[Review] The Hunger Tower by Pan Haitian
“My #1 candidate for the worst short SFF published in any professional venue in 2015”
That’s how Greg at Rocket Stack Rank described Pan Haitian’s short story The Hunger Tower. I can’t say I disagree with him. This is a literary car crash. A monster truck pileup packed into Trabantastic 8,374 words.
Let’s start with the plot. An aircrash (seriously?!) on a distant planet strands a priest, a chemistry professor and is-this-the-beginning-of-a-joke. They reach a valley with a tower, where they stave off starvation by eating one other. Eventually someone finds a way out, but is eaten before he can tell anyone else.
So far, so silly. Style-wise, the story is ‘told’ rather than shown. Almost no one has a name. They have titles like ‘boiler tender’ (What is a boiler tender? What do they do on planet far-far away?). From the sentence-level upwards, the howlers come thick and fast. Equal space is devoted to narrating important events – like people kicking off their shoes – and trivial events – like the chemistry professor being burned alive.
And then there are the sentences, many of which could ace a bad literature award on their ownsome. Here are my favourites:
#1 The Angel Delight Prize for Most Inappropriate Metaphor
Blood, gore, skull fragments and general intestinal splatter usually calls for horrifying metaphors, but the truly creative writer knows that pink desserts can serve the same purpose.
The survivors began to […] search the vessel, even exploring the severely damaged fore cabin from which not a single man had escaped alive. Coming across that room, which looked like nothing less than a strawberry slurry spattered blender,
Or the inside of a candy-floss machine… Or an ice cream maker splashed with vanilla brain matter and raspberry chunks.
#2 The Crack-Fic Trophy for Unintended Erotica
we must band together in this time calamity,*” the captain said. It comforted them all a little to look up at his ruggedly unyielding gray eyes, his muscular neck, his sturdy and well-defined chest.
I expected Fifty Shades of Cannibalism after the ‘ruggedly unyielding gray eyes’. Happily, that didn’t happen, but the author did attempt other descriptions, including this classic:
“You’re right, our laser guns are useless,” the chemistry professor said wearily. Due to his slender build, his large, protruding ears were quite eye-catching.
Not sure why the description of ears came up there… Maybe the writer was thinking of vapourising them with the useless laser gun?
[* Bonus prize for spotting the mangled grammar. I think it should be, “at this time of calamity.”]
#3 The Heavyweight Award for Fat Shaming
it was apparent that it would be impossible to sustain sixty people for three months on these meager rations alone. This was especially true since many of the survivors were so fat that it was all but guaranteed that they were gluttonous gourmands.
Or they could have had a thyroid problem… Hey, ho.
#4 The Salvador-Dali Memorial Prize for Scenery Description
In the dying light they began to run, setting off a dust storm which stuck to their calves…
… Until they were unable to move for the weight of dust around their ankles. The captain, sweat gleaming upon his bare, muscular shoulders, his hard chest heaving winningly, staggered to a halt, and said, “Why are the rest of our bodies untouched by this accursed dust storm? And how is the sand affixing to us, and with such infernal force, when we are trapped in a desert where there is neither Superglue nor much water?”
The unnamed survivors suddenly realised this was a sentient storm. Paralysed with terror, they began to run. As they fled, the dust swirled into countless thin vortexes, and then lashed out, probing the backs of their elbows and flaying their skin with razor-sharp sand.
#5 The Colin Firth Cup for Worst American Accent
“There’s a helluva lotta trees here,” the boiler tender said. “Maybe we can eat them?”
There isn’t much dialogue in this story. This quote may explain why.
Conclusion: This story may cause boredom, bouts of unexplained laughter, and thinking your own writing isn’t that bad. Side effects may include snorting coffee through your nose and keyboard destruction.
1-star. #epic fail.
[NB: In 2014, Clarkesworld ran a Kickstarter to publish Chinese SF].