech writer with all those credentials. Sigh. Well, whatever it takes to fuel the life. Kameron Hurley still works as a copywriter (I think) and has a number of interesting posts about the financials around writing.

  3. gehmeyr says:

    Happy coincidence: This is next story I’m going to read in my Ted Chiang journey.

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