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Book Review: Daemon by Daniel Suarez

Here’s a phrase you haven’t heard for a while: cyberpunk fiction.

Yes, you’re starting to yawn. Maybe this joystick-and-rad-guns stuff was hot when William Gibson published Neuromancer back in 1984. The very idea of cyberspace was cool back then. But we live, breathe and eat cyberspace now. (Excuse, me while an order a pizza online. . . Okay, I’m back now.) What have these punks done for me lately?

Yet Daniel Suarez’s Daemon not only revivifies the basic cyberpunk combination of high tech in low places, but brings the genre to the next level. The advance of technology since 1984 allows Suarez to take a much more realistic bent in his novel. Daemon is set in the present day, and relies on current or plausibly current technology. Yet the end result envisioned is more chilling—no doubt as a result of that very plausibility—than what you will find in far more extravagant fictions.

The back cover alone tells you how different this novel is. When is the last time you bought a work of fiction with blurbs from Craig Newmark (founder of craigslist), Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame), and assorted executives from Google, The Gap, etc.? Obviously Michiko Kakutani didn’t have enough stock options to get invited.

The basic premise here is simple enough—although there are more plot twists and turns along the way than in a month’s worth of The Young and the Restless: Matthew Sobol is an immensely wealthy and brilliant high tech entrepreneur, who has made a fortune selling his MMORPGs to a willing audience. You don’t know about MMORPGs? That dates you, my friend. These are Massively Multi-player On-line Role-playing Games. Yes, we have come a long way since Pong.

Sobol is dying with brain cancer, but before he kicks the bucket he focuses his intellect and immense financial resources on creating an artificial intelligence system that will transform the real world into a type of video game. He distributes his pernicious software on zombie computers around the world, pre-set with instructions that kick his evil game into play upon his demise.

The book starts with the villain’s death—something that usually happens at the end of other stories—but then Sobol’s twisted posthumous fun begins. The first casualties of his assault are the key employees who helped him build his malevolent system. The media has a field day with the concept: dead man kills people via the internet. But things get even stranger from there. The confrontation quickly escalates between Sobol and federal authorities, who are placed in the unusual situation of fighting an adversary they can neither arrest nor punish.

The pacing and plot construction in Daemon come straight from the world of traditional thrillers. You can label Daniel Suarez as Tom Clancy for the Grand Theft Auto generation. But his book also has an intriguing philosophical undercurrent that sets it apart from your usual slash-and-burn adventure story. Humans evolved into advanced societies, Suarez suggests, because there lived in widely scattered communities all trying different things. Survival of the fittest assured that a small number of these groups would develop healthy, growing institutions and mechanisms for self-propagation. But the situation has now reversed in our shrinking global village. Instead of many communities trying many different things, almost everybody in the world relies on the same computer operating system, the same web browser, the same search engine, the same types of computer chips.

The very standardization of technology will be the reason for its collapse. At least this is the message Suarez weaves throughout his novel. Global standardization invites viruses, parasites and—ultimately large-scale extortionists such as Matthew Sobol. The way these vulnerabilities will be exploited in real life may not be as flamboyant as the tale told in Daemon, but the exploitation itself becomes inevitable once systems become as calcified and inflexible as at present.

Is this true? I’m not sure. Does it make for an exciting premise for a cyberpunk novel? Absolutely. And this one has “big movie deal” written all over it. Suarez thinks cinematically, with car chases, explosions, and enough over-the-top gadgets to put agent Q to shame. He even leaves room for a sequel, in an eerily under-stated ending that violates every rule of the genre. No, cyberpunk is definitely not dead . . . those lowlifes with high-tech are just hiding in a zombie computer somewhere near you.

About Ted Gioia