Posts Tagged ‘Sands of Time


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!


The Tortured Brush.

The last post was about how an artificially dark James Bond doesn’t fit with the fun, action filled film tradition of the James Bond franchise. It’s not really news that Hollywood is completely out of ideas and is willing to revive anything in order to make a quick buck. It seems in an attempt to make these old franchises “believable” today, they all need to be painted with what will now be called… THE TORTURED BRUSH.

The Tortured Brush is what can be used on any character in order to make them dark, modern, and complex. It also means that you don’t need to write many stupid talking scenes; you can just have a character whose conscience is too heavy for words. Yeah, it’s exactly what happened to Bond… but he’s not the only one.

Please note that just like with my post on twist endings, I’m coming out against the insincere use of this concept more than the concept itself. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule that pull it off really well, but it’s time to point a couple fingers.

I’m not a huge fan of The Spirit, but OH MY GOD. If you glance at a spirit comic and then look at the trailer, you’d be absolutely amazed. I’ve been accused of sticking a little too hard to canon in my (occasional) geeky obsessions… but look at it! After Sin City, which was an amazing comic to movie translation, Frank Miller seems to think it’s fine to apply exactly the same look to a completely different comic that doesn’t even belong to him.

Even Beowulf, arguably the oldest hero in the history of the english language, got hit with paint from the tortured brush. Read that again. Yeah, they decided to add a “trendy modern spin” on a character that laid the groundwork for all stories about heroism to follow. Was it in an attempt to make a story about a guy who gets naked to slay a demon more believable? I don’t think you can accuse me of sticking too much to canon with this one, because the story IS canon. 

Swinging and wall running over to video games… I’m going to take a cheap shot at the Prince of Persia. As far as I’m concerned, the first Prince of Persia game helped define the platformer. Like many games of the time, the story was secondary to the gameplay. The series had a couple failed attempts at going 3D, until the Sands of Time came out and blew everyone away. It ruled, and it had a fun and light story that was just a little more clever than it initially seemed. With the sequel, Warrior Within, they inexplicably wanted to make the prince into a blood soaked anti hero. He dressed like a rockstar, fought chicks in bondage outfits, and severed head after head in slow motion. Damn, I have a bad habit of making bad things occasionally sound awesome. Once again, this false angst and dark tone didn’t sit well with those who appreciated the previous story. The ending of the game before it was surprising and funny… it didn’t make sense to lead into such a moody sequel. 

I love dark as hell stories. I really do. I find it extremely rewarding to study every new anti-hero that I stumble upon. I fear that with the success of several dark superhero films, including The Dark Knight, which was great and totally appropriate (finally!) in its level of moodiness, Hollywood and popular culture in general will feel the urge to synthetically darken their already existing characters and stories. Be on the lookout for the Tortured Brush!

July 2018
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