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Book Review: The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, by Ken Liu

The Observer Effect, history, and Unit 731.


The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary

WSFA Press, 2017, 127 pages



The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary is a science fiction tale that examines a branch of science rarely encountered in genre fiction: historiography. How and why should our understanding of history change if eyewitness accounts by observers sent from the future are prioritized over contemporaneous documents? A finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon awards, this story also won the Ignotus Award for Best Foreign Story in Spain. Ken Liu calls it the story he's most proud of having written.




This novella is a brilliant exploration of time travel and the ethics of historiography, told in the form of a documentary — interviews, Senate hearings, excerpts from TV documentaries, and journal entries. Ken Liu's notes at the end show that he did his research about a story that he obviously cared about, basing his fictional Senate hearings and textbooks and interviews on real ones.

The SF gimmick in the story is the discovery of the Bohm-Kirino particle, a sort of quantum particle traveling outwards from observable events along with photons. The scientists after whom the particle is named discover a way for people to directly observe the Bohm-Kirino particles from any given point in the past — in other words, "time travel." They are not actually traveling back in time, only observing, but they can be direct eyewitnesses to history. The catch is that by observing a particular point in time, they absorb, and thus destroy, the Bohm-Kirino particles they observe. Thus, no point in time can be observed more than once, and the original observer is the only eyewitness to it.

Liu does a good job of making this feel like a science fiction story with plausible quantum technobabble about the Bohm-Kirino particles and the process, but the sci-fi element is secondary to the real point of the story, which is our understanding of history, who owns the "truth" about historical narratives, and also a great big axe to grind with Japan.

Akemi Kirino, one of the scientists who discovered the Bohm-Kirino particle and the method of observing the past, is a Japanese-American physicist married to Evan Wei, a Chinese-American historian who specialized in Classical Japan. When his wife opens the past to direct observation, Wei becomes obsessed with one specific part of it: the activities of the infamous Unit 731 in Harbin, China, during World War II. He allows relatives of the victims of Unit 731 to go back in time to verify the truth of what happens, and in the process, reopens old wounds between Japan and China that have never really healed.

I was impressed with the emotional and philosophical weight of this story; Liu judiciously blends snippets of atrocity and inhumanity with anodyne news broadcasts, polemical Senate hearings, euphemizing politicians and diplomats, and very personal interviews. The personal consequences for Akemi Kirino and Evan Wei are woven into the international debate over allowing external "visitors" to go back and unearth (and indirectly, destroy) the past.

It is, of course, an assumption on my part that Liu, a Chinese-American SF author most famous for translating Cixin Liu's Hugo-winning The Three-Body Problem, had personal reasons for choosing Japan's wartime atrocities against China as the historical inflection point for this story. But it's a thoughtful and not entirely one-sided exploration of the issue (I say not entirely because it's pretty obvious the author has some feelings about Japan here), and the story does address what happens when other people — historical oppressors and oppressed alike — want their turn to revisit history.






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