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The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

4.23 of 5 stars 4.23  ·  rating details  ·  1,218 ratings  ·  140 reviews
In medieval Baghdad, a penniless man is brought before the most powerful man in the world, the caliph himself, to tell his story. It begins with a walk in the bazaar, but soon grows into a tale unlike any other told in the caliph's empire. It's a story that includes not just buried treasure and a band of thieves, but also men haunted by their past and others trapped by the ...more
Hardcover, 60 pages
Published July 23rd 2007 by Subterranean Press
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Stephen Mann Chiang has, with a score of stories, catapulted himself to the very top of the sci-fi short story genre. Moreover, this is one of his best.

Chiang has, with a score of stories, catapulted himself to the very top of the sci-fi short story genre. Moreover, this is one of his best.

***Mild Spoiler Below***
(...though one cannot really spoil Chiang's stories because their value is in the messages they contain, not the events they recount.) I think of The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate as the third component of "Ted's Time Trilogy", the first two entries being "Story Of Your Life" and "What's Expected Of Us".(less)
The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted ChiangThe Top of the Volcano by Harlan EllisonThe Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry HughartNobody's Home by Tim PowersBlack Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
Humble Subterranean Press Book Bundle
1st out of 22 books — 7 voters
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. RowlingEclipse by Stephenie MeyerThe Name of the Wind by Patrick RothfussCity of Bones by Cassandra ClareA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Best Books of 2007
93rd out of 627 books — 692 voters

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Community Reviews

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Let's try this again, Goodreads. Bad gateway. Hmmph.

Though I suppose a bad gateway is apropos for this book, as it is about a gateway through time, and depending on your actions in the past/future, the outcome might be bad. Oh server error, I see what you did there. Next time, though, try not to DELETE MY REVIEW to make a point*.


I wanted to read this very slim book for threefold reasons:

1) It's very short, but if I tag it with "2011," it gets added to my read total just like any other boo
A very short book set in medieval Baghdad. A poor man is brought before the Caliph. It's revealed that his circumstances and journey are extraordinary. The format is probably inspired by Scheherazade, but Chiang cuts to the heart with 3 or 4 tales. Again, amazing, how thoughts of life and living are spread before the reader in such a feast of words.
I have finally read Ted Chiang, whose name kept popping up next to those of other writers that I respect. This story is proof positive that Chiang's reputation is well-deserved. I was impressed by how much emotional resonance he achieves in a short span of pages; since finishing the story, it has stuck with me, and I feel like I can visit the feelings that it inspired by returning to any remembered detail from the story. I also liked Chiang's writing, and the voice that he gives the narrator. Bu ...more
A novelette set in ancient Baghdad and Cairo, as a merchant tells us – and the Caliph – nested tales of time travel.

Okay, the reason I love Ted Chiang is that he consistently has gotten me simultaneously in the geeky intellectual sweet spot of shinykeen science, and the unreasoned emotional response. And here he did neither, particularly.

It's a pretty story, with a perfect tempo and all the charm and style you'd expect from framing time travel in a 1001 Nights homage, with extra ancient Islam fo
Excellent! I liked this best (so far; I haven't read everything else of his) of what I've read of his work. And not just because Kip Thorne's wormhole work is some of my favorite theoretical physics.

Unlike some of Chiang's other stories, the science here is handled with a very light touch; it is peripheral to the story, not central. (And putting modern theoretical physics in the language of the medieval was very well done.) The characters, especially the two main characters, are better realized
Gustavo Muñoz (Akito)
Short stories are always hard to review. How do you sell such a short book to someone without spoiling too much? It's always a fun little challenge, and it's particularly hard on The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, a story in which discovering all these little twists and turns by yourself plays such a huge role.

And what's this about a gate, you ask? Well, that's a portal. To the past. and to the future. You just walk in. And back. You can even bring things with you! And maybe even people, too
Another wonderful short story from Ted Chiang. I was hesitant to read it because it involves time travel and I hate reading things about time travel because there's usually so many bad plot holes but I needn't have worried! Ted Chiang does it again -- a mind-bending short story about history, the future, the present, and life, all without being too preachy. Like his other short stories, this is life-changing.

What I really love about Ted Chiang's writing is that it's simple, yet effective. He's l
Althea Ann
Another excellent story by Ted Chiang... actually, it's three stories, set in a framing device.
In the medieval Middle East, an alchemist has developed a kind of time machine. When a potential customer walks in, the inventor offers him the chance to go through his gateway and through time - but first he tells the stories of three other people who took such a journey, and what befell them.
Like a tale of the Arabian Nights, the story has a fairy-tale feel to it, told simply and briefly, but with
Clever, lapidary set of time travel tales, nested and partially but not completely interwoven, set in traditional Cairo/Baghdad. The author bases his story on the proposition that even when the future is known it cannot be changed, and he sidesteps the obvious objection to that by not giving his characters opportunity or inclination to test it. Still, he does a bang-up job with its twists and turns, and closes with an upbeat ending. A.
Scribble Orca
Tatiana recommended this and I'm grateful she did.

Succinct and easy writing style with a couple of intertwined ideas that cement the central theme of linear time, chance and fate.

Sci-fi lite but fun nevertheless.
Edward Rathke
Another brilliant story by Ted Chiang. It's interesting to read science fiction set in the past, and this is a topic oddly close to my heart.

I don't know if there's a short story writer out there better than Ted Chiang.
Though sold as a book, this is really a long short-story of about 60 plus pages. A medieval tale about a man who travels back in time and ultimately learns that neither the past nor the future can be changed but only more fully understood, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate offers some interesting ideas about fate/destiny.

