Review: “Daemon”

If there’s one thing that annoys computer geeks, it’s the portrayal of technology in the entertainment media. Hollywood writers seem determined to throw references to computers and the Internet into their stories, but their ignorance invariably leads to asinine plot twists, with Our Hero “hacking the enemy mainframe” using nothing but his IM client and a spool of copper wire.

You’ll find none of that in Daemon, the first novel by network security consultant Daniel Suarez. Daemon may be a genuine first: a techno-thriller firmly grounded in real-world technology. There’s no jabber about “mainframes” here, no “hacking systems” with pocket calculators. Suarez’ use of jargon, his understanding of the way computer systems operate, and his familiarity with information security practices are all pitch-perfect. If you thought we needed such a book, here it is. But did we?

I write about computers and the Internet every day. I write nonfiction for a technically literate audience, yet even I know that there are some things that just don’t need to be said. Getting the point across is more important than wowing the reader with your own technical savvy. So when Suarez writes dialogue like, “This one consists of a lengthy burst of packets from TCP port 135 at a predictable interval and bit length,” I have to wonder whether he’s really enlightening us or just, shall we say, padding the job.

But Suarez clearly knows his audience. His obsession with technical detail is pervasive, bordering on the fetishistic. Nearly every object in the story is identified by its make and model. It’s porn for the type of guys who envy other men’s golf clubs.

Some writers will tell you that a character drove to the office. Suarez, on the other hand, will tell you that the character stepped out of his house and entered his black 2008 BMW 760Li, inserted the key in the ignition, turned clockwise, causing the 12-cylinder engine to come to life with a pleasant roar, after which the driver threw the gear shift into reverse and applied level pressure to the accelerator for the journey to his office at the corner of 7th and Ventura. I’m not kidding; he’ll really tell you how many cylinders are in the engine.

This attention to detail only partly disguises the fact that Suarez’ writing is no great shakes. His sentences are rife with clichés. Lots of characters shake hands with “vicelike grips” (ouch!), chapters are titled things like “Cogs in the Machine” and “Powers That Be,” there’s a mysterious figure known only as “the Major.” Unnecessary adverbs litter the text, with characters rolling their eyes dramatically and pushing forcefully. The prose isn’t terrible, but it’s definitely more pulp than Pulitzer.

So, having said all that, you might get the impression that I didn’t like the book. But actually I did. As light entertainment it’s really not bad, and for a first-time author Suarez has acquitted himself admirably.

A lot of my enjoyment of the book has to do with the unexpected direction of the plot. You can pluck the short version from the cover copy: brilliant videogame designer Matthew Sobol has died, but his legacy is a malevolent computer program — a daemon, in PC parlance — that has infiltrated the world’s information systems and is steadily growing in power such that it will soon threaten society itself. What’s refreshing, however, is that about halfway through the book Suarez drops the trappings of a typical techno-thriller, with its police procedures and technical mumbo-jumbo, and the story starts turning into something else.

Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say that by the end, this book resembles The Stand more than The Bourne Identity, and it’s a direction I didn’t anticipate. What I maybe should have anticipated is that the ending leaves it wide-open for a sequel, maybe even a series. Well, hey; I did say it worked mainly as light entertainment.

Some of the ideas in Daemon are downright goofy. For example, among its other tools of destruction, the evil computer program battles our human protagonists with a fleet of menacing robot cars. Say what you want, but cars that drive themselves have never been scary, have never been anything but silly, not in Christine nor anywhere else. And when the daemon begins marshaling its resources, it outfits its human agents with high-tech gear straight out of a William Gibson novel. How a videogame programmer was able to write a computer program that was capable of inventing and building technology beyond the capabilities of any human engineer is never explained.

But other ideas are more interesting. Suarez’ vision of a possible global apocalypse is intriguing, and it has a strange, almost philosophical undertone — like a Left Behind novel as penned by a libertarian capitalist. It’s almost as if he has some kind of message he’s trying to get across, but if he does it’s not immediately clear. Fortunately, Daemon works just fine as a beach novel, and Suarez will have ample time to flesh out his ideas when the sequel, Freedom™, is released next year. Check out Suarez’ Web site at thedaemon.com for more info.