The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang
This was the last story I had to read to finish out everything Chiang has published. It’s a novelette (possibly even a short story; it’s only 60 pages, counting full-page illustrations, and feels shorter than most of the stories in Stories of Your Life and Others), so it only took about twenty minutes to read, but like most of Chiang’s works, it stays with you for much longer.
The story is layered with stories. On the surface, it’s about a merchant telling a story to the caliph about his use of an alchemist’s gate which allows him to travel twenty years into the past. The alchemist in turn tells the merchant three stories of other people who have used the gate, partially to convince him it works, and partially as a cautionary tale. His caution is this: the past is immutable. Even if you go back to interfere with events, the future will play out exactly as it has, as it’s already accounted for your interference.
This idea isn’t new to science fiction (if that’s even what this is; it feels more like a fantasy to me), but Chiang adds a twist to his story not seen in other variations of this idea — that of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. One may not be able to change the past, but one can get a better understanding of it by revisiting it, reanalyzing it, and getting a better perspective on it. It’s similar to the theme he used in The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, but Chiang gives us a new perspective on the idea.
One gets the sense that the narrator is pleading for his life through his story, hearkening back to The Arabian Nights, but we only ever see the story through the narrator’s eyes. It makes me wonder if our narrator is reliable, or if he is only telling an engaging story to spare his own life. Whether or not he will live another day isn’t made clear, but the best stories never give us definitive answers, anyway. They may lead you in one direction or another, but the final call is up to the reader.
This story doesn’t have the same emotional effect as The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, but it’s still a profound read and a well-told tale. The intersecting stories are clever, and the characterization is spot-on. Chiang doesn’t disappoint, and this story is further proof of that fact.
“Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.”
–Fuwaad ibn Abbas
(Ted Chiang, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate)
The Builders by Daniel Polansky
One of the blurbs for this book described it as being a blend of Redwall and Unforgiven, which is apt, since this is a Medieval western story, populated with anthropomorphic animals. I say Medieval because there’s a lord, and there are swords, and I say western because there are guns, it’s violent, and the gang is getting back together to take revenge on a lord who wronged them in the past. And it’s dark. It’s about death and revenge and cruelty and violence, featuring a mouse, a badger, a stoat, and an opossum, among other animals. It’s an odd mish-mash of ideas that shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.
Polansky has the writing skills to pull this sort of book off. There’s a dark wit embedded throughout the novella, in the narrative, the dialogue, and the characters, and it fits the tone of the story perfectly. He doesn’t get bogged down in too many details, but neither does he gloss over his setting or characters when building up the plot. It’s mostly action, meaning that the story feels light, but that doesn’t make it unmemorable. Certain scenes and characters will stick with you for a while after reading the book.
Speaking of characters, there are a lot of them in this novella, and most of them are going to be a different animal. I regret not making a cheat-sheet of all the characters featured in the story, just so I could keep up with who was who, and who was what. Polansky’s characters are distinct, but it took a while for me to get them fixed in my head. I have to give Polansky credit for putting enough details in the narrative to remind you of who was what, by either sometimes referring to them as their animal type, or by focusing on what made that animal useful for the mission. The characters’ animal types weren’t chosen lightly.
The thing is, if you’re going to populate your story with anthropomorphic animals, there needs to be a good reason for it. Otherwise it’s just a gimmick. This could have just as easily been written using human characters without losing too much of its impact, and I can’t see that any of the animal characteristics of the characters couldn’t have been applied to humans. It’s a gimmick that works, mind you, but I’m puzzled as to why Polansky went this direction at all.
(Also, if you’re going to go that route with your story, you have to know your animals. Guinea pigs don’t have tails.)
For all the ways this story could have been ridiculous, it’s not. It’s a serious tale, with serious concerns and serious consequences, that just happens to be populated by animals. Why? That’s a good question. If you read it, and come up with an answer to that question, I’d love to hear it.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Arrival would have been reason enough for me to read this book, had I not already owned a copy. The Lifecycle of Software Objects was enough for me to add this book to my list ahead of the movie, but not enough to relegate it above adding it to my list in the hopes of reading it in the future. The movie bumped it up in my list.
