Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" (novelette): Four time-travel "folktales"

Quote from the novelette titled The Merchant and the Alchemists Gate by Ted ChiangThis extremely readable story is written in the style of ancient framed folktales - story within story, & with a moral. It covers a theme I've already seen in at least two stories by Chiang - "What's Expected of Us", & "Story of Your Life" - interaction between events happening in different times.

And yet it offers a very different plot - ability to change yourself as well as history by influencing events of the past (in spite of constant denials by author that past cannot be altered by visitors from future).

Full text of this story is available for free download (text, MP3 (via teaoodle)). This note is based on text version.

Story summary.

Outermost story frame is tiny - Fuwaad ibn Abbas (the narrator) is pleading why he is innocent & should be released by the Caliph (English distortion of "khalifaa", sort of a king) in Baghdad.

Next frame is the protagonist's story - how Fuwaad ended up getting arrested by Caliph's cops. This is the story to which the title applies. This frame includes 3 related but independent stories, each with its own title - "The Tale of the Fortunate Rope-Maker", "The Tale of the Weaver Who Stole From Himself", & "The Tale of the Wife & Her Lover". I summarize each in its own section below.

The main story.

Fuwaad is a merchant of "fine fabrics". One fine day, he is taking a walk through the "district of metalsmiths" in Baghdad to buy a gift for a business associate, & enters a shop with amazing gadgets. During his conversations with the Bashaarat, the shop owner, he will learn that Bashaarat is an "Alchemist". But the term "Alchemist" is used very liberally - Bashaarat is actually a prolific inventor of fantastic gadgets.

One the gadgets he will be shown is the gate - a kind of time travel device. A "stout metal hoop ... mounted upright" where whatever enter from right ends up T time into future, & whatever enters from left ends up T time into past! T is a spec of the gate - there are gates of "several seconds" & there are gates of 20 years - later will play a key role in the story. Reminded me of Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days" - but you could only see pictures of another time in its "slow glass", not actually go there as in this story.

Among the many cool demonstrations at "several seconds" gate, one I really liked was where Bashaarat gets to future, pulls out the ring from the hands of Fuwaad, comes back to past, & shows it to him - two rings for a time! After the requisite time has passed, a hand comes & actually pulls the ring from his hand - so he is only left with his ring with Bashaarat!

A key aspect of these Gates is - if you cross 20 years into future, you won't age - only the rest of the world would have aged! So you can meet your own older self!

Bashaarat invites Fuwaad to travel 20 years to future. Fuwaad is reluctant - that is when Bashaarat narrates the other 3 stories - of other time travelers that used his Gate.

Eventually, Fuwaad is willing, but wants to go 20 years back in time - not future. Not possible, according to Bashaarat, since this Gate was built only weeks back - you will be able to go back here only after 20 years have lapsed.

But Bashaarat has an older 20 years Gate still in operation - in Cairo, & run by his son. Fuwaad tarvels there, goes back to past because of a guilt he is carrying - blaming himself for her death 20 years back. He won't be able to save her even after time travel, & will get arrested for violating curfew - that is how he ended up the court of the Caliph.

The Tale of the Fortunate Rope-Maker.

Hassan, a poor rope maker, used the 20 years Gate at Cairo to meet his older self. Found he was very rich. Older self gives him minor tips but lets him actually experience the major events; he won't even get to see the wife of his older self - so courting can be fun.

He will eventually get rich after digging up a chest of precious gems hidden by thieves, on a tip from his older self. Sort of a loop here!

The Tale of the Weaver Who Stole From Himself.

Another loop story in the tradition of looping pictures by Eicher included in Douglas Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach"!

Moving story of Ajib, a poor weaver. Hearing of Hassan's tale, he will travel to future to discover that his future self is as poor, & stays in the same house with same lock! On investigating the house when older self is away, he will find a chest of gold.

What is miser this future self is! So he steals the chest from his own future & returns to present - living lavishly. Spends a lot, marries his lady love Taahira. Gets notices by bad elements who kidnap his wife, & take away all the remaining fortune he brought from future as ransom!

When asked by his wife, he will tell her someone gave him money & he need not return. Wife will have none of this - he must return the money. So he will spend next 20 years saving the money so his younger self can steal it!!

The Tale of the Wife & Her Lover.

This is where travelers from future tinker with the past - to change the course of history.

This is the story of Raniya, wife of Hassan the rope make who got rich.

While she was never introduced to younger Hassan, she was intrigued by the young visitor to her home. Pestering her husband, she learns the time travel story. When older Hassan is away for a while on business, she travels back in time to younger Hassan, & lusts him. Younger Hassan is yet to meet his lady love.

While tailing him, she will follow him to a jewelery store where Hassan is trying to sell one of the necklace from fortune he dug up - sale is agreed for next day. As it happens, two of the thieves whose fortune Hassan stole are also in the shop - she overhears their conversation about looting Hassan after he sells the necklace, & will also force him to give up rest of the stuff. Sounded a bit like the story of "Alibaba & 40 Thieves" from a school text book - original is probably from Arabian Nights.

She knows no harm will come to Hassan - since he lives in future & had actually given her the same necklace. She decides to take care of thieves. Goes back to her own time, & then another 20 years into future - to meet her even older self. The "two" women will both come to shop next day when Hassan is visiting with thieves waiting with their chief. They will come with their own & the same necklace - trying to sell when Hassan is selling. Multiple copies convinces thieves & shop owner it's common stuff. Hassan's deal goes sour, but thieves are off his back.

+40 version will return to her time; +20 will spend some time in this past. She will befriend Hassan & teach him the joys of sex - before eventually returning to her own time.

Collected in.

  1. Gardner Dozois (Ed)'s "The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection" (2008).

Fact sheet.

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", short story, review
First published: As a short book by Subterranean Press, July 2007. Immediately after that, republished in F&SF, September 2007.
Rating: A
Winner of Nebula Award 2007 in novelette category.
Winner of Hugo Award 2008 in novelette category.
Among the finalists for BSFA Award 2007 in short fiction category.
Added to my best of year 2007 picks.
Related: All stories of Ted Chiang.