Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a fabric merchant, tells this story to the Caliph of Baghdad, perhaps in the classic "Arabian Nights" period of the Caliphate, as "a warning to those who would be warned and a lesson to those who would learn."
On entering a metalsmith's shop, he finds many intricate devices and "ingenious mechanisms." The experiments in alchemy of Bashaarat, the owner, possibly include electromagnetism, but most remarkable is his ability to find and expand tiny "wormholes" in reality, fixing them in metal hoops. One side of these openings precedes the other by a set interval of time. The largest is a Gate of Years, spanning two decades. Bashaarat had for many years such a gate in Cairo; each who used the gate learned something different, as Bashaarat, in stories within the main story, relates.
Ted Chiang's purpose in this brief book—actually a novelette or long short story (also to be published in the September issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction)—is explicitly didactic, and ends in a sort of moral. Its fabular nature, its marvels, and the use of stories within a story recall The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night (originally 9th c.; Richard Burton translation, 1885), which perhaps influenced the story's setting. The explicit, if gentle, didacticism and the tone also recall Indries Shah's instructive Sufi tales, both with and without the humorous Nasruddin. Despite Chiang's manner and the "exotic" setting, however, he is not far afield here from the themes of much of his earlier work, especially his best-known piece, "Story of Your Life."
From Bashaarat's tales, and Abbas's own story, we learn that some who use the Gate benefit, some don't; some learn lessons happily, some only at great cost. Along the way, we encounter temporal paradoxes, as when a rope-maker, Hassan, finds out from his older self where to find a treasure that makes his fortune. Once aged, he informs the younger one of the treasure, based on what he was told. But what was the information's original provenance? Here we get a whiff of Heinlein's 1959 story "All You Zombies—"
A story within a story (within a story) tells of Hassan's wife, Raniya, who in using the Gate discovers truths about her husband's past he himself does not know, and thereby contributes much to their (future) happiness. But Ajib, a weaver inspired by Hassan's wealth, uses the Gate in a way that results in near-catastrophe and sours the rest of his life. Ajib's story is the least compelling. His misfortune seems too arbitrary, and his inability to avoid it, despite all the talk of fate, not quite convincing.
This is the third time Chiang has dealt with the essential problems of fate, determinism, and free will. His darkest view of the subject comes in a short-short published in Nature, "What's Expected of Us," positing a device that, by undeniably demonstrating our lack of free will, leaves a third of its users in a waking coma. In The Merchant and The Alchemist's Gate, as in "Story of Your Life," (1998 in Starlight Two; collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) he presents us with a more gentle, nuanced fatalism—fatalism from the inside, fatalism understood.
In Merchant, things happen according to the will of Allah, and being able to move through time changes events not at all. As Bashaarat says: "...you cannot avoid the ordeals that are assigned to you. What Allah gives you, you must accept" (p. 65).
But Abbas, suffering remorse for twenty years because his last words with his wife, before her accidental death, were harsh, can realize this only after struggling against it. As in Raniya's tale, it is not, finally, a change in events—which is impossible—that brings solace and a kind of redemption, but what he learns about the past.
The most important moment in a Chiang story is almost always a moment of understanding or perception—of a pattern, a gestalt, or an entire system with all its interworking parts, as some linguists can take in the grammar of a language new to them at a glance. Understanding is too important to be morally or emotionally neutral. It transforms the past for Abbas and frees him, despite changing nothing. For Raniya, as for Louise Banks in "Story of Your Life," it's a motive to participate in her fate. Raniya knows that her husband will live and become wealthy. But when she finds him in danger, she takes action to assure this outcome. In her thinking, to do so is to follow Allah's will, to be his instrument. It could not be Allah's will for her to do nothing. Louise Banks expresses her take on this in rhetorical questions: "What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?" (Stories of Your Life and Others, p. 163)
In devising a fictional concept that sets time out for us, future and past, as something essentially static, like the pattern in a carpet (it is perhaps no accident that almost all of those involved with the gate deal with things that must be woven or knotted), in which events can be observed, but not shifted or changed, Chiang manages to convey to us, both here and in "Story of Your Life," the world as seen from this view: an unchanging tale, already existing, past and future, that we live through, participate in, act out, and learn, like an actor learning what play he's in by saying the lines. That he has, more than once, found elegant, complex conceits for this difficult thematic territory, that not only convey understanding, but even experience, and which are also intricate, intellectually and emotionally involving fictions, is a truly remarkable achievement. It's interesting, instructive, and aesthetically pleasing to watch an artist as intelligent and sensitive as Chiang come to grips in different ways with, and develop different correlatives for, essentially the same field of experience and perception. The number of works in his small oeuvre devoted to this theme seem to indicate that, for him, this is, indeed, where we are.
But he doesn't just present this material. He also suggests how we should be and act in such a world. Within the scope of determined events he finds a kind of freedom—the freedom to accept, to participate, to join one's will to events; freedom in how to consider, or take, what happens; a freedom of understanding. Perhaps understanding is so important because, in the face of events, it's basically the best we can do.
We have to note that Chiang is treading here on the territory of the religious mystic, but either does not have the temperament for that sort of take on his materials, does not perceive here what others have, or is tacitly telling us that there is nothing like that going on, despite all the talk of "Allah," who seems something of a placeholder here for "how things are and happen." There is no hint of the paradox of the religious ecstatic, in which the greater the surrender of self-will to the will of God, the greater the sense of freedom, power, joy (even while it may lead to dissolution of the individual)—the stuff of saints' lives (St. Francis receiving the stigmata, especially in G.K. Chesterton's version, St. Francis of Assisi ) and religious literature. For instance, in The Consolation of Philosophy (524), Boethius also presents all time and incident seen as one, an eternal present perceived by God; his take is that by surrendering to God's will, men become gods by participation. And in eastern traditions, the moment of enlightenment often seems to occur when the seeker says, essentially, "This is hopeless; I give up"—surrendering, finally, the last bit of willfulness to the greater will.
In an interview with Jeremy Smith (first published in Interzone #182, Sept. 2002), when Smith notes, "In stories like "Division by Zero" and "Story of Your Life," you describe these very rational, materialist characters who [...] achieve this kind of transcendence, but then don't know what to do with it," Chiang replies with seeming puzzlement: "That's an interesting perspective. I hadn't really thought of either [story] as dealing with transcendence. For me, those stories are primarily attempts to use mathematics and science as metaphors to illuminate certain aspects of human experience."
Chiang's take on dealing with a vision of unalterable destiny is remarkably close, however, to that of the classical Stoics, perfectly in keeping, for instance, with the quotations that end the Enchiridion of Epictetus (circa 135):
52. Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand:
"Conduct me, Jove, and you, O Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my station."
"I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still
Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven."
—Euripides, Frag. 965
It's an unemotional and essentially irreligious mysticism.
This novelette doesn't pack the punch of "Story of Your Life," but such comparisons are invidious; one story is not another. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is wise, thoughtful, graceful, and even enlightening, in its ability to make the nature of our predicament clearer, and at the same time, transform it from predicament to, simply, life.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published seventeen short stories, with more forthcoming, and more than two hundred nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.