Endless circles

I've been getting my nerdy pants on lately, reading a bunch of fantasy fiction because ... damn, where's my Bluetooth earpiece ... it's just cool.

As a kid I had brief encounters with the genre, doing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and then got sucked into Stephen Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant ten book epic.

However, I think my mum saw an addiction forming so, she laid some John Wyndham on me because he was more 'literary' and I read the The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos.

Could you call those books fantasy, sci-fi, what?

They're weird, take my word on it, but beautifully written and they edged me towards other weird, beautifully written novels.

Foremost was this scary-looking book with a burnt orange cover in our library at home - Hunter S. Thompson's* Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I must have looked at that thing for ten years, freaked out by Ralph Steadman's cover art until, one day, I cracked it open and that was that ... "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold".

I made the mistake of trying to review it for my Year 10 English class, but, I had found my new fantasy genre.

From then on, I looked down my nose at "true" fantasy, though I'd drop in on it occasionally and enjoyed works by Jeff Noon, such as Vurt, Michael Moorcock's fantastic The Dancers at the End of Time and some of Iain Banks's stuff that I've still got no idea what he was on about (though I wouldn't mind some of what he was taking when he wrote The Wasp Factory).

And then came A Game of Thrones - which I've written about previously - and which I now have to wait another ten years for George R R Martin to complete.

I wasn't going to make that mistake again, so I Googled "epic fantasy" series that had been concluded and came up with Glen Cook's deeply strange but ultimately satisfying The Black Company series.

As I fought through another nine books, I slowly found myself wondering why I couldn't fly or move objects by raising my eyebrows, so I took some time off from the magic to get back into reality.

I read some scary Holocaust non-fiction (The Years of Extermination by Saul Friendland and Lucy S. Dawidowicz's A Holocaust Reader) as well as the excellent apartheid novel The Enemy Within by The Sydney Morning Herald's own Steve Jacobs.

After all that, I again needed some imaginary human death and suffering, so I hit up Steven Erikson's sprawling 6524-novel series Malazan Book of the Fallen.

And it's great.

I'm really enjoying how silly it is - with people zipping through warrens of power and zapping gods and demons and disappearing into rents in time.

Aside from all that, Erikson, as all good fantasy-fiction writers tend to, casts a very bleak eye on humanity and gives you passages like this:

"He fashioned an empire of sorts, bereft of cities, yet plagued with the endless dramas of society, its' pathetic victories and inevitable failures. The community ... thrived in this quagmire of pettiness. They even managed to convince themselves they possessed freedom, a will of their own that could shape destiny. They elected champions. They tore down their champions once failure draped its shroud upon them. They ran in endless circles and called it growth, emergence, knowledge."

Hey, there's a black little snapshot of the world today. This guy, however, will never win the Booker; which is a shame.

Good writing should be enjoyable (unlike most Booker Prize winners) and it should also urge the reader to look at the world with different eyes.

The book that I'm quoting from, Gardens of the Moon, was printed in 1999, but that sentence - "they ran in endless circles and called it growth, emergence, knowledge" - could describe just about any culture for the last 5000 years.

Or me.

Or you.

Juxtapose it next to one of those syrupy "You are a child of the universe" jpegs that get passed around on Facebook and it's just bloody chilling. 

*Before he died, my step-father used to tell the story of going to see Hunter S. Thompson talk at Sydney's Town Hall in 1976. He met the great man backstage and offered him a bottle of amyl nitrate (as you do) and Thompson promptly snorted half of it, then poured the rest on his shirt front to enjoy during his speech.

Ahh, the seventies.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.