Apr 27 2015

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

This novelette won the Hugo in 2007. I picked it up as a standalone e-book that was part of the Humble Bundle mentioned here, and it’s the first work I’ve read by Ted Chiang. It won’t be the last!

The story as a whole is broken into several parts, which nest and braid together in a way that isn’t obvious from the beginning. The first part is also called The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, and starts with a scene from The 1001 Nights, with the first-person addressing the “mighty Caliph and Commander of the Faithful” and promising that “were the entirety to be tattooed at the corner of one’s eye, the marvel of its presentation would not exceed that of the events recounted.”

The narrator is a merchant named Fuwaad ibn Abbas, and he was born where he is addressing the Caliph, “Baghdad, City of Peace.” (There was some irony in that appellation, four years after the American invasion of Iraq. The Assassins’ Gate, a widely read book about the invasion, was published two years before Chiang’s novelette.) Fuwaad is prosperous, trading in fine fabrics, though his father was a grain merchant. The story that he recounts to the Caliph begins with a walk through the market, where he notices that “one of the largest shops in the market had been taken over by a new merchant. It was a prized location that must have been expensive to acquire, so I entered to peruse its wares.” It is filled with wonders, the like of which Fuwaad has never seen before.

Hitherby spoilers.

It’s a magical store, of course, or at the very least a shop run by a learned person with access to the products of a great many cunning artificers. The store’s owner introduces himself as Bashaarat (the name may mean “good news”), and he appears to have unlimited time available for Fuwaad. After lengthy discourse on astrology, mathematics, geomancy, and medicine, conversation turns to alchemy (nuclear technology?). Fuwaad is skeptical:

“Alchemy?” I said. This surprised me, for he did not seem the type to make such a sharper’s claim. “You mean you can turn base metal into gold?”
“I can, my lord, but that is not in fact what most seek from alchemy.”
“What do most seek, then?”
“They seek a source of gold that is cheaper than mining ore from the ground. Alchemy does describe a means to make gold, but the procedure is so arduous that, by comparison, digging beneath a mountain is as easy as plucking peaches from a tree.” (p. 12)

When Fuwaad again expresses his skepticism, Bashaarat offers to show him something no one else has seen before. Fuwaad agrees, and Bashaarat leads him deeper in through “a workshop, arrayed with devices whose functions I could not guess—bars of metal wrapped with enough copper thread to reach the horizon, mirrors mounted on a circular slab of granite floating in quicksilver” (centrifuges? laser ignition devices?) The device in the merchant’s shop is a time-travel loop, in which a hand placed through the loop in one direction does not emerge from the other until some seconds later. Fuwaad is amazed. But wait, there’s more, adds Bashaarat.

He bade me follow him into another room, further in the back. There stood a circular doorway whose massive frame was made of the same polished black metal, mounted in the middle of the room.
“What I showed you before was a Gate of Seconds,” he said. “This is a Gate of Years. The two sides of the doorway are separated by a span of twenty years.” (p. 19)

Stepping through the Gate of Years moves the stepper twenty years forward of backwards in time.

Hearing Bashaarat’s words, I felt as if I were reeling. “You have done this?” I asked him. “You have stepped through?”
“I have, and so have numerous customers of mine.”
“Earlier you said I was the first to whom you showed this.”
“This Gate, yes. But for many years I owned a shop in Cairo, and it was there that I first built a Gate of Years. There were many to whom I showed that Gate, and who made use of it.”
“What did they learn when talking to their older selves?”
“Each person learns something different. If you wish, I can tell you the story of one such person.” Bashaarat proceeded to tell me such a story, and if it pleases Your Majesty, I will recount it here. (p. 20)

So the nesting of narrative continues, as Fuwaad recounts to the sultan the story that Bashaarat told him, “The Tale of the Fortunate Rope Maker.” In it, a young rope maker gains contact with his older self, a man who has prospered greatly in the course of time. The younger version listens to the older, gaining many tips on staying alive amid accident and disease, living to an old age in wealth and comfort.

After the tale, Fuwaad, who is considering using the Gate, talks with Bashaarat about the nature of time and choice. Bashaarat says,

“Using the Gate is not like drawing lots, where the token you select varies with each turn. Rather, using the Gate is like taking a secret passageway in a palace, one that lets you enter a room more quickly than by walking down the hallway. The room remains the same, no matter which door you use to enter.”
This surprised me. “The future is fixed, then? As unchangeable as the past?”
“It is said that repentance and atonement erase the past.” (pp. 33–34)

Bashaarat then offers another story, “The Tale of the Weaver Who Stole From Himself” (stovepiped intelligence?). That is precisely what happens, though the weaver finds that neither his present nor future selves gain much from the theft. Another twist of the braid, and Bashaarat tells “The Tale of the Wife and Her Lover.” The weaver’s wife hops back and forth through the Gate of Years more than any other character, conspiring with herself and running roughshod on anyone else’s notion of causality.

At the conclusion of that tale, Fuwaad asks to visit his own past. Bashaarat regrets that he cannot honor the request, as the Gate in Baghdad has just been completed. The other tales came from his shop in Cairo, where there had been a Gate for many years. Fuwaad does not tell Bashaarat why he wishes to visit the past, though he does tell the sultan. In short, it is to extract some hope from a lost situation (peace?).

I knew it was foolhardy; men of experience say, “Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity,” and I understood the truth of those words better than most. And yet I dared to hope that Allah had judged my twenty years of repentance sufficient, and was now granting me a chance to regain what I had lost. (p. 71)

Fuwaad journeys to Cairo. His aim is to travel through time in Cairo, visit Baghdad on his personal errand, and then return to Cairo to make it back through the Gate. Younger Bashaarat, when Fuwaad finds him, is as enigmatic as his older self.

Bashaarat smiled. “Coincidence and intention are two sides of a tapestry, my lord. You may find one more agreeable to look at, but you cannot say one is true and the other is false.” (p. 75)

When, after numerous trials in the desert, Fuwaad arrives in Baghdad, he finds he cannot change what he hoped to rectify. And yet:

All the while I thought on the truth of Bashaarat’s words: past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons. (p. 81)

What now?

I know many things that will happen here in Baghdad over the next twenty years …
Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough. (p. 84)

A time travel story; a set of parables; a meditation on regret and happiness, on wisdom and change; and, quite possibly, an oblique commentary on desiring to enter Baghdad and change everything; the braided narrative of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate contains all of these.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2015/04/27/the-merchant-and-the-alchemists-gate-by-ted-chiang/

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