Review: The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
Ted Chiang
Subterranean Press, 2007

A frame narrative in the tradition of One Thousand and One Nights, Ted Chiang’s Hugo and Nebula Award winning novelette The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is narrated by the prosperous fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas, who, while searching through the markets of Baghdad for a gift for a business associate, stumbles upon a shop of curious instruments and ingenious mechanical devices.

The shop is owned by the alchemist Bashaarat, who introduces Fuwaad to his most prized invention: a great gate of polished black metal that allows an individual to step twenty years into the future. The bulk of Chiang’s novelette is a series of stories told by the alchemist concerning past clients who have used the gate to visit their own future selves. Eventually, the narrative reveals that the alchemist owns a second gate in Cairo that allows one to journey not only into the future, but also twenty years into the past. The novelette’s final tale concerns Fuwaad’s own journey through the gate in an attempt to correct a past mistake.

Chiang’s sixty-page work is a quick read, written in an uncomplicated prose that adopts something of period style, but without seeming artificial or forced. The straightforward writing, however, belies some rather heady ideas: Although the characters couch their discussion in culturally appropriate concepts—specifically, ideas of fate and divine providence—the novelette explores in some depth the potential paradoxes of time travel, as well as, in a sense more relevant to those of us who lack a time-travel device, the difficulties of living with an immutable past. Those who enjoy mulling over philosophical brain teasers may well want to read this book more than once.

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