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The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang

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“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” is a short story by Ted Chiang that has been nominated for the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It is about a fabric merchant in ancient Baghdad who discovers a time portal.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:
Ishtar Gate Fuwaad ibn Abbas, long time resident of the City of Peace, is searching for a gift to give a business associate when he discovers a new shop that contains a wide variety of interesting items for sale. After discussing the origin of the items, the shop owner takes Fuwaad into the back workshop to show him his latest discovery in the field of alchemy – a gateway through which one can travel into the future. Fuwaad, obviously intrigued, is regaled with stories of others who have passed through the gate to converse with their future selves. Wiser and more desperate than the people in the stories, Fuwaad comes up with a proposition that he hopes will redeem his soul.

Bashaarat looked at me and considered. “I have recently built something that may change your opinion. You would be the first person I have shown it to. Would you care to see it?”

“It would be a great pleasure.”

“Please follow me.” He led me through the doorway in the rear of his shop. The next room was 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—but Bashaarat walked past these without a glance.

Instead he led me to a sturdy pedestal, chest high, on which a stout metal hoop was mounted upright. The hoop’s opening was as wide as two outstretched hands, and its rim so thick that it would tax the strongest man to carry. The metal was black as night, but polished to such smoothness that, had it been a different color, it could have served as a mirror. Bashaarat bade me stand so that I looked upon the hoop edgewise, while he stood next to its opening.

“Please observe,” he said.

Bashaarat thrust his arm through the hoop from the right side, but it did not extend out from the left. Instead, it was as if his arm were severed at the elbow, and he waved the stump up and down, and then pulled his arm out intact.

My Two Cents:
I have only read two stories by Ted Chiang, but Wow! I am quite impressed with the utter thoughtfulness and detail portrayed by this man’s writings. If you are a connoisseur of fine stories then you owe it to yourself to read this one. Go… Now! Read this amazingly written tale!

• The good:

  • A very interesting story that is just so darn fun to read!
  • It is broken up into four separate stories, so it really feels like you’re reading a handful of tiny tales.
  • I loved the setting and tone of this story. The author expertly captures the feeling of a bustling marketplace in ancient Baghdad.
  • I am a sucker for stories that involve people trying to change the time line to suit their interests – and this one ranks right up there with the best of them!

• The bad:

  • Honestly, there wasn’t much I didn’t like in this story. But if my arm was twisted I would say that it has some mild adult situations – such as the time when a woman must seduce her husband’s former self in order to teach him the finer points of love!

Fact Sheet:
• Page Count: 18
• Word Count: 10,583

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” garnered the following awards:

Where you can find “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”:

  • This story first appeared in September 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
  • You can read a very nice free version of “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” online at the F&SF website.  Sorry, this link is no longer valid, but …
  • …you can find an archived copy of this story at the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine.  (Thanks to QuasarDragon for the link!)

Related Yet Still Interesting Links:

  • It looks like the author made this story into a limited edition book. Check out the Subterranean Press website for more information and some cool images from the story.
  • Did you know that Ted Chiang began submitting stories for publication shortly after sixth grade? Yep, you can learn more about this amazing science fiction author by reading an interview at SF Site.

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you’ll probably like Story of Your Life, another award winning story from Ted Chiang.

7 thoughts to “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang”

  1. Several of Chiang’s stories are available for free; check the link on my name. Next week, I should be posting on 2 or 3 more of his stories (but they’re not free).

    My understanding for this story was – first publication by Subterranean; then in F&SF.

    “stories that involve people trying to change the time line to suit their interests”: Last week, I made a brief post on Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder” under Contento’s 10 most reprinted; will do a main post during next couple of weeks. It’s *the* most reprinted. Another very good & free from Analog is Hemry’s “Small Moments in Time”.

  2. Thanks Abhisek,

    It was a great story and loads of fun to read! We should be thanking F&SF for printing a free version for us! I am going to try and track down some more of Ted Chiang’s stuff since I liked this one so much.

  3. Tinkoo,

    Thanks for your links – Contento’s list looks to have some very good stuff on it. I have read “The Sound of Thunder” and liked it quite a bit. “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur” was another one that was really good too.

    I wasn’t sure about the publication history, so thanks for letting me know.

  4. Maria,

    Thanks for your comments. This was a great story, of course I am a huge fan of Ted Chiang, and I was glad to see it win some awards. Thanks for the podcast link! Hey, I just tried the Way Back Machine link above and it seemed to work for me, is anybody else having problems with it?

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