Daemon by Daniel Suarez
Admittedly, when many hear the term “cyberpunk fiction,” their instinct is to yawn, gapingly. Hell, when you learn that a systems consultant and (to all intents and purposes) computer geek has written and published his first novel, your scoffing impulse is almost unavoidable. The back cover alone might set alarm bells ringing for some.
The fact is, Daniel Suarez’s Daemon (Penguin Group, pp.432, $26.95) not only revives this cyberpunk malarkey, he brings it to an eerie new level. In case you can’t tell, I was skeptical, but the themes explored are chillingly pertinent to our time. Here’s how: the internet empowers us all with its swift, efficient and free information. Never before have we been so connected, both socially and intellectually. The electronic age has given birth to new business, new wealth, pervasive education…it brought the world to our bedrooms and boosted our now flailing economy for years. Yet this novel demonstrates that our technological interconnectedness can and will create as many problems as it solves.
Ever thought about what would happen if Mark Zuckerberg (you know, that guy with access to 2 billion people) turned evil? Or what would befall us if fanatics could somehow usurp all computers-based systems? Technology could allow a few screw balls to wreak havoc if they possessed the know-how: you could steal the identities of others, plan terrorist attacks, implement the strikes and generally abuse a hi-tech infrastructure that most of us wouldn’t have a hope in Hell of navigating. Upon this premise, Suarez envisions a plausible apocalypse, and it is of course its conceivability which makes it so terrifying.
The novel opens with a grisly death scene and is followed by a typical police investigation. Yet a few pages into the story, a man turns himself in to the head detective, and confesses to the murders…sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the plot thickens: the perpetrator of the crime is none other than the infamous billionaire and videogame programmer Matthew Sobol; who died of brain cancer long before these crimes were ever committed!
Thus begins Sobol’s perverse and posthumous pleasure. Prior to his death, a young and infinitely wicked Sobol focused his considerable intellect and colossal wealth on creating an artificial intelligence system that would transform the existent world into a warped kind of video game. He programmed his insidious software on computers the world over, and pre-set them with instructions to bring his evil game into play upon his passing.
Imagine, if you will, a shot gun wedding between that movie Eagle Eye and 28 Days Later and you have Daemon. In fact, as one reviewer aptly put it, “this book has “big movie deal” written all over it.” Suarez peppers his novel with predictable car chases, fiery explosions and mind-boggling gadgets. He even leaves room for a sequel in what can only be described as a fragmentary and slightly dissatisfying conclusion. I know, I know, a little bit sell-out. Seems that this humble gamer and computer-whisperer from California has bigger dreams of the silver screen. Still, mercenary ambitions don’t stop Suarez from successfully evoking a hubristic nightmare of far-reaching proportions: Sobol is a Bond-like villain intent upon destroying the world and playing a rather twisted God. The first victims of his inexplicable onslaught are the key employees who helped him build his malevolent system. But needless to say, the bodies continue to pile up, and the authorities quickly find themselves embroiled in the unique and unprecedented situation of fighting a foe they cannot see, apprehend or penalize.
However, the real antagonist in Daemon is not the dead Sobol. The true enemy is the eponymous “Daemon,” the algorithm that Sobol carefully crafted and let loose upon the world. Throughout his novel, Suarez makes a fairly pertinent point: that the standardization of technology will be death of us. Once upon a time man lived in scattered and heterogeneous communities. This ensured an all important variety. But as the world gets smaller, diversity is no longer as prevalent in our shrinking global community. We no longer have a situation where people are experimenting individually - almost everybody in the world relies on the same computer chips, the same social sites, the same web browser, the same search engines. It is precisely this kind of technical homogeny that invites viruses, infections and ultimately omnipotent villains such as Sobol.
Though the novel is colored by massacre and gruesome death, it cannot be categorized as a murder mystery. There is no “whodunnit” in Daemon, we know who the killer is from the get-go. It’s really more a case of the “Why?” and “How?” And let’s face it, these are questions far more provocative than the “Who,” making Sobol a fairly mesmerizing criminal. The book also offers a frightening glimpse of a grim future where machines and indecipherable programs rule man, which overall, makes for an interesting and dare I say, exciting premise. I never thought I’d say this, but for cyberpunk geek-stuff, this ain’t bad!
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