This May Be the Most Technologically Accurate Novel Ever Written

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Here’s what I’m reading now: Daemon, by Daniel Suarez, a techno-thriller about an evil genius zillionaire games developer who dies and leaves behind a piece of intelligent viral software — the titular daemon — that infests the Internet and starts killing people in clever ways. It’s up to our heroes, a good-natured cop and a clever IT guy, to stop it.

That’s the premise. Suarez isn’t much of a writer, in the sense that he’s not especially gifted at putting words together. A blurb on the back compares him to Bruce Sterling (who I notice has a new book coming up) and Neal Stephenson, but that isn’t quite right. Those guys are genuine artists with words: their books are seriously smart right down to the sentence level. Daemon is written clearly and economically, but otherwise not especially well.

However Suarez is an excellent plotter: something in his writerly metabolism cannot let a scene go by without a surprise or a twist or a clever bit or a set-piece. But what makes Daemon really interesting is that it’s probably the most accurate novel about technology ever written.

Which sounds like faint praise, but listen. Suarez — according to his bio — is an “independent systems consultant” (just like his IT guy hero, Jon Ross). Which means that, as far as I can tell, he can actually describe the specific mechanics of, say, compromising a machine or a network in detail and with a level of sophistication I’ve never seen in print before. He doesn’t make any of the classic movie tech fails, like having people type their passwords into a big box that you could see from across the room, then get back a big message that says ACCESS GRANTED. He gets the architecture and culture of MMO’s just right. He understands the slippery pervasiveness of data, how easily it moves around and hides and seeps into everything. He gets how the world looks to a computer.

There’s a great culture clash moment when one of our heroes shows a federal agent a government ID he’s using to hide his identity. It shows the name “Littleton.” The agent freaks out and accuses him of killing Littleton to get it. Our hero just laughs:

“Not Littleton’s fault. He was eating lunch on a park bench. A digital camera with a zoom lens gave me a close-up image of his ID badge. I used a graphics program to paste in my own photo, then a portable card printer. All from the confines of my car.”

Of course, the whole book is wildly implausible, but once you swallow the premise the rest of it is worked out with a rigorous attention to technical detail, using only present-day tech, and Suarez is endlessly clever at thinking of ways a genius-level AI could actually reach out and touch somebody through the Net. Daemon is a lot like a Crichton novel — it’s skeptical about the power we’ve given technology over us, but at the same time it can’t stop fiddling with gadgets because they’re so frickin’ fascinating.

Daemon was originally self-published, and you can see why — a book like this would have to come from a literary outsider. Even a systems consultant can’t hack his way into the publishing world.

p.s. in unrelated news, Patrick McGoohan died. That’s sad.

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