Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate - Ted Chiang

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is one of the three stories by Ted Chiang I hadn't read yet. The other two are What's Expected of Us, a flash piece published in Nature in 2006, and  his most recent story Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny (2011), which can be found in the anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Missing out on this story was not for lack of trying, but the only paper edition I'm aware of, was published by Subterranean in 2007 and is pretty much unavailable unless you are willing to sacrifice your child's college fund. So a while ago I caved, figured out a way to avoid the region restrictions and got myself the kindle edition. Chiang has published only thirteen stories in since 1990, he likes to take his time and polish them to perfection. This novelette is no exception. I can see why it got him both the Hugo and Nebula.

The story is set in Baghdad and Cairo. Chiang doesn't mention a date but it has the feel of the Abbasid Caliphate at the height of it's power, some time before the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258. It is the story of the fabrics merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas who finds himself at the court of the Caliph to tell his unlikely story. A tale that involves alchemy and time travel.

I must admit I don't particularly like time travels stories. Mainly because they always manage to twist themselves into some kind of strange paradox. Chiang realizes this too and his story is basically built around the premise that it is impossible to change the past. Or as he puts it, we can only get to know it better. According to Wikipedia this story is an example of the Novikov self-consistency principle, a theory proposed in the 1980s by Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov that solves some time travel paradoxes in general relativity. Not sure if that was Chiang's inspiration but given the scientific themes in may of his other stories it would not surprise me at all.

The story doesn't concern itself with science though, but makes its point through three short tales, all told by Abbas. In fact, one could easily read it as a reflection on matters like fate, destiny, and determinism. Compared to many other works by Chiang it is a surprisingly light but sophisticated bit of writing, with some complicated questions hidden in the simple structure of the merchant's storytelling. As usual, the story is very polished. The prose is beautiful and Chiang carefully avoids overdoing the courtly rhetoric. The merchant speaks eloquently but not beyond what one would expect of him.

I don't think this story packs the punch of some of Chiang's other stories but it is very well written. Every time I read one of his stories I wish he was a bit more productive but maybe this kind of storytelling takes a while to be properly transferred to paper. It is amazing how someone can have such a huge influence on the genre. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is a gem and after reading it, I am even more annoyed it to me so long to get hold of a copy. Maybe I should have considered listening to the free online audio version that can be found here.

Book Details
Title: The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
Author: Ted Chiang
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: e-book
ISBN: 978-1-596-06446-1
First published: 2007

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