I did a crazy thing a couple of weeks ago. I spent an entire day reading the remaining three Hugo-nominated novellas, because I really, really needed to be done with that portion of my reading. I save Liu for last, because I’d already read his short story nomination and figured I’d be in for a good read. No surprises there, but I didn’t expect it to be such an emotionally difficult read either.
But it’s a different kind of emotion than the one that hit me so hard in “The Paper Menagerie.” The emotion that connected me in that story was relating to a character who had mother issues, a character who was trying so damn hard to fit in with the normal way of doing things at the expense of his family. It’s certainly something I can relate to, though the narrator was more callous than I.
Yet in “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” I’m treated to a completely different kind of emotion. For those of you who read my review of Erin Hoffman’s “At the Foot of the Lighthouse (Todai Moto Kurashi),” you read how when I finally learned of American internment camps of the Japanese, I felt utterly betrayed by my own education system for so severely neglecting such an important and ugly part of American history. While I didn’t feel the same sense of betrayal reading this story, I still felt…. frustrated. Because when we study history, there is so much that’s left out, and as they say, history is usually told from the point of view of the winners. Which means there’s a whole other point of view, whole segments of history, that are utterly ignored. Not necessarily out of malice, but out of negligence.
I think it’s frustrating for me personally because one of my major complaints going through elementary school and then high school was that we were learning the same shit year after year, and only by the end of the school year would we touch on new stuff. And of course, by time we got into that, summer arrived and we were all stir-crazy anyway. I’ll grant high school was a wee bit more different — I had the choice to take U.S. History or World History, and I pounced on World History like my life depended on it. I did get a far more in-depth look at the topic, but World History is SUCH a large topic. You know it didn’t cover everything and anything. Just the high points, particularly how said points related to U.S. or Western Culture. It’s a fault of my American education system, perhaps specifically tied to my state, but it’s in the past.
Yet any time I read fictional or non-fictional accounts of events that took place in other parts of the world, I’m equal parts fascinated and horrified. Fascinated because there’s still a part of me that craves to know more about world history. Horrified because why didn’t they teach us this stuff when we were growing up?
Anyway. This was a tough story to read. It was an excellent story, make no mistake. But it was also utterly difficult. Crimes against humanity are always, always difficult to read, especially when they’re so steeply based in truth and history.
And to get that history, we get to time travel. It’s definitely one of the most unique methods of time travel I’ve ever read about. Liu’s characters explain the science, and the writing, simple as it is, conjures images that are so beautiful to me.
Every night, when you stand outside and gaze upon the stars, you are bathing in time as well as light.
And then the details emerge:
The best telescopes we have today can see as far back as about 13 billion years ago. If you strap one of those to a rocket moving away from the Earth at a speed that’s faster than light . . . and point the telescope back at the Earth, you’ll see the history of humanity unfold before you in reverse. The view of everything that has happened on Earth leaves here in an ever-expanding sphere of light. And you only have to control how far away you travel in space to determine how far back you’ll go in time.
That is SUCH a cool idea. When people talk about needing a sense of wonder in science fiction, this is what gives me those particular goosies. But due to the particular nature of this time travel (no, they don’t literally use a rocket with a telescope fastened on it), you get this marvelous catch, one that rather explains the title of the tale:
If you want, you can look back on the day you were married, your first kiss, the moment you were born. But for each moment in the past, we only get one chance to look.
Picture this little calico devil beside herself with glee. Because I was. I love this concept so much. It’s fraught with tension!
The particular period of history that’s targeted in this novella is the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during the Second World War. Please, do not ask me how accurate the historical details are. Remember what I said above, about how I felt betrayed when I learned this happened but I was never in a class that taught it? Yeah, it’s utterly frustrating. The author could’ve made up all the details in the world and I wouldn’t know better, so people far more well-versed in history will have to tell me just how accurate Liu’s story is. But for my reading, I’m going to assume he did his research and knows his stuff. Because the point is that such history is easy to ignore. It’s explained as such:
“Sovereignty,” “jurisdiction,” and similar words have always been mere conveniences to allow people to evade responsibility or to sever inconvenient bonds. “Independence” is declared, and suddenly the past is forgotten; a “revolution” occurs, and suddenly memories and blood debts are wiped clean; a treaty is signed, and suddenly the past is buried and gone. Real life does not work like that.
Truer words were never spoken.
But the crux of this story is this: now that time travel has been discovered, those pioneers want to focus on this particular period of history and reveal it to the rest of the world, to force an apology from those who committed the wrongs so many years ago. But the problem is that once a moment is viewed, as you’ve learned, it’s gone.
History, as it turned out, was a limited resource, and each of Wei’s trips took out a chunk of the past that could never be replaced. He was riddling the past with holes like Swiss cheese.
I can’t talk about the story itself. It’s big, it’s complex, it defies easy review after only a single read. It demands to be read again and again to achieve true understanding. I’m not referring to the science either, but rather the motivations and the events and the people involved. There’s one observation after a wonderful, bitter twist that is so true of humanity’s reaction to evil actions.
Labeling someone a monster implies that he is from another world, one which has nothing to do with us. It cuts off the bonds of affection and fear, assures us of our own superiority, but there’s nothing learned, nothing gained. It’s simple, but it’s cowardly.
I don’t want to spoil this story for you. Suffice it to say that if and when Ken Liu publishes a short story collection or a novel, I’m going to be the first in line to pick it up. Reading his Hugo-nominated fiction this year has been a wonderful discovery for me, and his work is enthused with a certain kind of desperate authenticity, begging people (the individual or the masses, depending on the story) to stand up and pay attention to what’s happening around you. The big things. The little things. They all matter.
I’ll end with this. If this doesn’t make you want to read the story (which you can read for free here), I don’t know what will:
For far too long, historians, and all of us, have acted as exploiters of the dead. But the past is not dead. It is with us. Everywhere we walk, we are bombarded by fields of Bohm-Kirino particles that will let us see the past like looking through a window. The agony of the dead is with us, and we hear their screams and walk among their ghosts. We cannot avert our eyes or plug up our ears. We must bear witness and speak for those who cannot speak. We have only one chance to get it right.