[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 TowerI 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

Some writers devote whole blogposts to describing characters. Other writers, however, don’t bother with all that… or correcting translation errors/missing words.

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].


  • In fairness to the author, I think the “time calamity” and the ankle-specific dust storm can be blamed on the translator, who apparently wasn’t top-drawer. That said, I don’t think even Ken Liu could have rescued this one.

  • You’re right. I don’t think the author gets the blame for that one. It’s possible the ‘strawberry blender’ was also down to the translator, although the word ‘slurry’ in that sentence is also questionable and I’m not sure ‘blender’ works either. Comparing human remains to a smoothie isn’t the right image, and AFAIK aircrash victims don’t look like that anyway.

    • No, I think almost all the problems are down to the author. It’s just that the interactions between the author and the translator occasionally provide super-hilarious paragraphs.

  • Vivienne — Thanks for the honest review! As others have pointed out, as a translation you might want to add a few qualifiers to give the author the benefit of the doubt. Also, hey, I exist, why not name me? I really don’t mind the criticism–to the contrary, I would have love to been able to bounce this translation off of you after I finished it.

    Greg– Yup, I’m definitely not in the same league as Ken. I’ve studied Chinese for about a decade now, but I’ve only started translating fiction in the last two years. Obviously I’ve got a lot to learn!

    I think one trick with this story–and really a lot of Chinese sci fi–is that it’s supposed to be campy. Most writers don’t take seem themselves very seriously, since sci fi is mostly seen as a light entertainment for subway commuters and the like. Very few authors can make a living writing sci fi, so it’s not especially surprising that they focus more on getting the big ideas across rather than crafting amazing prose or well developed characters. (That said, the homoerotic description of the captain was probably more my fault than Pan’s, and the original is actually ‘strawberry ice cream,’ which I tweaked cause I thought ‘slurry’ fit better in the context.)

    IMHO English language sci fi is much more developed, with all kinds of sci fi for all kinds of readers. A lot of that is thanks to the fact that our sci fi has had a long time to develop and grow as a genre–today’s authors are building on a lifetime of (often very bad) sci fi which informs their writing in a million ways. We’re pretty lucky with what we have. At the same time, I think we’ve become somewhat closed-minded about about what sci fi *should* be.

    So, even if this story is a failure, I think we should still take a moment to consider all of the good intentions that got us here. It’s a pretty spectacular thing that the readers of Clarkesworld were willing to (partially) fund this project, and that Neil and Ken and everyone at Storycom were willing to do all the work to put it together. And hopefully we’ll do better in the future!

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