JAMES HIDER is the South America Correspondent for The Times of London, based in Brazil. He is the former Middle East Bureau Chief for the paper and spent more than a decade reporting from the region on its long and violent conflicts.
His first book, 'The Spiders of Allah' was a critically praised memoir of those years. It won a BOOKLIST Editors' Choice Award and was voted one of MOTHER JONES Top Books of The Year.
His Science Fiction debut, 'Cronix' is the first in a planned trilogy.
The next installment, 'The Cronix Oracle', will be published shortly.
My science fiction novel Cronix was actually the twin of a non-fiction book that I was writing, about a decade I spent covering the Middle East's holy wars as a reporter for The Times newspaper. The book was published a few years back, and called The Spiders of Allah: Travel of an Unbeliever on the Front Lines of Holy War. It was a sort of atheist's guide to the endless wars of the Middle East, a place where front lines stretch back to the beginnings of recorded history.
One thing that fascinated me about these holy wars was the irony that religion is essentially a way of denying the inevitability of one's own death, yet here it was causing death on vast scale. Virtual reality is nothing new – it's existed ever since early humans came up with the idea of an afterlife where we'll all live happily ever after. Possibly some mourning Cro-Magnon saw a recently deceased relative in a dream, assumed it was a real person, and heaven was born in a draughty cave.
I'm not a militant atheist, and can see how religion has been vital in human development: never mind the comfort it still provides to millions, it also allowed early humans to transcend the narrow boundaries of family kinship groups and build much broader societies under the common belief in a shared god, or more usually gods.
What amazed me was how ideas and beliefs warp as they shift from one group of people to another, bent out of shape by belief, shared fears and goals. For example, in Gaza I met the director of a Hamas children's TV show where a character dressed as Mickey Mouse tries to escape over the huge wall Israel has built around the Palestinian land, but is caught by the Israelis and beaten to death by his interrogators. And this was a programme for seven to 13 year olds. Mickey Mouse, the ultimate symbol of Americana, became a Muslim martyr.
I became a bit obsessed with the Middle East, its history and religions, in the years I lived in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Cairo and Libya. But the research I did into the nature of belief, human psychology and the evolution of our very identity – combined with the extreme violence I was seeing almost every day – fused into a desire to create something broader, something that looked at where all this might ultimately lead in the future. (That and an article I read about a boy who almost died after getting his fingers stuck in a drinks vending machine, but you'll have to read the book to find out more about that).
So once Spiders of Allah was out, the time I'd once spent writing was a bit empty and needed filling: I started writing again, in hotels in Benghazi and Kabul, or scribbling plot notes next to interviews with Egyptian revolutionaries on Tahrir Square. Most of my best ideas, however, come to me when I'm walking my dogs – when you switch off after a day's work and your mind slips into a slightly unfocused mode. Dog walking and plane rides always do it for me.
I had no idea where Cronix was going when I started out: only that I wanted to try to synthesize all the strange things I'd witnessed – being kidnapped by the Mahdi Army in Baghdad, wounded in the battle of Fallujah, watching a crowd of 60,000 black-clad Shia mourners in Najaf scourging their own backs with flails as they buried all that remained of a beloved Ayatollah killed by a car bomb (one finger, identified by the ring he was wearing) – with all the weird stuff I'd read about evolutionary psychology and in the history books.
I wrote the first section of what would become Cronix in late 2001 in Jerusalem. I finished it 10 years later in a hotel room in Cairo, during the Arab Spring. It was a welcome diversion from the craziness of the life I was living, constantly on the road and often facing the possibility of an extremely unpleasant death. It helped me process a lot of what I'd seen. If it seems a little extreme or just downright insane at times, that would probably be why.
About a month after I'd finished writing it, I was having a workout in my basement in Jerusalem and the idea for the sequel came to me out of the blue. I finished that book – the title is still up in the air – last month, writing under very different circumstances, as a father of a two-year old girl and living in Brazil, where I cover South America for The Times. A lot more chilled, but still with amazing idiosyncrasies: when I walk my daughter and dogs in our local park, full of shaggy trees whose names I don't know, I have to stop her and the hounds from eating the bowls of rice and red chilies left out for the candomble and macumba spirits, gods brought to the New World on slave ships from Africa, and fused with the Christian saints of the slave-owners. They also leave bottles of cachaca, a powerful local liquor, next to little figurines of a spirit dressed in a dapper white suit: my park is a regular buffet-bar of the afterlife, and yes, my dog has swiped a sacrificial chicken carcass or two before I could stop her. I've always managed to stop my daughter downing the afterlife hooch, though.
The main character in Cronix, Luis Oriente, owes a lot to a terrifying drugs experience I had at university. I'd never tried drugs before and a friend gave me a hash cake. It was delicious, honey-oatmeal, and I ate more of it than was wise. I suffered what I later discovered was called cannabis psychosis. It felt like my personality had simply imploded, and for weeks afterwards that I had strange flashbacks and felt like 'I' had disappeared. It was the most terrifying experience, but fortunately faded after a few months.
It has only recurred a couple of times: one evening, when I was living in Prague a couple of years after graduation, I was telling a friend about Ernest Becker's book the Denial of Death, and how the terminally ill psychologist had argued that all human character and culture are essentially a means of masking the inevitability of death: and for a horrible second, I knew how absolutely true this was, and could feel everything around me dissolve.
