Book Review: Daemon

Daniel Suarez’s Daemon is an amazing story. And I’m not talking about the actual plot; for that, the word “Amazing” would not suffice. No, I am referring to the incredible series of events which are leading up to its publication and release on January 8th.

After writing Daemon back in 2004, Suarez faced the uphill battle common to many first-time authors. Unable to find a buyer, yet confident of the quality of his work, he decided to self-publish. Using print-on-demand, Suarez pumped out a few dozen copies a month, at the time sporting the pseudonym of Leinad Zeraus, his real name spelled backwards.

Eventually the book achieved an underground and vocal following. A tipping point of sorts was reached, and the right people began promoting the book in whatever way they could, people like Craig, of craigslist fame and Rick Klau, at Feedburner (now owned by Google). This network helped boost sales until the bright folks at Dutton publishing realized that a phenomenal author was going ignored.

What thrills me about the way this book came to life isn’t the underdog-triumphant cliche, it is that the themes within Daemon are eerily germane to its own birthing pains. The premise of this book is that our technological interconnectedness will create as many problems as it solves. Empowering the little people with cheap processing power and an Internet which can not be regulated nor destroyed is great if you are a first time author trying to get a book out the door; it isn’t so good for the rest of us if you are able to steal the identities of others, plan terrorist attacks, or abuse an infrastructure designed for efficiency, but capable of worse.

Other authors have probed these questions; Suarez goes one step further. His is an even bigger query: can our current economic and political systems evolve in a way that will handle the increase in individual power, or is a geopolitical revolution going to be required? If it sounds like heady stuff, it is. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of incentive to chew this fat as you feast on the meaty murder mystery which holds these premises together. Well, maybe “mystery” is the wrong word.

You see, Daemon starts with a gruesome death scene and a typical police procedural, but events unfold in a unique manner after just the first few pages. Very early into our story a man identifies himself to our head detective and confesses to the two murders. Here is the twist: The murderer is the famous billionaire videogame programmer Matthew Sobol; And Sobol died of cancer before these crimes took place!

There is no “whodunnit” in Daemon. When you think about it, ‘Who?’ is really an uninteresting question compared to “Why?” and ‘How?’. The former is just a name, a character. There is some suspense, sure, but the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of this book make a normal murder mystery seem blase. The ‘Why’ is a philosophical revolution. The ‘How’ is a frightening glimpse of a future managed by machines and programs. The real antagonist in “Daemon” isn’t the dead Sobol, though he serves as its figurehead, the real enemy in this book is the titular Daemon, the distributed algorithm that Sobol meticulously crafted and unleashed on the world.

The power of Sobol’s Daemon comes from his advances in videogame AI. Sobol created the book’s version of our World of Warcraft, which they call “The Gate”. This MMORPG not only provides the technical know-how for designing incredibly robust logic trees, it also provides the perfect virtual world for training and recruitment. And the rapt population is the ideal one for a cult of personality to form: Dissatisfied 20-somethings looking for a cause to celebrate, as one of his characters powerfully puts it:

This was as far from Main Street as he’d ever been. This wasn’t the tattooed, pierced neo-tribal rebellious bullshit of his generation. This was a quiet demonstration of networked power. This was it.

Couple this empowerment with the addictive concept of “leveling” in real-life and you have a recruitment process that Al Qaeda can’t match. Look at how XBox gamers compare their real-world “Gamerscores” and trophies, how forum denizens brandish post-counts as proof of actual superiority, or how millionaire doctors can be reduced to clawing at one another for “loot” bags at medical conventions. The mechanisms that make videogames engaging, addictive, and all-powerful do NOT work on us because of anything inherent in videogames, they succeed because of truths inherent in humanity. Especially for virile males seeking the alpha-male status of 1337ness.

Suarez’s grip on this undercurrent is matched by his knowledge of today’s leading-edge technology. The book reads like Engadget, Gizmodo, and Wired Magazine rolled up in some military “Janes” articles. This isn’t science fiction, it is fiction based on scientific FACT. In a speech for the Long Now foundation, Suarez recently detailed how some of the advances which power the plot of his novel are in action today. From bots that scour our medical records and approve our loans, to convincing text-to-voice technology, and on to cameras which read the license plates of traffic violators with an automated process which results in an actual ticket being cursed by a real human. Soon RFID tags will interact with mesh networks that can track everything, all in the name of efficiency and profit, but hackable for more nefarious purposes.

This contemporary relevance is why some are already comparing Suarez to Michael Crichton, but I don’t think the comparison is fair to Suarez. Chrichton was great at taking science to its extremes, creating worlds which seemed plausible, yet unlikely. Suarez does something better: He uses a mastery of the micro-technological to posit, with convincing force, a macro-future which seems more inevitable than fanciful. Which of these is scarier: Reading about a dinosaur chasing your imaginary hero, or putting down a terrifying thriller and seeing another Reuter’s article which drags that fiction into YOUR reality? The former isn’t even a close second.

For me, Suarez is the new Neal Stephenson. If Stephenson’s “Diamond Age” is a glimpse of our world 200 years from now, Suarez is the more-germane prophet of a literal tomorrow. His particular fiction is as unlikely as any to ever come to pass, but the questions it wrestles with MUST be raised and dealt with by a generation alive today. Daemon‘s brilliance is that it combines an engrossing mystery with nerve-splitting action, and yet still raises these heady questions. This mixture creates a novel that you never want to put down, and when you are forced to do so, the implications of its philosophical underpinnings stir your imagination into a frenzy. You don’t find yourself perseverating over the precarious situation you left the characters in, you instead find yourself seeing the world around you in a different light. It is as if a HUD becomes overlayed on your vision, filled with the data and info that Suarez’s book illuminates, an experience not unlike that endured by his characters as they are bent to the will of his fictional mastermind, Mathew Sobol. The next time I make a flight reservation by interacting with an imaginary voice that is following a logic tree, a simplified version of the Daemon, it will be with a new, chilling awareness.

Daemon was a perfect storm for me, as a reader. I grew up on science fiction and I love  a realistic thriller. I enjoy the effortless pleasure of reading make-believe, yet prefer thought provoking non-fiction. I am an avid gamer and a worshiper (albeit rarely a purchaser) of consumer electronics. This novel touched on so many passions, and sated them all. Even when the plot disappointed me at times, it was a devious sham that Suarez teased me with, then made up for it in the end. Rarely do I put down a great read like I did tonight and have the urge to call friends and family to share the experience with them, but that is how Daemon made me feel. It isn’t just a great book; it is an important book.

One response to “Book Review: Daemon”

  1. […] Book Review: Daemon | Hugh C. Howey Tags: engadget, fact, gizmodo, recently-detailed, some-military, suarez, wired, […]

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