The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

February 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

gateThe Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang


This was the last story I had to read to finish out everything Chiang has published. It’s a novelette (possibly even a short story; it’s only 60 pages, counting full-page illustrations, and feels shorter than most of the stories in Stories of Your Life and Others), so it only took about twenty minutes to read, but like most of Chiang’s works, it stays with you for much longer.

The story is layered with stories. On the surface, it’s about a merchant telling a story to the caliph about his use of an alchemist’s gate which allows him to travel twenty years into the past. The alchemist in turn tells the merchant three stories of other people who have used the gate, partially to convince him it works, and partially as a cautionary tale. His caution is this: the past is immutable. Even if you go back to interfere with events, the future will play out exactly as it has, as it’s already accounted for your interference.

This idea isn’t new to science fiction (if that’s even what this is; it feels more like a fantasy to me), but Chiang adds a twist to his story not seen in other variations of this idea — that of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. One may not be able to change the past, but one can get a better understanding of it by revisiting it, reanalyzing it, and getting a better perspective on it. It’s similar to the theme he used in The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, but Chiang gives us a new perspective on the idea.

One gets the sense that the narrator is pleading for his life through his story, hearkening back to The Arabian Nights, but we only ever see the story through the narrator’s eyes. It makes me wonder if our narrator is reliable, or if he is only telling an engaging story to spare his own life. Whether or not he will live another day isn’t made clear, but the best stories never give us definitive answers, anyway. They may lead you in one direction or another, but the final call is up to the reader.

This story doesn’t have the same emotional effect as The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, but it’s still a profound read and a well-told tale. The intersecting stories are clever, and the characterization is spot-on. Chiang doesn’t disappoint, and this story is further proof of that fact.


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