The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is an elegant time travel story by one of my all-time favorite science fiction writers, Ted Chiang. I think it’s really hard to write an internally consistent time travel story (i.e., one in which you can’t change your future) which also (1) is surprising, and (2) doesn’t feel contrived. The problem with most such stories is that you know ahead of time what the destination has to be, so all of the events which inexorably push things towards that destination often feel contrived, like you can see that the author made them happen for the purposes of the narrative. Which is a deathblow to fiction. By contrast, the events in Chiang’s stories don’t feel forced, even as they preserve temporal consistency.

I also appreciate that it lacks the moralizing tone that a lot of time travel stories have. In so many stories, there’s this distasteful undercurrent of, “You were arrogant enough to think you could escape your fate? Well, joke’s on you. You’re just as screwed as you were before (or worse).” Chiang’s stories don’t punish the characters for experimenting with time.

And the nested story structure is lovely — a nice nod to Scheherazade and the Thousand and One Nights.

2 Responses to The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

  1. Kevin says:

    I enjoyed that story quite a bit. Very well crafted, with fun veiled references and twists. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Julia Galef says:

    Glad to hear it, Kevin! Everything else I’ve read in Chiang’s (frustratingly small) oeuvre so far has been wonderful as well.

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