The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate – Ted Chiang

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Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a fabric merchant, tells this story to the Caliph of Baghdad, perhaps in the classic “Arabian Nights” period of the Caliphate, as “a warning to those who would be warned and a lesson to those who would learn.”

On entering a metalsmith’s shop, he finds many intricate devices and “ingenious mechanisms.” The experiments in alchemy of Bashaarat, the owner, possibly include electromagnetism, but most remarkable is his ability to find and expand tiny “wormholes” in reality, fixing them in metal hoops. One side of these openings precedes the other by a set interval of time. The largest is a Gate of Years, spanning two decades. Bashaarat had for many years such a gate in Cairo; each who used the gate learned something different, as Bashaarat, in stories within the main story, relates.

Ted Chiang’s purpose in this brief book—actually a novelette or long short story (also to be published in the September issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction)—is explicitly didactic, and ends in a sort of moral. Its fabular nature, its marvels, and the use of stories within a story recall The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night (originally 9th c.; Richard Burton translation, 1885), which perhaps influenced the story’s setting. The explicit, if gentle, didacticism and the tone also recall Indries Shah’s instructive Sufi tales, both with and without the humorous Nasruddin. Despite Chiang’s manner and the “exotic” setting, however, he is not far afield here from the themes of much of his earlier work, especially his best-known piece, “Story of Your Life.”

From Bashaarat’s tales, and Abbas’s own story, we learn that some who use the Gate benefit, some don’t; some learn lessons happily, some only at great cost. Along the way, we encounter temporal paradoxes, as when a rope-maker, Hassan, finds out from his older self where to find a treasure that makes his fortune. Once aged, he informs the younger one of the treasure, based on what he was told. But what was the information’s original provenance? Here we get a whiff of Heinlein’s 1959 story “All You Zombies—”

A story within a story (within a story) tells of Hassan’s wife, Raniya, who in using the Gate discovers truths about her husband’s past he himself does not know, and thereby contributes much to their (future) happiness. But Ajib, a weaver inspired by Hassan’s wealth, uses the Gate in a way that results in near-catastrophe and sours the rest of his life. Ajib’s story is the least compelling. His misfortune seems too arbitrary, and his inability to avoid it, despite all the talk of fate, not quite convincing.

This is the third time Chiang has dealt with the essential problems of fate, determinism, and free will. His darkest view of the subject comes in a short-short published in Nature, “What’s Expected of Us,” positing a device that, by undeniably demonstrating our lack of free will, leaves a third of its users in a waking coma. In The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate, as in “Story of Your Life,” (1998 in Starlight Two; collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) he presents us with a more gentle, nuanced fatalism—fatalism from the inside, fatalism understood.

In Merchant, things happen according to the will of Allah, and being able to move through time changes events not at all. As Bashaarat says: “…you cannot avoid the ordeals that are assigned to you. What Allah gives you, you must accept” (p. 65).

But Abbas, suffering remorse for twenty years because his last words with his wife, before her accidental death, were harsh, can realize this only after struggling against it. As in Raniya’s tale, it is not, finally, a change in events—which is impossible—that brings solace and a kind of redemption, but what he learns about the past.

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