“Tower of Babylon” is an allegorical tale that’s in itself a riff on the Tower of Babel myth. This time, the tower has made it all the way up to the vault of heaven, and two miners are traveling to the top of the tower to break through. It will take them about four months to make it all the way to the top. This was a winner of the Nebula Award in 1990, but for some reason it didn’t speak much to me.
“Understand” is about a man who becomes suddenly superintelligent after having an experimental drug bring him back from being brain-dead. At first, I thought this was going to be a retelling of Flowers for Algernon, but Chiang takes the story in a different direction. It’s definitely a literary child of that book, but it’s so different that it’s in a class all its own. It’s everything that Lucy should have been, with a plausible reason for opening one’s consciousness to the universe.
“Division by Zero” is about a mathematics professor who is able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that 1=2, by using accepted theorems and proofs of general mathematics. The realization drives her mad, which drives a wedge between her and her husband. As is the case with his other stories, the science parallels the story, with one being the allegory for the other. It’s not my favorite of the collection, but I liked how Chiang put the two together.
I actually read “Story of Your Life” last year, shortly after seeing Arrival. I’d had the book for a while before seeing the movie, but after the movie had such an effect on me, I went ahead and read the story to see how they compared. They differ in significant ways, but the message of the story remains. Like the movie, this is a fantastic story about time, memories, and truth, told against the backdrop of a peaceful alien invasion.
“Seventy-Two Letters” is a story about golems and self-replicating machines. It’s intriguing, but it was a bit of a chore for me to get through it. The myth of golems have never appealed to me, which could be part of it, but the story didn’t feel engaging to me. As is usual for Chiang, he parallels science with the message of his story.
“The Evolution of Human Science” is a short-short which was originally published in Nature, as part of a series about examinations of future technologies. This one looks at humans changing into metahumans, and how the method for storing information changes from normal print methods to a neural network. It’s definitely a think piece more than a story, and it gets you thinking.
“Hell Is the Absence of God” is an interesting look at religion and faith, in a world where angels are vividly real — their visitations are accompanied by disasters, death, and miracles, both good and bad. Hell also becomes visible at random times throughout the months, so one can see what it’s like to displease God. The main character in the story of a man who loses his wife to one of those miracles, and struggles to find the will to love God so that he may rejoin his wife when he dies.
“Liking What You See: A Documentary” is a fictional documentary about a neurological implant that prevents people from being able to recognize beauty. Chiang examines the phenomenon from several different angles, positive and negative, in an epistolary style that will keep you engaged, and wondering how he will conclude the events. He doesn’t let you down.
After doing a little bit of research into Chiang, I realized there were only a handful of his stories not included in this book, and that most of them are available online. I read those, and I’ve included my thoughts on those stories here as a bonus.
“What’s expected of us” is a another one-page story published in the journal Nature, but has enough behind it to keep you thinking for a very long time. The premise is simple: What would happen if we played with a device that could predict our actions? The conclusion, though, might keep you up at night.
“Exhalation” is an examination of consciousness, existence, and the universe, told from the perspective of an other. It’s fascinating how Chiang can reflect everything that makes us human in something that, in the end, is so alien.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling was published by Subterranean Press, the same publisher who brought us The Lifecycle of Software Objects, so I figured it was going to be good, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s about a technology that allows people perfect recall of all their memories, but it’s also about the purpose of memory in relationships in how we recall what’s happened to us. What happens when we’re given perfect recall of our entire lives? How does it affect our lives and the lives of everyone we know?
“The Great Silence” is a short story that asks a simple question, posed in the editor’s note of the ebook: “Why are we so interested in finding intelligence in the starts and so deaf to the many species who manifest it here on earth?”
Chiang writes with an economy that presents his points effectively without sacrificing his story. His style covers complex scientific concepts in a way that makes them accessible, as well as presenting people as fully realized characters whom you connect with over the course of the events. I understand Chiang does a lot of research into his topics before writing about them, and I think that’s why he’s able to get his science and stories across so easily. Given that he’s only written fifteen pieces of fiction in over 25 years of writing, it’s clear he does a lot of research, and when you look at the accolades he’s received for his fiction, it’s clear that it’s worth it.
This collection reminds me a lot of Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, in that the stories are as thoughtful as they are engaging, and they present a fiction that’s challenging as well as accessible. The authors’ focuses are different, but their themes are similar, especially in the ways the two writers combine science with human drama. If I had to recommend one over the other, I think I would have to give the nod to Liu, but that’s only if I had to; as far as I’m concerned, both books are required reading.
