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The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
Ted Chiang
Subterranean Press, 83 pages

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang was born in Port Jefferson, New York. He graduated from Brown University in Providence Rhode Island with a degree in Computer Science. The same year, he attended Clarion. He moved to Seattle to work as a technical writer in the computer industry. With his first 8 stories, he has won the Campbell New Writer Award in 1992, a Nebula Award for "Tower of Babylon" (1990), a second Nebula and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for "Story of Your Life" (1998), a Sidewise Award for "Seventy-Two Letters" (2000), and the Locus Award for "Hell Is the Absence of God" (2001). He lives in Bellevue, Washington.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Stories Of Your Life and Others
SF Site Interview: Ted Chiang

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven H Silver

Ted Chiang's novelette The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is being published by small press Subterranean Press. This is a good thing for Subterranean, but not necessarily for Chiang, since it means that rather than widespread distribution the book will most likely only be found by readers who are already familiar with Chiang's work.

Although Chiang has three Nebulas and a Hugo (as well as numerous more nominations and awards), his limited output means that he has not yet achieved the level of fame his works should have afforded him. He has yet to achieve the name recognition of Harlan Ellison or Ray Bradbury, although his stories are certainly as entertaining, thoughtful, and well crafted as theirs. The problem is that The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is only Chiang's tenth story since he began publishing in 1990.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is an Arabian Nights style story with the merchant, Fuwaad ibn Abbas, relating four interconnected tales to the Caliph in Baghdad. The framing mechanism is that Fuwaad was approached by an alchemist, Bashaarat, who claimed to have a magic door which would permit Fuwaad to visit Baghdad twenty years in the future. Before Bashaarat would allow Fuwaad to make use of the gate, he told the merchant three stories, which Fuwaad also relates to the Caliph.

All three of the stories Fuwaad tells are time travel stories and draw on the traditional tropes of the subgenre. In some cases, the characters get what they want, while in others they fail. However, Chiang's interest is less in their success or failure, and more in the idea that the future is as set as the past. Despite the strong sense of predeterminism that pervades all three of these stories, the style in which they are told and the characters are enjoyable enough to capture the reader's imagination.

Eventually, Fuwaad ibn Abbas turns his attention away from the stories Bashaarat told him and begins his own tale, which turns out to be quite different than any of the previous tales and even more gripping. Fuwaad's reasons for using the Gate appear noble, but as Bashaarat makes clear to him, Fuwaad may only use the Gate through Allah's will, the same reason Bashaarat traveled to Baghdad to make him the offer of the Gate. Fuwaad's story to the Caliph tells not only of his reasons for passing through the Gate, but also what he found there.

In many ways, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is a minimalist novelette. Chiang paints his picture of Baghdad and Cairo with a few flowery phrases. His characters come to life in the same manner. While this wouldn't always work well, in The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate it conveys a sense of time and place quite well. Despite its short length, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate projects itself as a much longer work than it actually is.

With luck, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate will prove mutually beneficial for Chiang and Subterranean Press, calling attention to the press for those who are drawn to the book by Chiang's name. In any event, it is a book that every fan of excellent writing should track down to read. The story appears in the September issue of F&SF.

Copyright © 2007 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a five-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings. He is the publisher of ISFiC Press. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.

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