The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
By Ted Chiang
Subterranean Press, July 2007
Five long years since the publication of Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang is back with a new novella from Subterranean Press, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate. Fuwaad ibn Abbas is a fabrics merchant from ancient Baghdad, in a time when that city was thriving and prosperous, the City of Peace. He has been brought before the Caliph with a remarkable story of time travel, enabled by an Egyptian alchemist named Bashaarat. Bashaarat's shop is filled with an assortment of artistic and mechanical oddities, crafted by the man himself, but the strangest item of all is located in the back, out of sight from the casual browser: the Gate of Years, an alchemical circular doorway constructed of polished black metal. A portal to the past or the future, depending upon which side of the gate one enters.
Before Fuwaad enters the gate, Bashaarat tells him several stories of people who used a similar device in Egypt—
The Little Magic Shop story is nothing new: the protagonist enters a shop of oddities, talks with the proprietor (typically a wise older man) who reveals a magical item reserved only for "special" clients, an item which changes the protagonist's life forever. Whether the effect on the protagonist's life is for good or ill depends upon the story. Just a few texts employing this trope include Stephen King's Needful Things (1991), Neil Gaiman's "Chivalry" (1993), The Magic Shop (ed. Denise Little, 2004), and Bruce Sterling's anti-magic shop story "The Little Magic Shop" (IASFM Oct 1987). Perhaps the earliest example in print (at least that I could find) is H.G. Wells' "The Magic Shop" (1903), although the tradition seems to go back even further.
The same goes for time travel, one of the oldest and most loved tropes in speculative fiction. One of two narrative methods is typically used, both of which preserve causality: 1) the past is unchangeable, a single unbroken line from beginning to end; or 2) the past is mutable, although travel to the past instantly splits space-time off into a new branch, an alternate universe. Chiang has chosen the former in The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, and employs it to remarkable effect; the scene where Raniya (in "The Tale of the Wife and Her Lover") travels 20 years into the past and meets a younger version of her husband, and must instruct him in the ways of love so that he will be proficient when he later marries her younger version, is both clever and poignant:
Raniya had been flush with anticipation for this moment, and so was surprised to find that Hassan's movements were clumsy and awkward. She remembered their wedding night very clearly; he had been confident, and his touch had taken her breath away. She knew Hassan's first meeting with the young Raniya was not far away, and for a moment did not understand how this fumbling boy could change so quickly. And then of course the answer was clear.
So every afternoon for many days, Raniya met Hassan at her rented house and instructed him in the art of love, and in doing so she demonstrated that, as is often said, women are Allah's most wondrous creation. She told him, "The pleasure you give is returned in the pleasure you receive," and inwardly she smiled as she thought of how true her words really were. Before long, he gained the expertise she remembered, and she took greater enjoyment in it than she had as a young woman.
All too soon, the day arrived when Raniya told the young Hassan that it was time for her to leave. He knew better than to press her for reasons, but asked her if they might ever see each other again. She told him, gently, no. Then she sold the furnishings to the house's owner, and returned through the Gate of Years to the Cairo of her own day. (60-61)
Supercool two intense, counter-aimed beams of light in a Bose-Einstein condensate and they twist and crush into an ultra-slow rotating loop that drags time around it. It's a time machine. This is the Ronald Mallett system. The theory has been tested and found valid. One would step into the loop and walk in time, exiting the loop at the desired point on the calendar. Re-entering the loop and walking back to return to your own time.
But you could not walk back in time further than the point at which the time machine was switched on. No nipping back to 1930 and killing Hitler, no killing your grandad or saving Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. You couldn't travel back into history because there weren't any time machines back then.
The epigraph on the back of The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is an old Arabic proverb: "Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity." Incredibly apt for this notion of an immutable past, of accepting fate and the will of Allah. A similar notion exists in Buddhism, where one is urged not to dwell on the past, but to accept what has happened and move on from that point. Chiang's characters may be unable to change the past, but each of them comes to realize a bigger picture because of their travels, a wider understanding of themselves and the world around them.
And perhaps Chiang is advising his readers to do the same, to realize that we can't change the fact that we may have been bullied in high school, or didn't ask out that one person who would have given our lives meaning, or said the wrong words at that certain job interview. To realize this, but yet not dwell on it, to live our lives from this point on. A powerful statement to couch in a tale of Middle Eastern time travel, and one worth paying attention to.
Author's Note: this review was first published in the very short-lived Scalpel Magazine in May 2007. Since then, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate has been reprinted in the September 2007 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; as of this writing, the story is nominated for a Hugo Award in the novelette category and a BSFA Award in the short fiction category, and so has been made available in its entirety in text form at the F&SF website, and in podcast form at StarShipSofa.