Ben Babcock's Reviews > The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary

The Man Who Ended History by Ken Liu
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's review
Aug 02, 2012

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bookshelves: 2012-read, ebook, hugo-nominee, nebula-nominee, science-fiction, time-travel
Read on July 20, 2012

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.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Hélène (new)

Hélène Yours Is Not Science if it is not verifiable : yes... but which kind of verification for social sciences ? Or is it abusive to use the word science in such cases? I mean, I quite agree the retelling of the victims themselves wouldn't be proof. History as any other science is a human, social construct and, when reproduction isn't possible, the work towards objectivity is more challenging.

message 2: by Megan (new)

Megan Baxter I fully agree that we teach history terribly in Ontario schools - but part of the reason for ending at around 1950 is that generally, historians have only started working on history of the 60s in the last 10 years.

This doesn't necessarily have tons to do with high school curriculum, but it's part of the reason. When do things stop being current events/politics and become history?

On an unrelated note, every time I have taught or run tutorials, it has been an uphill battle to convince my students that Canadian history is not as dull as dishwater. I normally succeed, but it takes a few weeks. Part of the process tends to be talking about what they learned in high school, and how what we're going to talk about differs from that.

message 3: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Babcock Hélène wrote: "Yours Is Not Science if it is not verifiable : yes... but which kind of verification for social sciences ? Or is it abusive to use the word science in such cases? I mean, I quite agree the retelli..."

Well, I think it's charitable to describe the social sciences as "science." I'll grant that they are science-like, and useful. And history (as distinct from archaeology) is not science but a humanity. History has neither the capacity nor the responsibility to be objective. That being said, like any other humanity, reducing bias is definitely a worthwhile goal.

Megan wrote: “ When do things stop being current events/politics and become history?"

That's an excellent question, and you make a good point about that limitation. I still think it would be worthwhile to have a late 20th century crash course in world events--maybe ditch Careers and make Civics a full credit course.... Look at me, barely have my OCT certification and already I'm redesigning curricula in which I have no qualifications!

I face a similar uphill battle when it comes to teaching math at any level ... in fact, one of my ways to remedy that is to appeal to history and spin them tales of the context of great mathematical discoveries. Pythagoras might have been a murderer ... Galois died in a duel ... math is dangerous and romantic! Alas, somehow I think the opposite approach won't help you.

message 4: by Megan (new)

Megan Baxter It's not that dissimilar. It's knowing the great stories to tell students that will get their attention and get them engaged before doing anything else.

And I think a civics course would be great - I certainly never took one in high school.

message 5: by Ben (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ben Babcock We have a compulsory Civics course now. It theoretically gives students background into Canada's government and legislative systems. But it's half a semester, the other half being "Career Studies", which is basically making resumes and playing around on Career Cruising. The courses are widely considered a joke (I somehow managed over 100% in both), although there's a surprising number of people who fail because they think "easy" means they never have to hand in with. :D

message 6: by Megan (new)

Megan Baxter Huh. Must have been after my time. :D

I did take an optional "Society: Challenge and Change" course in grade 12, which was sort of a civics/sociology course. Of course, when I did grade 9, Keyboarding was a required choice at my high school. But not Careers.

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