Browse By

[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].

7 thoughts on “[Review] The Hunger Tower by Pan Haitian”

  1. Greg Hullender says:

    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.

  2. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 12/7 Mr. Mxyzpixelstalk | File 770
  3. Trackback: Pixel Scroll 12/7 Mr. Mxyzpixelstalk | File 770
  4. Vivienne Raper says:

    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.

    1. Greg Hullender says:

      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.

  5. Nick Stember says:

    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!

    1. Greg Hullender says:

      Thanks for being such a good sport. I’ve done translations from Spanish, French, and Italian (not professionally), so I have some understanding of the challenge of translating a story. (I realize Chinese is harder.) I wonder if you’d mind answering a few questions that I’ve wondered about.

      A problem I’ve seen in almost all translations of Chinese SF (even some of Ken Liu’s) is that they violate several elementary rules of writing. For example, point of view should not change in a single scene. Emotional states should be shown not “told” with narration. “Infodumps” should be held to a minimum. Dialogue in which characters say things that the other already knows or clearly has no need to know (aka “as you know Bob.”) I can certainly imagine that different cultures would have different writing styles (even in English the styles change over time) but these elementary principles don’t change (much) over time, and I’d expect them to be universal (French, Spanish, and Italian writers certainly follow them). Beginning writers make these mistakes a lot, and we don’t usually see them in professional publications. This makes most Chinese stories sound amateurish.

      But not ALL the Chinese stories do this. A few seem to follow more or less the same rules as everyone else. Ken Liu confirmed to me that he is not fixing this type of problem when he makes translations, and I certainly don’t believe a translator would INTRODUCE elementary writing errors. The problems seem to be inherent to the original Chinese texts.

      When you say that most people in China don’t treat SF seriously, it makes me think that mainstream Chinese fiction doesn’t have the same problems. That the blame lies with Chinese editors who aren’t strict enough with SF writers because they don’t take the genre seriously. Is that a fair assessment? If so, do you see signs that that is changing? And do you think that good English SF translated into Chinese has any effect on how people view the genre?

      1. Nick Stember says:

        No worries! Honestly, in a weird way I’d rather hear criticism than praise at this point in my career–I realize I have a lot to learn, and besides, Chinese literature really hasn’t done all that well in translation so far. To a certain extent you can blame the authors and editors, but I think translators have to up their game too–for languages like Chinese, until recently most translators have been academics first and translators second.

        As far your (excellent) questions about Chinese sci fi, here are my two cents:

        1) The classic novels of Chinese literature have a large cast of characters and switch perspectives between (or even within) chapters, borrowing the narrative structure of oral storytellers. There’s a lot of debate among scholars whether this is intentional or unintentional. Novels really didn’t emerge in China until the Ming dynasty (about 500 years ago) and they were mostly built on pre-existing short vernacular fiction and popular myths. See, for example Romance of Three Kingdoms (the book Ken Liu seems to have based The Grace of Kings on), Outlaws of the Marsh, Jinpingmei, Journey to the West, and Dream of Red Mansions.

        2) Infodumps and telling vs showing. I think these can also be attributed in part to the influence of the traditional storytelling tradition, which usually includes an omniscient narrator who intrudes from time to time to tell the reader how they are supposed to interpret something. This harks back to idea that Chinese fiction is hortatory or didactic–basically, existing to tell readers what will happen if they make the wrong choices in life. For a long time fiction was considered a vulgar art form in China, and poetry and straight history was the only acceptable reading material for a gentleman. This changed with the rise of short fiction during the Tang and drama during the Yuan. But even then it usually had a heavy overtone of moralizing and warning–you know, don’t go out into the garden alone with the wrong sort of fellow and that sort of thing.

        3) Role of editors. I’ve heard this theory a lot and I’m really not sure how valid it is. I’ve definitely heard that Chinese authors have a lot more control over their novels, especially successful ones, and that there isn’t as much respect for the job in China. You hear things like, such and such novel couldn’t have a single character deleted. That said, I haven’t actually met any Chinese editors so I can’t really say if it’s true or not. I think the fact that so many stories have the same problems indicates a cultural origin (see above) beyond negligent editors. In other words, editors don’t see the same problems that we might find more glaring.

        I’m actually in talks with Storycom now to start a new project to introduce more high quality English language sci fi into Chinese. A lot already gets translated, but I’m not sure how much survives the process of translation. I’ve definitely heard people complain about strange Chinglish translations in Chinese so there might be some resistance to overly Western styles of writing.

        Hope this helps!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.