23) ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’ by Ken Liu
This is the first novella that I’ve read from this year’s Hugo selection and if the others are of as high a standard, then it’s going to be an extremely good year. I loved this story, from start to finish.
A lot of people have said that they found this very melancholy and very sad. I agree, but it didn’t make me cry; it’s not as sad as ‘The Paper Menagerie’, for instance. The ending is depressing but entirely believable; if the world was faced with the knowledge that it could explore its past, I find it hard to believe that the countries involved in the book would want to do that. Certainly I don’t imagine any of the European powers being keen, and neither do I think China or the USA would want to reopen old wounds.
I heard Liu talking on the SF Signal podcast recently, and he was talking about people finding things out about history through his works; that was definitely the case for me with this novella. When a British school teaches students about World War II it tends to focus on the European side of the war, and so I don’t know all that much about the Pacific. I definitely didn’t know about the subject matter of the novella, and I’m glad that I now do.
I found the structure worked really well for the story, and made good use of the length of the work. I’m not sure this style would have worked for an entire novel (although, having said that, I do have World War Z coming up on my to-read list and I get the impression that’s semi-similar). I liked the way that views were presented of the USA, China and Japan from both the political angle and the on-the-street angle.
I also found the central scientific idea completely brilliant. The concept of using quantum entanglement to go back in time on a one-time-only basis is completely genius, and makes excavations of the past possible. I must say that, on a purely scientific basis, I was disappointed with the central character’s decision to dive straight into doing this – I thought his rationale for doing so was completely believable, so this isn’t a criticism of the author or the story, but of the character, if that makes any sense. The idea of using the human brain to automatically filter out all the extraneous information was a nice touch.