“… words were not just the pieces of speaking; they were the pieces of thinking. When you wrote them down, you could grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hands and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, make them stronger and more elaborate.”
–Ted Chiang, The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling
Jedi Apprentice: The Followers by Jude Watson
The Followers is the second of the special edition books in the Jedi Apprentice series, as well as being the last book in that series. It’s intended to bridge the gap between the Jedi Apprentice and Jedi Quest series, and like Deceptions, the other special edition book in the series, this book is split into two halves, one with Obi-Wan as Qui-Gon’s apprentice, the other half with him as Anakin’s Master. The story that connects the two is a singular one involving the search for a Sith holocron.
The book is fairly forgettable. In the first half of the book, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan investigate a teacher who has ties to Sith artifacts, and they suspect he’s trying to retrieve a holocron to learn the secrets of the Sith. In the second half, Obi-Wan and Anakin revisit this teacher ten years later as they suspect one of his students is going to attempt to retrieve that same holocron. The connection between the stories is good, but since both stories involve the same characters going to the same planet to retrieve the same holocron, the two halves feel repetitive. We’re reading the same story in both halves, just with a few minor changes.
In addition, the book has little connection to the series that preceded it. In Deceptions, there was a clear connection to previous events, which tied it neatly into the whole series, but in The Followers, there are no secondary characters brought in to cement the story with the series. Bant makes a brief appearance, and Tahl is mentioned in passing, but otherwise the only characters carried over from the series are Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Plus, part of the charm of the series has been the relationship that develops between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, which is dropped in favor of the plot, leaving the story uninteresting and forgettable. It makes me wonder if Watson wrote this one just to get the series to an even twenty books.
Jedi Apprentice: The Threat Within by Jude Watson
The Threat Within brings us to the end of the standard Jedi Apprentice series, and with it, we see Qui-Gon give Obi-Wan the freedom to lead a mission on his own. Qui-Gon offers help when asked, but otherwise lets Obi-Wan take the reins and decide how to proceed. On a planet where the sole purpose in life is to work and manufacture, and sabotage is routinely slowing down that process, the challenges are great.
Watson bring the series to a close with a moving story, not about the workers on the planet (though there is some emotion there), but about the relationship that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan have developed. The only recurring characters in this series are the two of them, as it should be, since this is a story about passing responsibility on to the next generation. That Watson parallels this time with a mission that requires the same method as a solution is appropriate.
The series had a few missteps near the end, but overall I can see why it’s rated as highly as it is. Watson’s skill is in capturing the emotion of relationships, and since all stories stem from character, it’s no surprise that the stories turned out as well as they did. It’s reassuring to see that there are another twenty-plus novels of her left in the juvenile Expanded Universe.
Jedi Apprentice: The Only Witness by Jude Watson
The Only Witness serves as the coda to the New Apsolon trilogy, as it gives Qui-Gon an opportunity to come to terms with his grief over Tahl’s death. He and Obi-Wan travel to the planet Frego, which is ruled by a crime family. One of the members of the family who married into it is ready to turn evidence on them, but she needs Jedi protection back to Coruscant to ensure her safety and survival. Once there, the two Jedi become embroiled in further protection, and Qui-Gon learns that the woman they’re there to protect is grieving herself, as her husband was murdered before he could turn evidence on his own family.
As a final word to the New Apsolon trilogy, this is a good book, extraordinary, even. Watson captures the emotions of Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Lena, the newly-widowed member of the family, as they deal with their grief. Obi-Wan gets jealous of the relationship Qui-Gon and Lena share, but he comes to realize he doesn’t have the connection they have of losing a spouse. Watson describes grief and its aftereffects well, fully capturing the process Qui-Gon has to endure before he can go back to being himself.
As a story, though, the book is just mediocre. The crime family story isn’t that compelling, save for keeping the reader on their toes as to whose motivations are genuine and who’s telling the truth, but every other book in the series has that same element to it. It doesn’t help that this is among the shortest books in the series at just 118 pages, so Watson doesn’t have as much room to work with her characters here. Lena is fully realized, but I think that’s partly due to her being a mirror to reflect Qui-Gon’s own feelings. Whether it’s due to her casting reflections or her being a good character by herself, it works.