Years later in Mexico City, in a break between stints in Baghdad, I went to see Gunther von Hagen's macabre exhibition called Body Parts, with donated human corpses peeled of their flesh and posed playing cards or chess, their exposed brains coming out of opened skulls. I had just read Paul Broks' fascinating book, Into the Silent Land, which argued that 'we' do not exist as such, that our minds are simply like meaty computers running the software of our culture, and that 'we' as individuals are just the writing on the screen of that computer. For a few seconds, looking at those corpses doing the mundane things they'd done when still inhabited by a human spirit, it rang horribly true, and I once again felt that old flicker of my 'self' wavering on the edge.
In Buddhism, such moments of collapsing ego are called satori: fleeting glimpses of enlightenment in which the practitioner gets a flash of the true nature of reality. But I'm not a Buddhist, and it felt more like madness to me. So the insecurity that Oriente experiences, trying to outrun is own bizarre psychology, was borne of those experiences.
But I guess what really drove Cronix was an idea I came across in Robin Dunbar's The Human Story. He argues that 'humanity' as such is an invention, dreamt up by humanoids on the plains of Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. Driven from the trees by a hotter climate, our ancestors had to walk upright in the grasslands, freeing up their hands to make use of tools. Tool-use favoured bigger brains, which allowed for more complex social interactions and larger societies. The apes needed an auto-pilot to figure out their place in these complex hierarchies, the way a game needs an avatar to see who he is in relation to the others around him.
And it struck me that we already are a kind of science fiction, an invention of long-dead ape men. Perhaps with a bit of rebranding, we could be anything else that evolution might demand of us, even spirits in an off-world paradise that ultimately spawns an actual god.
But that would be giving too much of the plot away.
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Thank you James Hider for that fascinating look into the your world as an author, correspondent, and personal conflicts. If I wasn't already a fan from reading CRONIX, this journey into the study of humanity would certainly have me rushing to purchase the novel. Speaking of the novel, below you will find the book blurb, my review, and link to purchase if so inclined.
Recreational suicide bombings are on the rise, revelers in fancy dress are throwing themselves from the heights of the Empire State Building in increasing numbers.
When scientists break the final frontier of Death and find a way for the soul to live incarnate forever, humanity leaves Earth with a bang, bound for a man-made paradise. On the Orbiters, supercomputers riding beyond the edge of Earth's atmosphere, these Eternals live out their wildest dreams or build fantastic idylls, free at last from the tyranny of Evolution.
Back on Earth, however, the man known to history simply as the Missing Link, has been hiding out in the woods. Luis Oriente was the product of an experiment to capture and synthesize the human mind. In ultra human form, he has spent centuries fleeing his past, living a quiet life away from prying eyes.
But when a giant wolf disrupts the rhythm of his forest to deliver a cryptic message, Oriente is dragged back into the turbulent currents of the history he has tried so hard to avoid. Something is broken in paradise, and Evolution is not quite done with Humanity yet.
As far as original story concept goes, this is one of the best I've read in a while from a new author.
The world of the Cronix is pre-apocalyptic and leads the reader thru the crisis of the world and into the post apocalyptic norm. It has been a long time since I've been able to use the term “epic” in its true sense of the word. The story opens with Luis Oriente as The Hunter, living as a hermit in the woods outside London – 600 years after the revolutionary technology made permanent death obsolete. Humans signed up by the millions to be “chipped” – a process that allowed their conscious mind to be uploaded into a computer transfer system – and participate in mass suicide/homicide to move “airside” during an event called Exodus. Once airside, the extracted minds are allowed to enjoy the “after world” of any number of visions of heaven, or be sent back to earth as Eternals in carefully engineered avatar bodies.
Hider takes the reader on an adventure through the woods that uses the changed environment and futuristic landmarks (places of noteworthy mass death), to describe the aftereffects of the Exodus, and some of the denizens, mainly scolds and Cronix, that now inhabit the Earth, and describes the life of the indigenous humans, those that have not been chipped and have raised their children naturally. After Oriente is caught for unlicensed regeneration, another layer of the story begins as Oriente tells of his origins as the Missing Link, and how all the uploads began. During this tale, the apocalypse happens, and the next segment of his journey occurs, and the reader witnesses the downfall of all the systems that made concepts of God and literal death abstract thoughts.
I enjoyed all the philosophy and religious discussions these highly intelligent characters perform, all meant to engage the reader intellectually on a deep, emotional level. There is love, controversy, beauty (aesthetic and esoteric), heroics and humor that entertains the ironic nature of humanity; all mixed together in a compelling story that had me searching my own views of the origin of human conscientiousness. The most awesome aspect of this story was that there is no specific antagonist (unless you count the Cronix that have no minds and are nothing but killing/breeding entities); no single villain to blame everything that goes wrong onto. There are many people that have adjusted to the new world, some who are working towards its betterment or at least consistent upkeep, and a few who have taken advantage of its short falls (a criminal element), but mostly there are the Sapiens that are neither good nor evil.
Luis Oriente is the main perspective character, but there are a variety of perspectives as the story moves along. Whether you support the theory of creation or evolution, whether you are atheist, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or follow some other form of higher being, I think this story will appeal intellectually and spiritually to all.
The only complaint I have with this novel is in the editing – or lack of. Had the story concept not been so well developed and compelling, I would have put it down within the first couple chapters. The author’s ability to tell a superior story kept me turning pages, despite the technical errors that consistently pulled me out of the well developed and intriguing world. I give Cronix a 4 star rating, but would gladly up it to a 7 star if Mr Hider were to hire an editor and upgrade the quality of the reading. I am looking forward to reading more from this debut author.