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.