The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang
Well, for once, I’m setting off to write a short review in honour of a short “book”. Subterranean Press have a wonderful habit of picking extraordinarily good stories and packaging them well. In this instance, I propose to say a few hopefully well-chosen words about The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang. This won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette (2007) and was nominated for the Hugo.
As I have commented in two other reviews on this site about time travel, it’s very difficult to get the logic right and avoid boredom as the inevitable asserts itself. Joe Haldeman gets the plot working as it should but fails in the writing. Kage Baker just writes the book and rather ignores the paradox problems. Here we have a model author who gets everything absolutely right. This is quite simply one of the best written, most elegant time travel stories I’ve read for years.
It starts off with a delightful cheat in that, instead of hard science, we have a mediaeval alchemist in the Middle East develop a gate that allows people to pass through a predetermined amount of time in either direction. The partial telling of the history of this gate is therefore left to one of the travellers who, being stranded, comes to the attention of the local Caliph. Yet this is no One Thousand and One Nights with djinns and the usual trappings of Arabian, Persian, Jewish and Indian folklore. This is a work of modern sensibilities where love, loss and redemption resonate implacably through time. It is the kind of story you can reread with perfect satisfaction, simply admiring the mechanics of plot and writing in such perfect harmony. A real joy!
For a review of a new novella from Chiang, see The Lifecycle of Software Objects.