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Ted Chiang’s take on time

Updated: Apr 12, 2022

“Past and future are the same. We cannot change either, only know them more fully.”

I love stories about time, so it should come as no surprise that two of my favorite Ted Chiang stories are related to this theme.

Let’s talk about two of the Nebula-winning stories of the gifted sci-fi writer Ted Chiang: Stories of Your Life (1997) and The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate (2007).

Mild SPOILERS AHEAD for these two stories.

This is the Science of Fiction (well, more like the philosophy of fiction, but you get the idea).

Is the future written in stone? Is it as unchangeable as is the past? Our whole culture and society depend on the existence of free will to function. How could we blame a person for acting deranged if their committed crime was unavoidable? The idea that we are responsible for our future drives our everyday fights and gives meaning to many lives.

But we humans are never that rational, right? On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s faith. The faith that we are destined to (be or do) something is also a driving force in our lives. And, although it is a concept diametrically opposed to free will, the two can coexist in a blend of independence and hope. We should work to reach our destiny, and the path is not unique. Temptations might astray is from it.

Faith and temptations are usually associated with a religious context, it is not always the case. The whole idea of assigning meaning to our lives revolves around identifying our own potential to make it a life goal. This involves a great deal of having faith in ourselves. And to excuse our failures is to identify a temptation that took us from “the right” path.

In these two stories, Stories of Your Life and The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, Ted Chiang played with a concept against these ideas of free will and temptations: determinism. And it’s fascinating!

Ted Chiang’s determinism uses the strict sense of the word. What if every minute, every action of ours, is already determined? The future, as is the past, is unchangeable. Would you accept it? Would you try to escape it?

While Stories of Your Life is about acceptance, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is an attempt to escape it.

Stories of Your Life is perhaps Ted Chiang’s most famous story. Not only was it nominated for a Hugo, but it also won a Nebula for best novella and a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Its adaptation is the highly acclaimed movie Arrival, directed by Dennis Villeneuve and starred by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

This is a first-contact story, but the central theme is about the idea that learning a new language rewires one's brain. The story is about a linguist, Louise Banks, who learns how to communicate in the alien language. As a result, she starts to see the future. The aliens (Heptapods) are a clairvoyant species (and if you want to understand more about the science behind their future-seeing, I wrote a blog post about it!). When Louise learns their language, she gains this ability.

Louise can see the future, but she cannot change it. The movie Arrival differs from the original story on this point. In the movie, Louise could use her newfound ability to change the future. Still, she chooses to trace the same tragic path because of the moments of happiness it gives her. In the novella, Louise has no such choice. She can only live and enjoy each minute to its fullest, forever trapped in her destined journey.

"Now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don't talk about it. Those who've read the Book of Ages never admit to it."

One analogy she uses when explaining how it would work stuck with me. It would be like being an actor in a theater play. You know the lines, you know the ending, but a good actor recites everything with passion, trying their best to convey the feelings and meanings of each scene.

Could you do it?

On the other hand, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is a learning experience. After finding out an alchemist created a gate that allows time travel to the past and future, a merchant goes back in time to save the love of his life, who died in an accident. He does it despite the alchemist’s warnings that the past and future cannot be changed.

This is the classic time-loop, self-fulfilling trope. One could never change any events in the past because they were already done by their future selves, forcing things to happen the way they did. What could be gained from the time-travel experience is a new perception of past events.

It is exactly what happened to the Merchant. He could not stop the death of his wife, but he learned valuable information that helped him move on with his grief and be thankful for the time he and his wife spent together.

“Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.”

This is, in my opinion, the most beautifully written story by Ted Chiang. He often opts for simpler proses characteristic of sci-fi writers. The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is a delight to read.

That’s it for today, folks.

Have you read both stories? Which is your favorite? Let me know in the comments!

See you next post,



Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.

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