Reading Ted Chiang’s ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’

What would we do if we could visit our own pasts or futures? Are we more likely to change our timelines, or will our timelines actually project themselves back on to us more forcefully?

This is the first discussion post of this beta-testing, informal TechCrunch book club, which is starting with the first short story in Ted Chiang’s science fiction collection “Exhalation.” Join us as we walk through each story in succession in the coming weeks and explore a wider expanse of technology and its effect on society.

The first story in the collection is “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a compact, interwoven series of tales that discusses a time-shifting “gate” that allows people to move forward and backward in time at a specific interval. Chiang takes the familiar device of the time-travel machine and repurposes it for a deeper introspection of how humans consider their own lives and the lives they affect.

For this first week, I want to start with some reading questions (posted below) to think about before presenting deeper thoughts from me and readers. As I mentioned before, you can email me your thoughts at and include them below in the comments, as well. Several communities online on Reddit and Twitter have already begun conversations, as well.

My friend and occasional Extra Crunch contributor Eliot Peper wrote in to describe what he considered the most foundational passage of the piece, and his thoughts:

“Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.”

This passage resonated with me deeply because it hints at one of the reasons I love reading science fiction like Chiang’s: Not to catch a glimpse into the future, but to inspect the present more closely, and from fresh angles—learning lessons along the way.

We will return next week on Tuesday with more fully formed thoughts on this short story, as well as a similar reading guide for the second short story, the eponymous “Exhalation.”

Some questions to ponder about “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”:

  • What is Chiang trying to convey about the meaning of destiny? Are we really “the audience as well as the players”?
  • Do we have agency in our own lives? Can we really affect the future with our own actions?
  • How should we observe what happens around us? Is consideration of what is happening enough to bring understanding and contentment, or do we have to have a stake in every outcome for us to feel satisfied?
  • Why did Chiang choose this particular time and setting (historical Baghdad) for this short story?
  • Similarly, why did he choose to include three tales in such a short story? What did this structural device provide us as readers?
  • What does the introduction of the gate imply about how new technology is accepted? Is it believable that such a wondrous device would be accepted so readily?
  • Is the gate neutral? Could it be used for good or evil, or does it depend on the user themselves?