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The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

·4 mins

Have you experienced uhtceare lately?

Have you suffered from a bout of depression thinking about your past lately?

Then you should read my senpai Ted Chiang’s short novella - The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate

These words are not straight from a flier or any sales pitch, but yes I read another of Ted Chiang’s scifi gems. “The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate” is a short novella set in medieval Baghdad and Cairo about a merchant who comes across a quantum device which functions like a wormhole, and tries to use it to mend his mistakes from the past but learns valuable “lessons” about the destiny and the human condition.

The story follows a merchant, Fuwad Ibn Abbas, who recounts his own story to a Caliph in the medieval Baghdad. We discover that Fuwad is guilt-ridden because he had a quarrel with his wife shortly before her untimely death due to a mishap. He never got an opportunity to make peace with her. In a chance meeting with an Alchemist, Bashaarat, Fuwad comes across Bashaarat’s invention, a contraption which Basharat calls - “The Gate of Years”. “The Gate of Years”, it turns out, is a wormhole through which a person can travel forwards and backwards in time. In a series of narratives we come to know that using this device can be a boon or a bane. The device plays a major role in one of the merchants turn of fate from a rope-maker to one of the wealthiest merchants in Cairo. In another anecdote, we come to know that a man who tried to use the time travel device for his advantage suffered a cruel fate. Fuwad decides to use the device to prevent his wife’s death but is unable to prevent it despite facing several hardships in trying rush to his wife’s aid before the mishap. He finds a sense of closure when he meets his wife’s doctor who was with his wife during her last moments. She tells him that he was in his wife’s thoughts during her final moments and his wife remembered him fondly. Fuwad ends his story with these words, calling them - “the most precious knowledge that I possess” -

Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.

Ted based this story on Kip Thorne Causality loops and as a result it is one of the rare scifi stories which has a logically consistent time travel without any paradoxes, in other words, this story does not break the Novikov’s self consistency principle. The genius of Ted Chiang lies in marrying the scientific theories of Causality loops to the Arabic philosophers’ idea of kismet or destiny. Ted’s genius also lies in the fact that he structured the story in nested arcs, like the medieval Arabic stories of yore, which in turn is similar to the recursive causal loops. The structure of this story reminded me of another short story - The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade by Edgar Allan Poe which I read ages ago. The short story mixes element of macabre with the well-known oriental tale, One Thousand and One Nights. It is a satirical retelling of the same story where the elements of fantasy are subverted. The mixed genre trope is a tightrope walk, but boy does Ted hit the ball out of the park!

I have reviewed Ted’s other short stories, and I found that there’s a recurrent motif of time’s arrow, free will and destiny, and in all of his stories humanism stands taller than all the other conjectures and scientific advancements. The fallible human condition is a gift and the idea that it is enough is beautiful, the grand narrative notwithstanding. Ted’s philosophy is a paradox. Leibniz can be his drinking pal, and Nietzsche his 3am friend. This is a high concept story. The last words of this short story - “but that is enough” has me thinking for a while. Repentance, atonement and Forgiveness are enough. The past is set in stone and its acceptance is the only opportunity that life provides us. We can learn from past, find closure in our revisits through memory lanes or any quantum device, but we cannot change it. It sounds like a cloying self help advice but it is the immutable truth.