[Retro-Review] The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate (2008)

Ted Chiang is an author worthy of praise.  Lots of praise.  I remember I used to work with a woman named Vonda.  Her favorite expression was “I’d kick somebody’s back out for some,” followed by the noun of her choice.  To illustrate:

“I’d kick somebody’s back out for some Ted Chiang stories.”

That pretty much sums up my sentiment.

When I heard about The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, I put my shoes on and went to Amazon.com to see if I could purchase said volume.  Unfortunately, said volume was running about $60 from book sellers, and I had to look for an alternative, legal means of procuring the novelette.  Fictionwise saved the day with an eBook version of the story.

So, after all this anticipation, how did I like The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate?

It wasn’t bad at all.

Let’s get this out of the way:  it’s not the second coming of “Hell Is the Absence of God.”  That story is a stone-cold classic and will be hard to top.  The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a more simple tale- deceptively so, and I think therein lies the second criticism; one I don’t buy, but that I can understand why others have said it.

This story has been criticized by some as being simply a rehashing of the classic One Thousand and One Nights.  I guess any time an Arabian person in a story wants to tell a tale, they’ll always suffer the comparison.  Then again, that’s like telling any Latino author who writes magical realism to stop trying to be like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Like I said, I don’t buy it, but I understand it.  Sort of like how I understand high gas prices.

In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, our narrator tells of a man who created a doorway through which one can travel 20 years into the past or the future.  A merchant wishes to use the gate, but is told a few tales by the alchemist of people’s experiences who had already traveled through it.  Ultimately, the merchant makes his decision as to whether to use the gate, and thus the crux of the story unfolds.

What Chiang pulls off so well is how the concept of time travel is presented to people of this ancient era.  Science fiction readers nowadays take for granted the concepts of time travel, paradoxes, and temporal mechanics.  Chiang’s presentation of this in the ancient world is part of the charm, and wraps the reader up in the wonders of these well-worn concepts as if viewing them from a fresh angle.  The parable themselves are also deceptively simple, but in their unfolding intricacy wraps up a more complex story and makes it very accessible to a causal, non-science fiction reader.

I think, ultimately, that may be where some readers’ complaints lay.  Regular, “hard sci-fi” readers get it.  As the tale of the man who steals from himself progresses, it is not difficult to guess the resolution, but the important issue at stake is how that tale affects the merchant and his decision-making process for later in the story.  That’s the point- each mini-tale lends itself to the true nature of the story, the lesson learned at the end.

And the ending of the merchant’s tale is probably the one part of the story I had the biggest issue with.  It was predictable.  Too predictable.  Again, it kept in step with the simplicity of the novelette, and it did not greatly diminish my like of the story.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is definitely worth a read.  After you do, pick up with author’s other work and see the true genius of Ted Chiang.  His stories remind me of why I love reading.

Rating:  B

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