Posts Tagged ‘James Campanella

03
Jan
10

Ted Chiang – “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” review

Like any good boyfriend, I have an uncontrollable urge to push good science fiction on my geeky girl of choice. After sort of striking out with Neuromancer, I have rallied the troops by recommending a Ted Chiang short story. I like it so much I decided to push it on you as well.

You can find an audio recording that is performed quite well by James Campanella for free here. It’s about an hour and ten minutes long.

Who’s Ted Chiang? It’s okay, I hadn’t heard of him either. He’s a science fiction author who has only written a few stories, published at an incredibly slow rate. However, he’s won and been nominated for a truly ridiculous amount of science fiction awards. Each story has been truly labored over… and you can tell. I’ve read four or five of Chiang’s stories, but my favorite by far is the one I have linked above.

It’s a time travel story. Wait! Don’t run if you don’t like time travel stories! It’s a very different kind of time travel story. It’s told in a kind of Arabian Nights sort of way, cloaking the science fictiony aspect of the story in the words of myth and legend. If you don’t like time paradoxes, you can actually rest easy here. I won’t spoil too much, but just know that you should give this one a shot even if time travel isn’t your thing.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” feels like several mini stories that are all connected. It tells the tale of many people that use a “gate of years” to go through time and details the effects that their travel has on their lives, and more importantly, their understanding of their lives. The narrator himself also journeys through the gate of years, giving the story a sense of immediacy so it doesn’t just feel like several tales being repeated for you to hear.

The real beauty of this story is that it’s just as much about storytelling as it is about time travel. It’s about the effect (or lack thereof) that a story can have on a person. It’s about fate, the prewritten “story” of your life, and how many people attempt to rewrite their own story, improving themselves along the way. Of course it’s also left to you to ask yourself, would you change your destiny? Meet yourself? Rob yourself?

It’s a tiny little story, but the characters are all surprisingly strong. I can’t help but mentally compare this to Steven Erikson, the author of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. He can have you spending time with characters for hundreds of pages and you don’t feel you know them like you do the few people in Chiang’s story. Granted, Erikson’s characterization has gotten better in the second book, which is the one I’m still on, but that is for another review. This story makes you understand and care for it’s characters in a truly tiny amount of space. It’s really something to admire, especially in a science fiction story, where many people read just to get to the “gotcha” ending or the preachy moral.

A quick word about Campanella’s audio version of this story… it rules. He narrates it almost like The Prince from the Sands of Time video games, giving it an authentic sort of tone. The male voices are all really good; my only complaint would be with his female voices, as a few of them sound a little chipmunkish. To me though, this is absolutely the way to experience the story… so go listen to it!