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Daemon (Post #2)

February 4, 2009

I finished Daniel Suarez’s Daemon, a book I chose to put at the top of the queue for a number of reasons – the tech/AI aspect of the book, but also the idea that someone who’d self-published on the web could convert that to financial success. 

Daemon is the story of what happens after a brilliant and wealthy game programmer dies, unleashing a ‘daemon’ (a word from the Unix world referring to a software routine) of his creation into the world with elaborate and malevolent intent.  It features a large cast of characters, fairly equally split in number between those who are recruited by the program to do its evil bidding, and those who resist the Dark Lord.  The advance blurbs on the back cover tag Suarez along the Crichton/Clancy axis, although one blurber mentions Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling.  I’d have to put him in the former line rather than the latter.  As a thriller, the book is five stars – Suarez can write an action scene with the pace and vividity of a master screenwriter.  If the book isn’t already on its way to the big screen, it’s only a matter of time.  His character development varies in its success rate, as I’ll discuss later. 

Writing a novel grounded in a reality unfamiliar to the general reading public presents the same challenge whether that reality is the world of computer hacking or the early Renaissance.  The author has to choose between two approaches in every scene, sometimes choosing one and sometimes the other:  assumption of knowledge, or induction of knowledge.  A historical writer, for example, may assume you know who Michelangelo is, but needs to induce in some manner information about Pope Julius II, his patron.  And this needs to happen smoothly – i.e., you don’t want to stop the action for someone to say, “why of course, good sir, I am quite familiar with the great pope who” and then go on to quote the first paragraph of Julius’ Wikipedia entry.  Someone writing – let’s call it “technical fiction” to embrace everything from Clancy’s long, loving scenes of gun porn (“The GMX-1750A-7X’s stock was made from depleted uranium and hand polished with fat from executed Chinese dissidents”) to FTL drives and sentient AIs – has to decide on a knowledge base for his/her reader in a more narrow scope; the “common knowledge” a historical writer can rely on when dealing with, say, Henry VIII isn’t available to a technical fiction writer outside a narrow audience.  The greatest flaw in technical fiction is what I call “Meeting Syndrome” – a bunch of grad students or scientists sit around a table and explain out loud why time travel is possible or how dinosaur DNA can be replicated, and only then can people finally start getting beheaded or eaten. 

Suarez has made mostly good choices in this realm.  Most of the technology references are left unexplained, and yet the general intelligent reader can glean enough of the meaning from context not to lose the thread of the plot.  Taking this route ensures your cred with the techies who think everyone should have been born knowing about “authoring buffer overruns, algorithms for brute force password cracking, software vulnerability detection, that sort of thing.”  Subtle explanations abound in the book, such as this conversation:  “Hadi requested my help.  His development servers had become infected with what appeared to be a kernel rootkit.”  “And you have experience with computer viruses?”  It’s a smooth way to tell the reader what a kernel rootkit is without dummying things down or stopping the action.  He’s created a character who, among other purposes, serves as the “explain that to me” guy, a policeman who ends up in tandem with the guy who knows his kernel rootkits.  It’s a useful device for situations when something absolutely, positively has to be explained to laymen, and it’s handled smoothly throughout.

On the character development front, Suarez gets mixed marks from me.  Like a lot of writers to whom action writing comes naturally, his characters are weakest in their personal interaction scenes, and in expository or “internal monologue” passages, such as this one, after the policeman has had a bad moment with his son:  “Sebeck stared at the floor.  He’d screwed that up – like most aspects of fatherhood.  Listening to himself speak sometimes Sebeck wondered who the hell he’d become.  In high school he’d been a laid-back guy.  But that was before all this.  And why was he not repentant?  Even now he sat at the desk with a vague feeling that he should feel bad – but he didn’t.  Instead he felt justified by the importance of his work.  It was a coping mechanism he’d honed to a razor edge over the years.” 

But while weak in describing people’s relationships with each other, Suarez is in his element when his characters are interfacing with the Daemon – the recruitment scenes, in which various people, good and evil, are first contacted by the Daemon and essentially pushed by circumstances created by the Daemon into working for it, are masterful.  You can feel the prisoner in the prison workhouse/call center sweating as the Daemon calls repeatedly, potentially messing up his quota of closed sales calls, as it seduces and threatens simultaneously until he’s neatly boxed into accepting its terms.  Contrast that to weak spots such as the scene when a group of three basically non-evil people doing fabrication for the Daemon realize they’re now making weapons – their transition in conversation from “oh shit” to “oh well” is fast, flat and forced.  But as long as Suarez keeps the focus on people’s interaction w/the Daemon, the characters crackle.

The energy is also high when characters are working within virtual worlds in the MMORPGs – the action there is, surprisingly, fast-paced and exciting.  I’m admittedly not a gamer, having had my fill as a kid of PacMan and Friends, and tending to get agitated and upset by things that go flash and boom.  My experience of MMORPGs has been that of being at other people’s houses, watching them wander around aimlessly for aeons before killing something and picking up something shiny, and then wandering, wandering, wandering some more.  Suarez eliminates all the boring bits of RPGs and made me see the allure.

There are a few flashes of humor in the book, such as when NSA, CIA and FBI get together to discuss the threat: “They had already worked together closely in the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, and they stood ready to combat any other noun that caused trouble.”  (Suarez puts the FBI in the know-nothing category, having a senior FBI guy ask the others if they couldn’t just shut off the Internet to kill the Daemon.)  And this description of a CEO: “Vanowen had that obsessively groomed look of the fabulously rich – as though his head were the grounds of Augusta National and a hundred groundskeepers swarmed over it each morning.”

The AI, obviously, is one of the primary reasons this book is of interest to me and the blog.  Suarez doesn’t gin up anything out of the ordinary for his interface; in fact, he adheres narrowly to the currently possible – despite the fantastic capabilities of the system, its enormous database of next decisions and trees it uses to move its plan along, its interactivity with people is limited.  “Just answer Yes or No” is its response to any attempt to question it – it works well here because, after all, the Daemon is a tyrant, giving orders to be obeyed; it’s not going to be your friend or therapist.  It has voice stress analysis, and a limited word recognition facility – i.e., when a character tells it to “go to hell,” it responds, “you don’t believe in hell.”  It can recognize a violent reaction, and respond, “There is that pattern again.  You’re upset.”  The idea that the dead programmer has pre-scripted so many interactions and conversations with its intended targets is bizarre, but not so far-fetched as to be unbelievable. 

I wouldn’t consider these spoilers, but SPOILER ALERT all the same, for those who don’t want to know too much.  The raison d’etre of the Daemon is the dead programmer’s crackpot philosophy, revealed mostly at the end of the book, which ends up leaving the Daemon looking more Dr. Evil than Dr. Lecter.  While it works to set the plot in motion, I don’t see a clear reason why someone so mad and bad would wait to die before his evil plan begins to operate in the world – the sort of egotist who’d come up with this kind of thing always wants to see the results.  And the book does not provide closure, typical of science fiction, where the money is to be made in sequels without end.  The ending is more The Empire Strikes Back than Star Wars, i.e., certain threads are resolved but for the most part the big stuff is left for the next episode.  END SPOILER ALERT.

The book was a two-evening read, fast and fun, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.  I learned a little more about how best to proceed with my own technical fiction – how to smoothly inject necessary information, what kind of information can be glossed over and gleaned from context, and how to keep the plot moving through necessary technical exposition.  FSM knows Alex is no Daemon, and my book is no thriller, but I still picked up some tricks.  In addition to recommending it as entertainment, I would recommend Daemon as a handbook for anyone looking for a solid example of how to write this type of fiction.

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