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The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi

01/03/2011. Contributed by Richard Palmer

Buy The Alchemist in the USA - or Buy The Alchemist in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 92 deluxe hardback. Price: $20.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-353-2.

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Paolo Bacigalupi's novella, 'The Alchemist', is a companion piece to Tobias Buckell's 'The Executioness', which is also reviewed here.

Bacigalupi is probably better known to readers for his recent and rather good SF novel 'The Windup Girl'. 'The Alchemist' is something of a departure for him as it is a fantasy.

'The Alchemist' is set in a land where a dangerous bramble is choking the land, destroying homes, fields and killing people. The titular alchemist has spent the years leading up to the events of the story spending the last of his wealth in an attempt to halt the spread of the bramble and save his people.

As the story opens, he is in the process of selling the last possession of any value in the house, his daughter's finely crafted bed. Though this is necessary for them to survive, he is still guilt-ridden as he believes that it is the choices that he has made in the preceding years that have reduced them.

He believes that he has found a solution to the bramble problem, which he takes to the leaders of his country to try and convince them to adopt. However, things don't work out in quite the way that they intended.

The land that this and the Buckell novella, is set in is populated by people who are able to use magic. The use of magic, however, is what causes the bramble to sprout. So cast a small spell here and a new sprout of bramble appears in a far away farmer's field. The obvious solution, therefore, would be just to stop using magic. The problem that people have is that they are always able to justify the use of one tiny piece of sorcery as it is for a good cause. That, by itself, it will not cause any harm. Of course, collectively, they destroy themselves.

This conundrum is one that the alchemist has to deal with. His daughter is troubled with weakened lungs and he finds himself wrestling with the question of whether to use magic or not.

The trickery of the leaders happens because their method of reducing the use of spells is to make public examples of the offenders and execute them. When demonstrating his new device, they trick him into revealing who has been covertly casting spells. Of course, he wants no part of this, but finds himself being manoeuvred into co-operating as they manipulate his love for his daughter.

The story is, despite being a fantasy, reminds me a lot of the ideas that Bacigalupi uses in some of his SF. Some of his short stories and certainly 'The Windup Girl' have environmental themes. I think that, in some ways, this novella certainly has undertones of this. The idea of something which could destroy us all, but is brought about by, on their own insignificant actions, is reminiscent of the problems that we as a species are facing with relation to pollution and destruction of the environment.

Given that the novella is short (92 pages, with large type) there isn’t really a great deal in the way of multiple story arcs, character development or any of the kind of things you'd expect from a full-length novel. It's a long short story, really. However, Bacigalupi is a talented writer. This moves along well and ends in a satisfying manner. Enjoyable.

Richard Palmer

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