Story of the Week: Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"

Forgive me father, for I have sinned. My first sin: I've been away on vacation, so I haven't updated this blog in nearly forever. My second sin: I've selected Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" as my new story of the week. Selecting the story, of course, isn’t a sin. The sin comes from praising a story so highly when it isn't online, meaning my readers will have to either buy a copy of the September 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction or order the limited edition book from Subterranean Press.

For those who don't know Ted Chiang, let me enlighten you. Chiang is a science fiction and fantasy writer who has published a grand total of ten short stories in 17 years. While that total would be insignificant in most literary genres (let alone in speculative fiction, where some writers churn out that many stories each year), Chiang is still one of the best living fiction writers. Notice I didn’t say best SF/F writers, or best genre writers. Chiang is simply one of the best fiction writers PERIOD.

This isn’t merely my opinion. Chiang’s first eight published short stories were nominated for numerous awards and won three Nebulas and a Hugo. His short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others is a must have for anyone who loves short fiction; I reread the stories in this book at least once a year. Even though Chiang only writes short stories, each of his stories have enough depth and life to fill entire novels. He also combines lyricism with philosophical explorations of the human universe in ways I have seen no other modern writer even attempt to do.

Chiang’s new story "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is no exception. Set in ancient Baghdad, the story channels the Arabian Nights into a tale surrounding Fuwaad ibn Abbas and his experiences with the “Gate of Years,” which depending on how one reads the story is either a magic portal or a scientific wormhole through which one may go 20 years into either the past or future. While lesser writers have used this time-traveling theme to showcase paradoxes like killing your own grandfather, Chiang uses the story to explore how we are all responsible for our own actions, even when we use time itself to try and evade them.

I refuse to share more of the plot, other than to say that I both smiled and cried at the end. This is a great story, equal to Chiang’s best, and I suggest everyone pick up their own copy today.