Reading Ted Chiang's 'The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate'

Image via Getty Images / Vertigo3d
Image via Getty Images / Vertigo3d  

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:

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":


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