Review: Daemon

I’ve never really been a fan of crime thrillers. Sometimes the mystery is enticing, but by and large, it always boils down to the motivation. Why did the killer do it? Most authors answer this as an afterthought. Whether it be an insane, megalomaniacal contrivance, or just plain avarice or one of the other seven deadly sins, they hardly explain or justify the events in the book. There are notable exceptions to this, such as John Connolly’s notable Black Angel. Sometimes, pure mystery isn’t enough—sometimes there needs to be a bit of genuine malevolence involved.

Daniel Suarez fills this niche with Daemon, a novel I can honestly say I couldn’t put down. There is a certain amount of self-interest involved here. I work in IT, and it’s always cool to identify with a tech-oriented protagonist. But what if the antagonist and most of the other characters are also fiendishly clever members of the computing underground, experts of cryptography, buffer overruns, and the hidden dangers of software conformity? What happens when the monster laying waste to the world is nothing but a trumped-up expert-system created by an insane genius to dismantle society and replace it with something he sees as its only salvation? Who do you root for in that instance? Do you get angry over a man who’s more than willing to break a few eggs to orchestrate his righteous omelet, or everyone hurt by his machinations who just want to stop the killing?

This novel may not exactly explore what happens when the bad guy wins, but the ending clearly leaves effectively every question unanswered, with only a few vague hints as to the final outcome coming in subsequent novels. Suarez dispenses his revelations with such a miserly hand, literally one single plot-thread is tied, only to tangle it into the overall tapestry. The Daemon, despite its tendency to kill first and ask questions never, is stopping spam, blackmailing our corporate overlords, giving the dispossessed and forgotten a place in a society which was all too ready to discard them. So it has to kill a few federal agents and frame a completely innocent detective for their murder. What are a few feds compared to the fate of the world?

And The Daemon is obviously a villain, isn’t it? A distributed, viral, ultimate root-kit designed to manipulate its agents like NPCs in the world’s largest MMORPG. It threatens, it kills, it will seemingly stop at nothing to realize its ultimate ambition. We’re supposed to believe it’s making a better world, and where else but a massively multiplayer online game, is life so smoothly coordinated, excellence or dedication rewarded without risk of politics or jealousy muddying the picture? It’s almost enough to seduce the reader into rooting for The Daemon in some instances.

That is what makes this such a great novel, that tiny amount of ambiguity capable of raising doubt in the reader over the villain’s actual motivation. A genius who died of cancer just wants to use his intellect to save humanity from itself, no matter the cost. A man who saw online games not as entertainment, but powerful lessons in sociology, distributed topology, and perhaps a little immortality, and went a little overboard as cancer destroyed his mind. Or is it that simple? The government isn’t exactly smelling like roses, more than willing to hack The Daemon for its own purposes; all software has some unnoticed flaw, after all. And more than one of the righteous is standing up to all of the Chaos it has sown, be it a redeemed identity-thief hacker, or a rogue NSA agent.

Daemon doesn’t tell us. Not even a little. This novel just gets the ball rolling, distributing chaos and setting the scene, establishing just how screwed society is after The Daemon surreptitiously slithers its way into every major bank, corporation, and record-keeping system in the world. Will this ultimately be an end to civilization, or a new beginning? Maybe Freedom(TM) can provide the answer. I know I’ll be reading it to find out.