Daemon Daemon by Daniel Suarez
Publisher: Dutton
Year: 2008
Pages: 432

Daemon is something of a success story. Initially self-published under a pseudonym, the book apparently got so much good press from blogs and tech websites like Wired that it earned itself a real publication deal with Dutton. I first learned of it from a book review on Slashdot and immediately related to the idea that geeks want realism in their fictional technology. Most recently, this is evidenced in an almost parodied fashion by Live Free or Die Hard, but you can see it in just about every film that references technology. It’s especially bad in big-budget summer blockbusters: Jeff Goldblum hacking an alien mothership with a Powerbook; the 3D “Unix” in Jurassic Park1, or Hugh Jackman as the most BS-laden “hacker” in the history of movie hackers.

Daemon proposes to be a techno-thriller written by a techie for techies. How could it possibly go wrong?

Let me say immediately that Suarez does appear to know what he’s talking about—no Neal Stephenson, but still obviously not a Jerry Bruckheimer production. That being said, Suarez never let’s you forget it. It seems as though he makes a concerted effort to add as much jargon (albeit largely accurate) as humanly possible, even when it makes his writing heavy and ridiculous. One example that sticks out in my mind is when one of the characters hops on an “802.11g wifi network” with WPA encryption. Yes, 803.11g is the most common wireless standard, but nobody reading cares about that—as though, had the wifi standard been excluded, I would have been tearing at my hair, fretting, “Well, is it 802.11b or 802.11g. Or shit! What if it’s Draft-N?” No, clearly there’s a point where none of that is important to the story; as long as you aren’t pretending that you can “hack” a satphone with an iPod or something, I think we’ll live without that level of minor detail.

But as long as we’re talking about ridiculous, Jerry Bruckheimer affairs, I should take the time to point out that Daemon, excluding its proper use of technology, reads like one. It’s got nothing but “best of the best” characters: the young, attractive, genius NSA director; the brilliant Russian hacker hero; the gruff, “shut up and soldier” SWAT leader; the maniacal, evil genius bad guy. Their interactions are of the same stilted, two-dimensional quality as those of, say, the screenplay for Armageddon. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare Suarez’s writing to that of Dan Brown, but he makes some of the same stylistic mistakes.

Without giving too much away, here’s the plot of Daemon: a genius computer programmer and video game company founder named Matthew Sobol dies from brain cancer, which sparks a series of computer programs to start spreading to servers around the world, forming a network of computer daemons2. These daemons are so smart, and have planned for so many contingencies, that they are effectively able to predict complex human behavior. Sobol’s technology goes on the rampage, killing people, recruiting other disenfranchised hackers and gamers, and basically trying to take over the world.

Now here’s where Daemon‘s status as a “realistic” technology novel falls to pieces. The components of the novel may be realistic, but its ultimate plot becomes science fiction: it supposes that Sobol has, with the help of other programmers, written millions of lines of code, which can successfully replicate and breach thousands and thousands of servers, and is so insidious that it can magically erase hard drives and destroy servers and “fry” computers, and so smart that it can coordinate an increasingly-complex web of humans and events, apparently without so much as a hiccup? I don’t buy it. Suarez tries to play down this aspect of the plot by emphasizing the humans that the “Daemon” has recruited, but even this minimized role of the computer programs themselves would require a neural network much more vast and complicated than is even really possible right now.

Of course, the final insult to injury is when, at the end of the novel, I realize that Suarez pretty much lifted the entire plot concept (as opposed to details) from Watchmen, and I’d wasted my time on a skeleton of a morality play without any of Alan Moore’s moral nuance or interesting characters or extended backstory.

Daemon is a novel that survives only by dint of its street cred as a technology novel. Too bad for its readers that apart from its component technical accuracy, the book just isn’t any good. If you’re that starved for technology, read some Neal Stephenson. As it is, there will be plenty of other foibles in Daemon that can piss you off besides the technological equivalent of a malapropism.

  1. Actually, the computer used in that scene was in fact running SGI’s Unix variant, Irix, but the girl couldn’t have known that from the 3D park representation.[]
  2. This word has an interesting etymology, by the way[]
§3657 · March 9, 2009 · Tags: , , , , ·

5 Comments to “Daemon”

  1. silburnl says:

    Hi there – I came across this place thanks to the Vaknin takedown* but have stuck around for the book reviews.

    If you’re interested in ‘techno-thrillers for techies’ do you have anything by Charlie Stross in the pipeline? If not, might I recommend ‘Halting State’ for a more promising treatment of the ‘crowd-sourced conspiracy’ idea that Suarez seems to be playing with?
    Stross writes better hacking as well I’d wager.


    [*] Yes, I have a father-in-law who gets *those* emails. Thankfully he doesn’t often pass them along.

  2. Ben says:

    I haven’t heard of Charlie Stross, but I’ll have to look him up now. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. silburnl says:

    No problemo.

    Charlie has a blog if you want to see what he’s about. Also, he released one of his novels as a free e-book if you want to try before buying.


  4. Nick says:

    Just wait until the inevitable Bruckheimer big-screen adaptation. Cognitive dissonance to the max!

    Truth be told, I find that even Stephenson’s techno-density is already a bit much.

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