The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

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"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"
The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate.jpg
AuthorTed Chiang
Published inThe Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
Publication typeNovelette
PublisherSubterranean Press
Publication dateJuly 2007
Illustration for "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Hidenori Watanave.

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is a fantasy novelette by American writer Ted Chiang, originally published in 2007 by Subterranean Press and reprinted in the September 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.[1] In 2019, the novelette was included in the collection of short stories Exhalation: Stories.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

The story follows Fuwaad ibn Abbas, a fabric merchant in medieval Baghdad. It begins when he is searching for a gift to give a business associate and happens to discover a new shop in the marketplace. The shop owner, who makes and sells a variety of very interesting items, invites Fuwaad into the back workshop to see a mysterious black stone arch which serves as a gateway into the future, which the shop owner has made by the use of alchemy. Fuwaad is intrigued, and the shop owner tells him three stories of others who have traveled through the gate to meet and have conversation with their future selves. When Fuwaad learns that the shop keeper has another gate in Cairo that will allow people to travel into the past, he makes the journey there to try to rectify a mistake he made twenty years earlier.[3]


Like much of Ted Chiang's work, the story deals with the absence of true free will in the sense that the very choices we believe to be our own, the very bases for our self that we believe constitute the starting point from where our free will develops (for instance we often think of free will as having the choice to eat, say, ice cream, but not the precondition of liking ice-cream in the first place) are not ours to decide upon. Since we cannot choose a self without having a self in the first place, free will is an illusion, because if you don't choose your self, you don't really choose anything. From there it further elaborates on asymmetry of information and how this impacts free will (one cannot choose freely what one does not understand completely), the Western legal system's recognition of free agency in legal personalities, how the market is based upon the assumption that our tastes and preferences are rational, and other issues (free will and the limitation of the body and the complete irreality of the mind's perception of the World around it, our tendency to become satisfied with our reality and our society's explanation of natural and social phenomena, etc).

It also deals with the impossibility to change our past, in a way that also touches on our inability to change the genetic bases for our personalities, desires and modi operandi, as compared with the relative freedom of our reasoning and imagination's ability to constantly find the solution to problems created by our instincts. We cannot help but feel like the mistakes we have made were out of stupidity, instead of lack of information or of maturity; we are unable to truly imagine being and thinking like anyone except our present selves. Therefore, the characters in the story only achieve true happiness when they stop dwelling on the past and instead play the position they have at the moment.


It won the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Novelette and the 2008 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.[4]


  1. ^ "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang". Goodreads. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
  2. ^ Di Filippo, Paul (3 May 2019). "Review | Ted Chiang's 'Exhalation,' like his story that inspired 'Arrival,' fuses intellect and emotion". Washington Post. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  3. ^ Silver, Steven H. (2007). "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate: Ted Chiang: Subterranean Press, 83 pages". SF Site. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
  4. ^ LOCUS Index to SF Awards Archived 18 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine