Joy and anger flash like a fire, burning one moment, subsiding the next. Regret, however, is a feeling that can stay with a person the length of their days. Each person dealing with the pain and frustration it brings differently, Ted Chiang’s 2007 "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate" would have the last word.
The novelette is the story of one Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a merchant of yesteryear Baghdad. At the beginning of the story he sits before a caliph, recounting the story of his life. One day he had been perusing a market when he came upon a strange new shop. Selling items he had never seen before, the proprietor asks him into the back room to see the alchemy which produced the oddities. The source a strange, rigid arch, what passes through one side has its time scale interrupted before passing out the other. The proprietor possessing two such gates, one is seconds in length, the other two decades. Having encountered many people in his lifetime, the man proceeds to tell the tales of a handful who have chosen to pass through the gate, both into the past and the future. Hearing their tales, ibn Abbas is unable to resist stepping through himself. What he finds on the other side, however, is not what he expected.
Seeming in many ways an homage, "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate" bears a lot in common with 1,001 Arabian Nights. There are desert treks, tales of love and betrayal, wealth and poverty, stories nested within stories, accounts delivered to caliphs, and above all a moral upon the conclusion of each. The merchant’s story could snuggle in beside Sinbad or Alibaba’s with none the wiser, that is, if it weren’t for the time travel motif. Though playing with the idea in both classic and clever fashion, it’s best if the reader does not dwell on the quandaries and potential conflicts of rationality that the time travel introduces, but instead focuses on the underlying message.
In the end, "The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate" is parables wrapped in a parable on the value of knowledge and the path to attaining knowledge, particularly the mindset regarding the passage of time. Written in a strong, smooth hand, the story of the merchant who tries to right the past is both touching and profound. Like Steinbeck’s The Pearl, Chiang piquantly uses a culture foreign to his own in making perennial wisdom feel fresh again. Great short fiction.