So we can’t go back in time—but what if we could see back in time? Glimpsing the past is almost as common as stories involving actual time travel. In The Man Who Ended History, however, Ken Liu puts a very intimate and emotional twist on reliving and remembering the atrocities of war. Coupled with the archaeological premise that these observational trips to the past are always a one-time affair—each act of observation destroys the particles that allow the observation to happen—this allows Liu to explore the ramifications of allowing the past to intrude on the present so vividly.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way we learn history in Ontario high schools. Grade 10 history is compulsory, but it seems like history ends after World War II—we just spend so much time on it. And yeah, it deserves to have a lot of time spent on it; it was a big deal. But so were many things that happened after 1950—things I have only vague ideas of, since we didn’t talk about them in history class. Recently, however, I’ve begun to notice that there is plenty I don’t know about World War II—and I’m not referring to all the details that get glossed over because there isn’t enough time. The entire Sino-Japanese War portion of the war is, as best I can recall, mentioned in nary a footnote in our history texts. Japan was involved, and not in a good way. That’s about all I learned in school.
If it weren’t for reading frivolous things like science fiction, I wouldn’t be aware that the Holocaust and similar ethnic cleansings in Europe were far from the only atrocities happening during that war. It took a novella with shady particle physics and time travel, of a sort, to tell me about Unit 731 and Pingyang. We’re so selective when it comes to “history” and the idea of “historical truth”, and this doesn’t even have to be the result of nefarious intentions. Simply put, humans have terrible memories, and we let our emotions and biases colour those memories. Liu himself makes this point through the unreliability of the people who back to witness the activities at Unit 731.
The device of making each trip a destructive excavation of the past presents an interesting dilemma to the reader. And therein lies my problem with The Man Who Ended History: I couldn’t agree with Wei. Sorry, but Yours Is Not Science if it is not verifiable. The emotional retellings of descendants of victims travelling into the past is not verifiable. Maybe sending trained historians might have worked better, but I doubt it. In the end, observing the past isn’t the magic bullet to historicity. As long as humans are the one compiling the history, we will never be objective.
Liu doesn’t claim we could be, though, and I don’t want to conflate my reactions against his main character with an idea that this story is poorly-written. On the contrary, it’s magnificently done. And it works well at its length—a short story would have been tantalizingly brief, a novel far too plodding. Plus, in its documentary format, it is more of a series of scenes than an actual narrative with any kind of plot. It’s a carefully designed and executed thought experiment, which is a grand tradition within science fiction.
Definitely Hugo material. Perhaps not Hugo-winning—we’ll see what I think of the other nominees in the novella category. But The Man Who Ended History takes real history—somewhat forgotten history, at least for this poor, publicly-schooled Westerner—and asks questions about how new technology might force us to confront our past. That’s what science fiction is all about.