Marc Weidenbaum's Reviews > Daemon

Daemon by Daniel Suarez
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[Yeah, spoilers. Boilerplate, polite version: I promise that I don't "spoil" anything about this book that would have bothered me had I known about it in advance of reading this book. That said, I cannot think of anything I have ever read in my life that would have been spoiled had I known the plot-advancing facts. Perhaps the closest thing I can think of to a review I'd consider a "spoiler" is one that is really little more than a Cliffs Notes–style detailed summary of the story. What follows, I promise, is not that.]

This is a thriller, a contemporary one, and I haven't read many of those. I've read a lot of 1940s-'70s hard-boiled stuff, but the modern-day, tech-oriented ones have eluded me. These would be the ones that are often, as far as I can tell, tracked back to Tom Clancy. I haven't read them based largely on the assumption that politically they'd make my hair stand on end. Which is odd, when I think about it, which I do quite often, because I'm a fan of probably the exact same stories when they play out on the movie screen (Bourne, Transporter) and the TV screen (The Unit, NCIS). I did play a couple Clancy video games (one to experience the Amon Tobin score, the other on Nintendo DS).

Anyhow, this book is billed on the back as being a bit like Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, but my guess is it's closer to Tom Clancy, me having read much of Sterling and almost all of Stephenson -- again, though no Clancy. (If it is like Stephenson, it's like the Stephenson who co-wrote under the pseudonym Stephen Bury the books Interface and The Cobweb.) In many ways, Daemon is a highly detailed imagining of a just-after-tomorrow scenario along the lines of Colossus: The Forbin Project (a classic in paranoid political film of the early 1970s that is remembered fondly, yet is often forgotten when people talk about things like The Conversation, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor).

At its essence: a semi-sentient computer network takes over the world.

At over 400 pages, Daemon is both sprawling (a nearly Dickensian crew of disparately related characters) and compact (chapters are shorter than half a sandwich, many of those chapters subdivided into even briefer sections that sometimes last less than a quarter of a page, flickering back and forth like fragments of a scene in a fast-paced film -- a not un-nifty effect). The novel keeps the pace with entertaining cliffhangers, and is shot through with creative imaginings extrapolated strenuously from existing computer technology: the Internet, GPS, sonic lasers, various weapons, video games, mobile data, augmented reality.

It all comes down to one man, named Sobol, who is dead when the story begins, but Sunset Boulevard this is not.

Sobol is, in the story, a super accomplished video game developer who, apparently, has spring-loaded an entire global ghost network of computers with intensely detailed instructions that follow out his master plan after he shuffles off this mortal coil in favor of a kind of homebrew singularity: he lives on as instructional code.

The book follows some of his henchmen (whom he either blackmails or seduces into servitude) and some of the people tracking him (agents of the FBI and local law enforcement, and one interesting wildcard character with -- here's a spoiler -- the same job as does the book's author: IT consultant).

The way Sobol works after he's dead is he's set up complex code instructions (the daemons from which the book takes it title) that pursue intended results, based largely on cues taken from surveying RSS and other data feeds from around the globe (the whole thing apparently kicks off, so to speak, when Sobol's death is itself reported in the news). No surprise, Sobol's popular video games, massively multiplayer games played by tens of thousands of people simultaneously, are at the core of his posthumous designs.

As literature, Daemon is purely descriptive. Every sentence is there to express a specific fact of what has occurred. It's a fact-driven novel about a fact-driven new world order. The dialog is stolid, and embarrassingly so when inner-city characters get their moment on the page. There is also some graphic sexual degradation very early in the book that is so protracted and exceedingly choreographed, that it's less the description itself than the fact of the effort that went into devising it that will give you shivers. Though, even that section has its purpose: showing a parallel, an ability to manipulate, that the character (the degrader) has in common with Sobol.

There is, in short, no ambiguity in this book, no shades of grey -- not until, no small feat, the very end, and then it's enough of an ambiguity to get me to certainly pick up the second volume (not that I've done that yet, though I intend to).

Perhaps all of this is inherent in the thriller form, as the ambiguity's fairly sudden appearance at the end feels similar to the plotting of the book closest to this one that I have read in recent years: The Strain, the first in the series of vampire novels by Guillermo Del Toro and his partner, Chuck Hogan. (For folks who've read that book, I'm thinking of the appearance of vampires who seem to maybe want to help humans, or at least hurt the vampires we've met thus far. I haven't read the second book in that series either.) And I'll say this for Daemon, the ambiguity it dangles is much more interesting, much more packed with potential complexity, than the one in The Strain -- for all I know, it may even lead to something as grand as the end of Greg Bear's Blood Music. We'll see.

There are, to be clear, some pretty interesting ideas in this book, not just the ideas themselves, but how they are played out: how GPS can turn the world into a board game, how the efficiency of digital programming has ushered in a second Age of Reason, how social engineering is a form of hacking. It's also the most realistic portrayal of a singularity event (a moment when consciousness moves online) I have read, in part because the author goes out of his way to remind us that (at least for the moment) Sobol is truly dead, and his virtual rendition can only, for example, comprehend yes/no answers. In the end, the tech (not just the finished products, but how they are constructed, and how their construction is part and parcel of Sobol's planning) is more believable than the people, but we're here for the tech in the first place, so that's probably not much of a concern. (Again, to be clear, just because it's the most realistic singularity portrayal doesn't mean it's the most enthralling -- for me, that honor goes, far and away, to Greg Egan.)

The biggest issue I have with the telling of Daemon is not the rapid speed with which Sobol's plans manifest; it is the extent to which they do so while the world remains unaware of them. I won't go into detail, because perhaps the only real way to "spoil" a book is to detail any serious flaws in logic, but if you want to enjoy Daemon, do not spend much energy figuring out how all this could be occurring while so few people seem to be aware of it.
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Reading Progress

February 2, 2011 – Shelved
March 1, 2011 – Started Reading
March 2, 2011 – Finished Reading

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