© 2006 Daniel Suarez
When a incomparable programming genius known for his immersive games and uncanny AI dies, his greatest creation awakes. A sophisticated program running in the background begins putting into action a plan that will remain unknown to the reader throughout most of the novel, hidden except for when its actions result in death or global panic. So begins a technological thriller, featuring a faceless enemy which grows more daunting by the moment as it steadily increases its power, imposing a new technological order over a world that has grown too complex for its own good. The world is to be reprogrammed, and resistance is futile.
The kernel of Daemon’s story is that a doomed genius (Matthew Sobol) once courted by the NSA created a program which scanned the news for announcement of his death, and then began a hostile takeover of anything powered by silicon chips. Effecting the deaths of opponents, recruiting human agents through a video game, taking over computerized systems and using their resources for its own expansion, it lurks in the background except for when it issues press releases to manipulate public reaction. The Daemon’s greatest strength is that it is a distributed program, a global botnet; it has no master server to destroy, no switch which can be thrown. The Daemon is autonomous, persistent, and pervasive. When it sends instructions to its human agents through wireless headsets, it concentrates its demands for action into YES/NO prompts. While Sobol presumably could have created an AI that can parse spoken sentences, the nature of this machine-human communication makes the Dameon seem like an alien intelligence, instead of a naughty instance of Alexa.
As the story progresses, readers encounter a pair of battered men who are trying to unravel the Daemon and expose it, as well as a few individuals who come agents of the Daemon. The Daemon entices them in different ways, each according to their ambitions: a sociopathic identity thief finds his calling in enlisting to the machine’s service as its greatest champion, the Sauron to its Morgoth (or the Saruman to its Sauron, but without the initial resistance), and a criminal is given freedom, and a frustrated TV tabloid reporter is given the chance to become a Serious Journalist. All they have to do is listen to the remorseless voice in their head and follow its instructions. The Daemon’s ability to manipulate systems grows throughout the novel, to the point where it controls physical infrastructure producing autonomous weaponized vehicles.
I had no idea that this book was written in 2006, as the amount of now mundane electronic control within it is perfectly in sync with our own world. The only clue that this novel had a few years on it was the Daemon’s inability to parse complete sentences, but as mentioned that actually helped reinforced the Daemon’s other-ness. Daemon is an unnerving thriller, one capable of unsettling the reader with the kind of world we’re headed into, in which authentic freedom and privacy are as impossible as Triceratops flank steaks. As successful a thriller as it is, Daemon also succeeds in raising questions about how politics, society, and the economy will be transformed by ubiquitous networking; although it only offers a glimpse into early disruption, one can’t help but think that the present state of affairs will be as alien in a century as early 19th century agrarian society is to our own.
Sidenote: Sobol was known for a World War 2 shooter and a game in which one opens the gates of hell. Sounds kiiiiiiiiiinda like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Considering that Sobol’s company was named CyberStorm, I wonder if he was inspired by John Romero — cocreator of the two programs mentioned above, and founder of a company called Ion Storm. (See Masters of Doom).