An Interview with Daniel Suarez: “This Is Not a How-To Manual”

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Daniel Suarez is one of those rare novelists who writes like he’s a) living in the same world we are and b) actually paying attention to what’s going on there.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, he writes speculative fiction about a superbrilliant artificial intelligence that’s loose on the Net, killing people and seizing the assets of major corporations. But his world feels like our world. People have cell phones in it. They have GPS and bluetooth. He knows what routers are and how networks work. He’s the only seriously talented writer I can think of offhand, besides Neal Stephenson, who can also write code. Everything other writers fudge and mumble and technobabble about, he does exactly right.

Anyway, his first novel Daemon — which he initially self-published — rocked me back on my heels. Seriously. It sets a new standard for plausibility and sheer forward velocity in technothrillers. His new book Freedom, which is out January 7, is even better.

I called him on the phone. We talked. A visual representation of our conversation is below:

Techland: You were a software consultant before you were a novelist, right?

Suarez: Yes, I actually still have a software company. What I do still, to some degree, is design database management systems for companies.

It’s funny, in a way it led into Daemon, because I would think, “Hey, this algorithm we’re working on tells a thousand people what to do,” and from there it’s a very short journey to say, “Wow, you know, if somebody wrote bots, and put them in the right places, you could really do a lot of things without anybody noticing.” That’s why I used a pen name originally — I was thinking, well, do I really want my clients knowing that I’m writing this book about hacking while I’m up to my elbows in their network?

How did you go from software to writing novels?

I have an English literature degree. I wanted to be the next great American novelist from a very early age, but I put it aside for a while, because I got very realistic at one point. And I’d always loved technology. It’s something I always messed around with in computer labs at school. So I glommed onto it very early as way to differentiate myself in business. You’ve probably found the same — if you could serve as a liaison between the programmers, the hardcore geeks, and the corner office people, a translator almost, that really was a safe position to be in.

When the hell did you even have time to write it?

I wrote parts of it when it was late at night, and I just needed a break. This idea, this kernel of an idea, was something that had been nagging at me for at least a couple of years.  The more systems that I worked on, and the more we unified those systems — and I’m not just picking on one company, this is an overall trend, this unifying everything, connecting everything, making this vast monoculture — it was worrying me more and more. But do you write a white paper on that? Who’s going to read that?  I though, “no, I’ll write a thriller and make it interesting.”

I tried to find an agent for a year or so and didn’t have any luck and thought, “You know, I’m going to self-publish it. Because I know some friends who might find it interesting.” Then it just started getting passed around and eventually made its way up to Silicon Valley, and it started taking on a life of its own. Even saying it now, it’s like, “Man, I can’t believe it actually worked out like that.” I just wrote a book that I’d like to read.

So Daemon came out, and it’s been successful. At what point did you start to work on a sequel?

I actually always envisioned these two books as one book. So in 2002 I started writing it, and by probably early 2004 I had 1,135 pages, and I thought, I’m crazy, because if it’s going to be hard to sell a self-published book, it’s going to be even harder to sell a thousand page self-published book. So I broke it into two pieces—restructured it, which was hard, and then I always had this other half that I thought was going to be the second story. I had the title all worked out.

I didn’t get back to really finishing the sequel until much later, and by that time some of the things in the sequel had sort of happened. You know, bank collapses and things like that, things that had seemed really outlandish. I thought, well, I’m not teaching a history lesson. So I went a little further with things, to just look a little further over the horizon.

Who are some of your influences?

Neal Stephenson is great. He can write about a white wall for six pages and it sounds fascinating. I read the whole Baroque Cycle, and Cryptonomicon.

Of course Tolkien — but I have rather eclectic tastes. In recent years I’ve done a lot of reading in non-fiction, but if I go back a little further, John Dos Passos — Manhattan Transfer, the U.S.A Trilogy, stuff like that. Rich Cohen, Lake Effect. Michael Pollen, of course. Jared Diamond, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Andre Norton. A whole bunch of stuff, I have a wide range of tastes.

The really exciting thing that starts happening early on in Freedom is this idea that the Daemon could be a force for good.

Yep, and that’s the key thing for me. That was very much the heart of the plan. I wanted people to start out thinking, this is a horrible, scary villain, and then in the second book going down the other slope and saying, wait a minute, what if there are other scary villains in the world, and those scary villains are running us off a cliff, but this one’s not going to.

Is that good? Does that make it good? Does that make it neutral? My main goal in this was trying to get people to really think about those questions. I’ve gotten people who say, “Do you really want us to do this?” I say, slow down! I just want people thinking about this. This is not a how-to manual.

Is the Daemon’s critique of corporate culture your own? Is this—to some extent—you putting your ideas out there?

Yeah, it is. But remember I have my own corporation, so I’m not anti-corporate. I’m against unanswerable concentrations of power, whether that be government or private industry or religious figures — anybody who is not accountable to the larger social climate or society for the power they wield, that concerns me. I’m very pro-democracy.

I look at these books — if there’s a theme, it’s unintended consequences. The idea that we’re building modern civilization into this precision machine, and the unintended consequence is that it makes it very fragile and very susceptible to outside attack and internal attack. And also it undermines democracy, because the more efficient you make things, the less people are needed to run them, and the less people that are needed, that goes counter to democracy.

So I think we need a little bit of inefficiency to have some diversity. You never know what part of the system is going to collapse and if we build all these single points of failure, in many industries — media, information systems, transportation, on and on, food systems — it’s very efficient, it’s supremely efficient, and it makes great sense to do that … up until something unexpected happens. And then you have a major problem. A major problem.

I think if I were to express my wish it would be that we are more regionally self-reliant. And I don’t mean people being survivalists, I mean regionally self-reliant. So that you have these individual cells. The idea of having different solutions in different areas, so that we have a very robust, durable civilization.

And also that feeds into democracy, because if you don’t have to answer to a distant power, you can make your own decisions. I think that’s the very heart of democracy. Listen to me, I sound like I’m up on a soapbox here, but yeah, that’s what I think. That’s really where I was going with it.

The Darknet, the way it’s structured, it reminds me of some the 19th century utopian socialist experiments.

Yeah, isn’t that scary?  I took a class called Utopias and Dystopias, so I’m mindful of the fact that a utopia can very quickly turn into a dystopia.

I want to shy away from saying I think this is exactly what we should do. Really where I am going is that I want people to try and look around them and realize, “You know what? I am wholly reliant on these other people.” I don’t have a community around me that can take care of itself within a hundred or two hundred miles from my house. We get our trashcans from 8,000 miles away. We get everything from 8,000, 10,000 miles away. When I say self-reliance I don’t mean everybody farming, but I do mean a more integrated local system that gives a nod to its region and to its environment.

Are you a big gamer?

I am. I’ve been playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed II just recently. Modern Warfare II, GTA IV, stuff like that.

I usually skirt the edges of the game and try to see what else I can do to cause trouble in it after I go through the things. I find games fascinating. They really are like some sort of psychological, I don’t want to say Rorschach Test. But you can learn a lot about people from playing games with them.