We are continuing our discussion of Ted Chiang’s "Exhalations." Today (and one day late because of the MLK holiday), I give some thoughts on the first short story of the collection, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and kick off the discussion for the second short story of the collection, the eponymous “Exhalation.”
Previous editions of this “book club”:
- Join us for the TechCrunch 2020 book club, starting next week
- Reading Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
Some quick notes:
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Thoughts on The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate
I was electrified reading this short story. It’s one of the most obvious examples I can give on the power of re-reading the same work multiple times: What begins as a fairly open-ended and fractal plot finally comes all together in its final lines, beautifully inviting the reader to come back around a second time to understand even better how the various puzzle pieces fit together.
Structurally, Chiang has done something marvelous in such a short number of pages. He has taken the familiar trope of the time machine and has managed to create a multi-layered and non-linear narrative about fate and destiny, while also maintaining a sense of progressive plotting. There is the overarching story of the main character talking to His Majesty, but then this story is also a retrospective of multiple tales, all of which interrelate with each other directly and through their messages. Like the Gate itself, this structure is truly a masterwork of craftsmanship.
A bit aggressively, Chiang has laid on his primary theme quite thickly, with the main message of the story bottled up and exhorted in its closing pages. As Eliot Peper pulled out in the reading guide for this story, the primary passage is this:
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.
What Chiang is exploring is the definition of a “lived” existence. It’s one thing to go through the motions and do our work every day, connecting with friends along the way. It is quite something else to understand how our actions affect the world around us, and to viscerally begin to comprehend exactly what our actions mean to us and to others.
In this way, the theme reminds me a bit of the arch-plot of David Mitchell’s "Cloud Atlas," in which the actions of a character in one era have reverberations down through the years. Notes taken by an explorer get read by someone decades later and changes their life, and so we have these chaos/butterfly effect moments where even slight intentions can have long-term historical ramifications.
Chiang is saying something more taut: We aren’t just performing for a future audience — we are actually performing for ourselves, and sometimes for ourselves in the past. We are in fact sending a message back in time. I thought that the Gate, and the fact that it allows people to both travel to the future and to the past, creates this interesting connection. While it is a linear time impossibility that our future destinies are performing for us today, the message behind the theme I think has deep resonance.
At multiple times throughout the story, characters withhold crucial details from themselves in order to heighten the experience of living. Chiang writes, “In pursuing the boy, with no hint of whether he’d succeed or fail, he had felt his blood surge in a way it had not in many weeks.” Knowing the actual surprises of daily life comes with it its own reward, even as further rewards are acquired as we understand the meaning and lessons of how we react in such moments.
Within the TechCrunch world, we talk about startups and the future all the time. There is incredible ambiguity in the work that founders and venture capitalists do every day. Will this decision lead to the right outcome? Am I investing in the right company in the space? Why won’t someone just give me the right answer?
But Chiang is getting to something insightful, which is that the ambiguity in many ways is the definition of living. If we already knew the answer, then what is the point? It’s the satisfaction of acting a certain way at a certain time — even if it may well be fixed in advance — that ultimately provides meaning to our lives. Half the “fun” (and it isn’t fun, is it?) of being an entrepreneur is simply not knowing the answers in the first place.
Finally, I want to point out something that Chiang does better than almost any startup founder, and that is his introduction of the Gate itself. Chiang brilliantly enthralls the reader with this new technology, without ever having to explain in minute detail how the thing works or its patterns.
By having Bashaarat wave his hands through the gate, he visually demonstrates the technology for both the narrator and for us as readers, even while the complexity of the device becomes more apparent over the coming pages. The device (both plot and technology) is explained so naturally and progressively that we never have to stop to think — its purpose just comes organically. If only more startup pitches were like this!
All together then, the short story manages in a handful of pages to weave a discussion of fate, destiny, truth, ambiguity and the meaning of existence based around a small tech device that really is just a backdrop to a deeper human tale. If this isn’t science fiction at its finest, I don’t know what is.
Thank you to Gio, Eliot, Joanna, Justin, Veronica, Bruce, Damion and Scott who sent me emails related to this short story. I will try to include more reader comments in future editions.
Reading guide to "Exhalations"
We will read the next short story in the collection, "Exhalations," for next week (targeting Tuesday, January 28th). Here are some questions to think about as you read and enjoy the story:
- How does Chiang think about connections, both between individuals, and also between civilizations?
- What do the various metaphors in the story (air, copper, gold, etc.) mean? Why did he choose these specific metaphors?
- Chiang chooses this extensive metaphor of the body as machine. Why? What purpose does considering our bodies this way have for the story?
- The story dwells on memory and death. What message is the author sending about what it means to experience something?
- This story would seemingly connect with several major global issues today. What are those connections, and how does Chiang try to navigate the controversies of them in this short story?
- Is the story ultimately hopeful or sad? What emotions resonate for you in this story?
If you have feedback or thoughts you would like me to include, please feel free to email me at email@example.com.