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The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate - Ted Chiang 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*.Anyway.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 book, and no one can tell that it was only 60 pages (and with pictures at that!). This makes it look like I have read more books this year and therefore, I am smart. It fuels my ego. (But not as much as when someone "likes" one of my reviews. Just saying.)2) It is by Ted Chiang. I read two of his books last year, and both were pretty satisfying, to say the least.3) I recently encountered a short story by Daniel Abraham called The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics via the Podcastle podcast (also available in print in this well-named collection), and I thought it was fascinating, a logical and engaging exploration of economics and the value of worth in an alt-history European setting. I later wikipediad that it lost the Hugo for Best Novelette (novelette? who knew there were so many ways to win a Hugo?) to this story, and so I wanted to see if the right guy won.I didn't even know until I started reading that it is about time travel, which I think we can agree is the best of all the travels (you might say space travel, but if you can time travel you can just go forward in time until space travel is cheap and plentiful). In ancient Baghdad, a man visits an alchemist's shop and learns of a stargate strange circular gate that can send him forward or backward in time two decades. As always, there's a catch, because in addition to being the best of all the travels, time travel is a bitch.The setting gives the tale the feel of fantasy, but the ideas Chiang is playing with are classic sci-fi/time travel tropes, specifically self-causality (a man tells his past self where treasure is buried, a fact he only knows because a self from the future once told him). I love time travel stories -- I love thinking them through, making sure the logic works, that the universe adheres to the set of rules as presented.I wouldn't say any of the ideas here are exactly fresh, but as always, Chiang proves a master at taking a well-trodden idea and making it seem novel not through plot mechanics, but character. His stories aren't about the how (the time travel device is explained away by alchemy), but the heart. Talking with the alchemist, the traveler hears several tales of past time travelers, and how they attempted to use the gate to secure future comforts and were met with success or failure depending no so much on their actions, but their intentions; the power to see the future doesn't necessarily grant the power to change your base nature. The protagonists story is heartbreaking -- his only desire is to use the gate to right a grievous wrong in his past, but he learns, as we all must, that you can't do anything to change what has already happened. Yet in looking back, we can also somethings find the strength to finally move forward.We all hold our own futures in our hands. It is fun to daydream about the ability to manipulate our destinies to a desired outcome. But we don't need magic gates to do it, and that can be a terrifying realization. Or a transcendent one. Or you could just go back to the 1950s and bet on horse races or whatever.*OHMIGOD it happened AGAIN! Luckily this time I was wise enough to copy the text first. Why does Goodreads hate this review?