The Last Witness is a mixed bag, but I think I fall on the side of “liked it”, since it was a good examination into grief. Anyone who’s come this far into the series will likely go ahead and read it, but the book is a nice reminder of what Watson can do as a writer. You just have to read through the unfortunate trilogy that precedes the book to get a clear picture of what the events mean to Qui-Gon.
Jedi Apprentice: The Call to Vengeance by Jude Watson
Overlooking the fact that Tahl became a woman in the refrigerator in the first two books, The Call to Vengeance is a decent adventure story about Qui-Gon straddling the line between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force, as he’s hunting down the man responsible for Tahl’s death. He tells himself that he’s hunting him down to bring him to justice, but he starts to channel Bryan Mills from Taken and struggles to restrain himself.
Watson goes back to doing the stories that she does best, highlighting the relationship between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, which is strained as Qui-Gon stays closed off to his Padawan. Obi-Wan has to learn on his own what Tahl meant to his Master, which doesn’t take long, since he’s already trained to be observant to the behaviors of those around him. The entire trilogy is a bit of a microcosm of the two prequel movies, showing how Jedi form attachments, how they’re detrimental to their duties, and how they can lead to a Jedi’s downfall. Here, we see an alternate take, where Qui-Gon stays on the Light Side (no spoiler here; we know that’s how it will turn out thanks to The Phantom Menace), but it shows how he’s not averse to breaking the law and his own vows in order to exact vengeance.
This book would get a higher rating from me, save for the complications I saw with Tahl’s character. Even overlooking those problems, the story winds up being more mediocre than her other efforts in the series, since most of it is still tracking people down and chasing them across cities and plains.Watson winds up all the elements of the plot effectively, and keeps us guessing from one book to the next as to how events will ultimately play out, and for that, it’s a decent read. I wish she had done better with Tahl, though.
Jedi Apprentice: The Death of Hope by Jude Watson
Picking up just moments after The Ties That Bind, The Death of Hope continues with Qui-Gon chasing after Tahl, his newly-beloved, after she’s been kidnapped by the Absolutes, a totalitarian group that wants to regain control of the planet Apsolon. The story focuses primarily on his and Obi-Wan’s search for her, neatly twisting the Master/Apprentice relationship on its head, as Obi-Wan now has to act as the voice of reason against Qui-Gon’s impetuosity.
The problem is that the whole thing makes little sense. I get that Watson upped the stakes for Qui-Gon by making his relationship with Tahl more romantic, but it doesn’t ring true to me for a couple of reasons. For one, the Jedi aren’t supposed to form these attachments, and Qui-Gon and Tahl are both characters who adhere to their edicts pretty strongly. Sure, Qui-Gon has a reputation for breaking the rules when his feelings tell him otherwise (see: The Ties That Bind), but this is a core part of his Jedi training that he overlooks without much angst or consideration. Both have a moment of hesitation before declaring their love for the other, but it’s brief.
For another, the two were already close friends, and had been for years, before reaching this point in the last book. I’d like to think that, without their pledging their lives to each other in the previous book, Qui-Gon would still be going on this chase to find her. Instead, she creates a forced relationship that only serves to drive Qui-Gon forward. It bothers me, because their relationship before was one that supported the idea that men and women could be friends without it becoming anything more, but now it’s just another romantic subplot used to drive a man’s character development. It’s disappointing, especially in a juvenile series where Tahl serves as a strong role model for young women.
If Watson had made this just a subplot, I could overlook it to some degree, but this is the main plot for the entire book. I think Watson is trying to show us how attachment can be bad for Jedi, giving us some foreshadowing into Obi-Wan’s relationship with Anakin in about fifteen years’ time, but by converting Tahl from an independent character into Qui-Gon’s girlfriend, she turns her into a trope instead of a fully realized character. She captures the emotion well (enough so that I’m surprised this is a book written for younger children), but she also does a disservice to one of her best characters.
This book is such a disappointment. I may have been predisposed to finding fault with it once I realized in the last book that Watson was setting up Tahl to be another woman in the refrigerator, but this book made it clear. There was no reason related to the plot for Tahl to die, save to spur Qui-Gon down his own path of development.