Blogging Brilliant Stories: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” by Ken Liu

I read this story over the summer and fell utterly hopelessly in love, and I’ve been meaning to do a blog post rant about its awesomeness ever since.

The full text of the story is available online, here. Go. The story will convince you of its perfection far better than I could. I’ll wait.

This is a time travel story. It’s a story about the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930’s-40’s, and about the medical testing lab in Pingfang District, which many call the Asian Auschwitz, where thousands of Chinese were murdered in the course of unspeakably horrible “experiments.” And as the story says, “at the end of the War, General MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied forces, granted all members of Unit 731 immunity from war crimes prosecution in order to get the data from their experiments and to keep the data away from the Soviet Union.” If for nothing more than its comprehensive capsule history of this ugly era, “The Man Who Ended History” is worth reading (… really, I gotta say, the authorities at Pingfang were light years ahead of the Nazis when it comes to dreaming up truly horrific things to do to the human body).

Of course no matter how awesome its speculative conceit is, or how important and weighty its subject matter, no story can truly live and breathe without great characters with complex relationships, and “The Man Who Ended History” has those. I loved the time I got to spend with Evan Wei and Akemi Kirino; I found Wei’s dilemma and its ultimate “resolution” very moving.

There’s also a ton of really detailed stuff exploring problems of continuity and consistency between the current governments of China and Japan, and their counterparts of the era of the Pingfang atrocities. I adore that shit, and this story does it so well.

But here’s the heart of why this story rises above “great” and becomes “brilliant,” in my book.

It’s my firm belief that science fiction/fantasy is the only language in which we can discuss human suffering at the staggering scope of genocide. Genocide is the stuff of nightmare; it’s a suspension of all the rules that human beings live by, and we can’t actually attempt to understand it by exploring a fictional world where those rules still apply.  Godzilla is the only way to get our heads around Hiroshima. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is the window through which we can watch American slavery.

That’s what “The Man Who Ended History” does, and does it in ways that convince us, whether or not we know anything at all about China-Japan relations in the present or the past, that the little-known atrocities at Pingfang are absolutely essential to understanding what it means to be human.