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this as much as his collection of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others, so if you've heard about Chiang and are interested in readin
I kept noticing this book in my recommendations, and I finally decided to read it. Turns out that I really loved this story.

This book is a science-fiction novella of around 60 pages. The setting is Baghdad, the protagonist is a merchant, and the time is the Middle Ages. The book deals in an original way with a familiar theme: the puzzle of time travel, and the circular cause-and-effect paradox.

But the real story is about regret, the unchangeable past, and our incomplete knowledge of our own li
This is a very short, very lovely book. The story is told by a merchant in the audience of a sultan, and the language used is just exquisite. Several short-short stories are included as examples of the power of the alchemist's gate and an explanation as to why the merchant wanted to use it. That explanatioin and the reason he is before the sultan in the first place are delightfully unexpected and sweetly sad. The whole book was like a really delicious, expensive chocolate--not nearly so large as ...more
Kevin Kelsey
A fun little time travel tale.
Sowmya's book world
Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough

A short book consisting very generous and meaningful thought.I enjooyed the way all short stories were interlinked.

past or future cannot change either, but we can know both more fully
Absolutely amazing. Enough said.

A wonderful audio edition can be heard here.
This was beautiful and wonderful. It's basically a time-travel story, but it is set in Cairo and Bagdad during the Caliphate (I don't know enough history of that part of the world to venture a more accurate guess). The interwoven and nested narrative reminded me of 1001 Arabian Nights, and the setting and some of the discussion of fate reminded me of The Alchemist, above and beyond the similarity of the title.

I don't think it counts as scifi, exactly, but there's some similarities. It's a solid
Elizabeth S. Q. Goodman
This was read out loud to me at Milk&Cookies. It's an Arabian Night and it's by Ted Chiang. What more could you want?
Krista the Krazy Kataloguer
A time travel story in an unusual setting-- ancient Cairo and Baghdad. Very interesting!
Andy Gavin
This 60 page short story is so up my alley. A story of time travel, set in medievalBaghdad, what could be better? If it were written in a lyrical stylereminiscentof the Arabian nights! This is a gold and gem encrusted little dagger of a story.Mimickingprose style AND story telling conventions of its chosen era. It manages to demonstrate its time travel device and constraints in a manner so clear even an Abbasid merchant could understand.

It won both the Hugo and Nebula Novellette awards. Good sho
Julie Davis
This is actually a short novella from Ted Chiang and the first of his work I ever experienced when JJ Campanella read it (brilliantly) for StarShipSofa podcast.

I recently received a signed (!) copy from a friend who was clearing out his bookshelves and took the chance this weekend to reread it.

It is told in what I'd call Scheherazade-style, of a story within a story within a story. This story folds in and around an alchemist who has opened a shop in medieval Baghdad. He has the secret of gates w
Review originally available at Realms of Speculative Fiction

I’ve never been much of a fan of short literary forms -- I’ve always favored big sprawling epics -- but this changed in the last couple of months. As the latest trend, novels tend to be overblown, lacking in focus and good editing; but the lesser the page count (novellas, novelettes and especially short stories) the greater the focus, the more profound the idea and the more well-versed the writing has to be to make an impact on the read
Mihai Giurgiulescu
I read this novelette in digital format - it can be downloaded freely off the internet, which I cannot help think that it was an intentional move on Chiang's behalf. He wants people to access it, because once one does, the story imparts a deep and universal resonance. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate has by far one of the best time travel narratives I have ever encountered, and its layered parable format is brilliant. Upon researching it, I learned about the Novikov self-consistency princip ...more
"Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity."

I had received a copy of this novelette from a HumbleBundle that I donated/paid for that Patrick Rothfuss had been promoting on his Facebook page.

I was expecting something far longer than 60 pages but in no way do I feel cheated. This short story is beautiful and I will have it on my
mind for the rest of the day from what I read here.
This short story is a crossover of time travel and arabian nights. On the time travel side of things, I thought it did come up with some good ideas. Questions like "can the past and the future be changed?" or "What if they can't?". It's my least favorite work of the author, even though I could see how well crafted the story was, I didn't the thrill that accompanied his other books. I'd still recommend it though.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
I'm not usually much for small books.

I will make an exception for this one. I read it in an hour, waiting for a doctor's appointment. And what an exciting hour it turned out to be.

This is structured in a "tale within a tale" style, the main character spinning stories to the Sultan. But there's no fluff, no wasted word. Deep, while still maintaining the entertainment. I don't want to spoil it at all, just say that I loved it, and I highly recommend it.
Short story/Novella.
Wonderful, and if I were a better writer, this is what I would want to write. Simple but effective storytelling. Just amazing and something that can stay with you.
You will never find a physical copy it seems, but you can read it online here.
Hannah Cobb
If your future self could travel back in time, would your present be reshaped--or is fate immutable, even time travel unable to affect the will of heaven? In this richly woven novella, a merchant in medieval Baghdad brings a tale of magic and paradox to the caliph, describing the impact a magical gate had on several people's lives--including his own.
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Ted Chiang (born 1967) is an American speculative fiction writer. His Chinese name is Chiang Feng-nan. He was born in Port Jefferson, New York and graduated from Brown University with a Computer Science degree. He currently works as a technical writer in the software industry and resides in Bellevue, near Seattle, Washington. He is a graduate of the noted Clarion Writers Workshop (1989).

Although n
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“Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.” 42 likes
“Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.” 14 likes
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