THE MERCHANT AND THE ALCHEMIST'S GATE
by Ted Chiang
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Ted Chiang is not nearly well enough known as a science fiction and fantasy writer. He has previously only published eight short stories (all collected in his book Stories of Your Life & Others), and unfortunately, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate won't do much to make his reputation spread wider. It isn't that he doesn't write interesting stories (he does), or that his work hasn't been acknowledged (he has a Hugo and three Nebulas, and many more nominations), but rather that being published by a small press, even one as prestigious as Subterranean, limits the exposure and circulation of this excellent story.
Fuwaad ibn Abbas is a merchant, apparently fallen upon hard times, who finds himself face to face with the Caliph in Baghdad. In a move which seems reminiscent of the Arabian Nights, Fuwaad begins to tell the Caliph a strange story of Bashaarat, an alchemist with a most peculiar door. Bashaarat offered Fuwaad the opportunity to pass through the gate and see the world of the future. Before Fuwaad could accept, however, Bashaarat told him three stories of people who had used the gate in the past. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate tells the story not only of Fuwaad ibn Abbas, but also his predecessors through the gate, Hassan al-Hubbaul, Ajib ibn Taher, and Raniya.
Each of the stories Fuwaad ibn Abbas tells the Caliph are different in the protagonists' intentions and the results of their work. Underlying all of them is a sense of predeterminism, as all that can be done is the will of Allah. Furthermore, Bashaarat has a certain amount of knowledge of the actions and results all of his clients' activities will have in the cases when they have traveled into the past. However, the immutability of history (or the future, which is only the past for a more distant future), is not Chiang's main focus, which is summed up in Fuwaad's own lesson, revealed at the end of the story.
The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is short, but Chiang packs enough characterization and setting into this work to make it feel like a much longer story. The setting, in Cairo and Baghdad at an indeterminate, but unimportant time, is mostly created by the language used by Chiang's narrator. The characters of the time travelers and their patron are sketched quickly, but fully. The reader immediately finds things to like in Hassan and quickly sees the Ajib is going to have a very different story. Such is the immersion quality of this work that when it ends, the reader's major complaint is only the brevity of the work.
If there is justice in the world, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate should continue Chiang's long string of major award nominations. Even if it doesn't manage to achieve the widespread readership which will result in a nomination, it is very much worth tracking down a copy to read. In the past, Chiang has demonstrated himself to be a virtuoso at the short story, and The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate further cements his place in the pantheon of short story authors along with Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and O. Henry.
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