Review: The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

May contain spoilers.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is the first story in Ted Chiang's collection, Exhalation: Stories. Set in the Medieval Islamic World, it is told from the point of view of a fabric merchant speaking to a caliph. The narrator describes how he meets a shop owner at a marketplace who owns a time travel device, which can send you twenty years in the past or the future.
The shop owner then tells the narrator about other people who had used his device. This stories-within-a-story structure reminded me of Arabian Nights. As each mini story unfolds, the connections between each seemingly unrelated character are revealed. They all find out that the broad strokes of their personal lives are fixed; even when they travel through time to change things, the outcomes don't change. The only thing that changes is their own knowledge of what was, or what might have been.
The narrator decides to use the device to go back twenty years, in order to speak to his now-deceased wife. We find out that he spoke to her unkindly before he left on a trip, and when he returned, it was all too late. His wife had perished in a collapsed building, and he was left with a crippling guilt to bear. Now here was a device that could bring him to that point in time before she died.
And so he goes back twenty years in the past, where a cruel truth awaits him: in spite of (or because of) the long and arduous journey, he has arrived too late. The building is already rubble--his wife is still dead. Shortly before he is arrested for acting suspiciously, he finds out about his wife's last words, and that she forgave him for his harsh goodbye before her death. This is enough to make his disastrous journey worthwhile.
We collect regrets as we age, and sometimes we try to atone for our sins--albeit unsuccessfully, as in the case of the narrator. The idea of an immutable future does raise questions about free will, but ultimately, perhaps we can attain some measure of peace simply by learning more about the past and the future. And in the face of such uncertainty, where every imminent moment is stochastic and potentially life-altering, we shouldn't leave things unresolved for too long. Our timeline is much less malleable than the ones in this story.
This was my first Ted Chiang story, and boy am I impressed! The aren't any groundbreaking ideas here, but the writing is beautiful and moving. The words conjure vivid images of Baghdad and Cairo during the Islamic Golden Age, replete with sights and sounds and smells. This sense of place and time is made even stronger by the flowery language used by the characters. For example, the time travel device is called a 'Gate of Years'. I like the fact that the narrator is trapped in his past, and how the story ends with him awaiting to hear his fate from the caliph. It adds another note of poignancy to a deeply human story.

Day 4 of #100DaysToOffload

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