I just finished reading Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories over the weekend, and because I have the tendency to compare things, it’s like reading an anthology of Chinese Black Mirror. Science fiction is not always my genre of choice — it’s none of anyone’s faults — it’s just that I often find it difficult to relate to its whole worldbuilding, which a lot of times were constructed out of Western elements. However, I felt with the exception of Ken Liu’s works — which is called silkpunk (#TIL) — and the science fiction worlds constructed out of MENA settings like P. Djeli Clark does, those are the ones I could find myself immersed in.
The anthology is made up of 15 short stories or novellas which some of them have been published elsewhere, and I enjoy a lot of them. However I couldn’t stop thinking of its last novella in the book, called The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary. It tells about a Japanese-American / Chinese-American couple, one a physicist one a historian of some sort, who develop this time travel machine that enables people to experience historical events. In particular, the couple developed the machine to allow the relatives of the victims of the infamous Unit 731 — where the Japanese Army undertook lethal human experimentation on the Chinese people and other human subjects during the World War II — to revisit the horrors of those days, and came back to tell the tale. The story was told in a documentary format — a format Liu adapted from Ted Chiang’s Liking What You See: A Documentary. It was hard to catch up at first as it jumps from one person’s narratives to another, but once I got ahold of the format, I can actually imagine the words playing in a whole documentary as if it is shown on screen.
Time travel stories written on the premise of changing the fate of marginalised or oppressed people in the centre aren’t something new, as written by Annalee Newitz, author of The Future of Another Timeline:
In Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War, agents on the opposite sides of a battle over the timeline fall in love. In the process, they undo the toxic history of white-settler colonialism in the Americas. Kelly Robson’s brilliant novella Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach imagines scientists using time travel to help remediate the worst effects of climate disasters. Even the new Doctor on Doctor Who has become something of a temporal activist, protecting historical figures like Rosa Parks to ensure that the long arc of history bends toward justice. Ray Bradbury’s influential short story “A Sound of Thunder” describes a time-traveler who accidentally kills a butterfly during a trip to the Cretaceous. As a result, millions of years later, a fascist named Deutscher has won the presidential election in the U.S. This story introduced the idea of the “butterfly effect,” which posits that even tiny changes can have far-reaching effects.
As an early career researcher, I couldn’t help but recognising the aspects of ethics in this research. The machine was posited to be a breakthrough in both physics and history area, where it allows anyone — particularly the relatives of the victims, who are Chinese — to go back in time to witness the atrocities with the goal of informing ‘the truth’, at the same time, forcing the Japanese people and those of their descendants to admit of their complicit, and to apologise. Some questions arise: why send in volunteers rather than professional historians or journalists, who were deemed to be more articulate and objective, and will not inculcate biases into the documentations? Sending in relatives of the victims means “large segments of history were consumed in private grief”, and their narratives might also be partial. It goes back to the same question of the academics particularly in social sciences, and also for activists: whose voice takes more precedence than the other? Is it the experts’, who sometimes do not have personal links to the events themselves, or the victims’ (or relatives of the victims’) who are the most affected by the cruelty inflicted upon them, but sometimes might not have the language to tell the stories in pure objectivity — which is a white myth anyway. The story does not give the answers to these questions, but this is something the academia had to work on, the whole objectivity and all, while not disregarding the voices that needed to be heard the most.
“What role, if any, we wish to give the voices of the past in the present is up to us.”
I love the fact that the novella also presents multiple narratives of other people from different perspectives. There are the cynics, the believers, those who are even indifferent, even some who believe in “the Christian thing to do is to forget and forgive”, those who think the atrocities were a karma to the Chinese for “being mean to the Tibetans”, and another from the Japanese doctor who lived (and conducted the experiments himself) during the event to tell the story. I think of a phrase from Angela Davis’ Freedom Is A Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, “Our histories never unfold in isolation. We cannot truly tell what we consider to be our own histories without knowing the other stories. And often we discover that those other stories are actually our own stories.”
It is hard to deal with the present and the future when those who were cruel to us never made any effort to forgive, and that’s the fact that the victims and the relatives of Unit 731 had to endure (also Auschwitz, Armenian massacre, Palestine, etc.). The brief mention of the terrible deaths happening during Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in the story also exemplified the concept of karma, and if or maybe we do deserve one another for the monstrosities we cause on each other.