Hugo Review – Best Novella – The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary

As I previously mentioned, I’m attempting to consume as much of the 2012 Hugo Short Listed works in order to make an informed vote.

I  am now on to the category of Best Novella.

This is my review of The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary by Ken Liu.

Note, this review is obviously subjective and most definitely biased, based on the topics and style of writing which interest and entertain me.

This review may contain SPOILERS.

Synopsis: A mock documentary about the husband and wife team who develop a way of using quantum physics to observe history. However, a given scene can only be observed once, as the process is destructive, leading to unverifiable, subjective observations. The majority of the observations are around World War II war crimes in Asia, and the resultant political implications of the the scientists’ attempt to show what really happened, provide closure to the victims’ families, and demand acknowledgement from the governments involved.

Plot: The plot revolves around the political, historian and general social commentaries at the concept of observing history, who “owns it” (particularly when a territory was part of a different nation at the historical time being viewed), and the shedding of light on rather horrendous war crimes. There’s also the impact on the scientists who discovered the method, and the way society reacts to them.

Characters: As the novella is written as a documentary, we don’t get a huge amount of time with any one character, as it skips around from viewpoint to viewpoint. Probably the most we get is on Wei and Evan, the two scientists who develop the machine which allows observation of history and choose the area and time to observe (war crimes) and the observers (victims’ family members and descendants). Some of the included vox populi comments are rather familiar to anyone who’s read the comments on contentious topics on Internet Forums, in terms of their ignorance and *isms, which whilst an accurate insight into the way some people would react to the situation, didn’t endear the novella to me.

Scope: The novella attempted to focus on quite a wide scope, from the specific war crimes, to the political implications of revealing them some 70 years on, to the political implications of “ownership” of history (particularly when it applies to land which has traded hands), the parallels with basic archaeology which would often destroy a larger percentage of a site than was safely excavated (but provided lessons on increasing the excavation rate of future digs) and a social commentary on the way people and governments would rather ignore or deny horrific war crimes. I’m not sure it did it justice (boom tish) but it had a huge amount to cover.

Writing: To pull off the document style, the writing had to be excellent, with no wasted words. I think Ken does an admirable job of this, but it didn’t quite work for me. I’m unsure if this was the uncomfortable nature of the topic itself, the rapid jumping around from view points, or the writing itself, but I’d tend to lean more on the first two.

Pacing: Pacing was very odd, as it was a documentary style. It was very easy for Ken to insert interludes of some vox populi commentary to provide some necessary distractions from the descriptions of the war crimes, and Ken did so masterfully. There wasn’t a huge build up as such, and the ending was a little disappointing, albeit not unexpected.

Other Comments: I found the attempt at explaining the science behind the ability to view the past a bit weak. It was obvious handwavium to allow the story to play out, and seemed to rely on photons having travelled from a given scene out into space, without any explanation of how this applied to indoors scenes.

Overall: A very disturbing look at some of the Asian based World War II war crimes, and a cynical and depressing but realistic assessment of how it would play out politically if it was possible to directly observe the past. A very good use of SF as social commentary, but not an incredibly enjoyable novella to read.

Four Novellas reviewed, five to go. Next: Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente.



Best Novella Background Material:

Short listed in the Best Novella category for the 2012 Hugos are:

Countdown, Mira Grant (Orbit)
The Ice Owl, Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
Kiss Me Twice, Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s)
The Man Who Bridged the Mist, Kij Johnson (Asimov’s)
The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, Ken Liu (Panverse 3)
Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)

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