Sunday, March 01, 2009

‘Daemon,’ Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez’s debut novel, “Daemon,” will mess with your head.

It will forever change the way you look at the world and the computers that run it. It will make you think twice when you log into your bank account online, or swipe your credit card at the grocery store. It will expose you to technology you thought only existed in the far-flung adventures of some Hollywood futurescope, then make you believe you could see these Silicon Valley devilspawns the next time you walk out your front door.

And that, as much as anything, will scare the crap out of you. I pray the world Suarez describes in “Daemon” doesn’t exist—doesn’t have the possibility of ever existing—but I fear all the more it may be right around the corner.

Consider this passage: “The modern world is a highly efficient, precision machine. But that’s its flaw—one wrench in the works and it all grinds to a halt. So what does our generation get? A culture of lies to hide weakness. Decreasing freedom. All to conceal one simple fact: the assumptions upon which our civilization is based are no longer valid.”

Or this: “They built a twenty-trillion-dollar house of cards. Then they told you to guard it. And they call me insane.”

Or, finally, this: “The Great Diffusion has begun—an era when the nation state dissolves. Technology will cause this. As countries compete for markets in the global economy, diffusion of high technology will accelerate. It will result in a diffusion of power and diffusion of power will make countries an ineffective organizing principle. At first, marginal governments will fail. Larger states will not be equipped to intercede effectively. These lawless regions will become breeding grounds for international crime and terrorism. Threats to cientralized authority will multiply. Centralized power will be defenseless against these distributed threats. You have already experienced the leading edge of this wave.”

Though “Daemon” was only widely published in January, these words were written more than four years ago, long before the subprime crash and the ensuing global economic tailspin we’re facing today. Like I said, scary stuff. Suarez, now in his mid-40s, is a tech industry consultant from California who originally self-published his debut back in 2006. It garnered serious tech-geek cred for its accurate portrayals of various online cultures, including massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), such as “World of Warcraft,” which led to its pickup by a major publishing house last year.

Suarez defines a “daemon” as “a computer program that runs continuously in the background and performs specified operations at predetermined times or in response to certain events.” Odds are, as you’re reading this, there are daemons chugging away on your system right now (did you receive a security update this morning?). In the eponymous novel, a brilliant designer uses the principles he developed for his phenomenally successful gaming company to unleash daemons throughout the Internet—after his death. These programs, written ahead of time with mind-boggling precision, begin to trigger some astounding events—events that cost real human beings their real lives. No resets here. It’s like an updated and more frightening version of 1983’s “WarGames” (there’s even a reference to thermonuclear war in the book!).

What follows is a sprawling epic of a techno-thriller; the Daemon is the true main character, while various humans wander in and out of the story to interact with it. Suarez introduces a huge number of characters for a typical novel, and he seems unattached to any of them, for they all merely serve at the pleasure of the Daemon—whether they want to or not. And, wow, can that sucker do some amazing things. I won’t spoil any of the thrills and chills here but, trust me, you will be amazed.

There are times when Suarez overreaches, however. While most of “Daemon” exists in an all-too-plausible world, like any Hollywood blockbuster certain action sequences toward the book’s end simply stretch too far (it sorta reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s blow-up-Gotham ending to “Batman Begins”). But I chalk that up to the travails of being a first-time author.

Overall, “Daemon” is one of those game-changing pop culture events on the line of recent benchmarks like “The Matrix” or “300.” Flawed? Sure. But, like those two recent films, its singular vision overwhelms any minor problems. Suarez’s straightforward, no-nonsense writing style isn’t going to win any fancy literary awards, but “Daemon” is the science-fiction-of-the-now William Gibson has been trying to write about for a decade and, thus far, has failed to capture.

It is now the techno novel by which all future techno novels will be judged.

***One final note: It’s not lost on me most of the comparison I make in this review are films. Suarez is so brilliant at depicting action sequences, even I could adapt this book to a screenplay in no time—you can visualize the scenes in pristine quality as you read. I will be shocked if “Daemon” is not made into a movie in the near future.***

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