Friday, September 24, 2010

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang

Source: StarShipSofa (mp3)
Length: 1 hr, 10 min (story is about 45 min)
Reader: James Campanella

The story: This time travel story, winner of the 2008 Hugo Award for best novellette, is set in caliphate Baghdad. This unusual setting for science fiction gives the story its unique flavor and allows it to feature an unusual approach to the old trope of a time travel story.  Chiang gives a nod to Arabian Nights by writing several stories within a framing story. Unlike Arabian Nights, where the framing story was simply an excuse to tell a diverse mix of unrelated stories, here the stories intertwine and touch one another.

Like many time travel stories, this one focuses on the consequences of our actions in life. Unusually for this genre, Chiang explores the uses of forgiveness and repentance on how we view the past. Interestingly, this echoes St. Augustine's views on the nature of time and forgiveness. We cannot travel through time in our own world, but by asking forgiveness we can try to change how we and others see our past.

Rating: 8 /10

The reader: Every time I listen to Campanella narrate a story, I come away more impressed. The man is a master of voices. In this story, he mimics the melody of a Middle Eastern accent, then shifts it to create different characters. He is a middle-aged man, a young man, an old man, and an evil thief. He even reasonably impersonates a young woman and an old woman, a feat that I consider the pinnacle of achievement for a male narrator. The Starship Sofa podcast is a reliable source of good science fiction audio, winning a Hugo Award itself this year. This story fills the first half of the episode linked to above.

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