Review: Daniel Suarez’s “Daemon”

by Miles Raymer


The modern book market is oversaturated with technothrillers, so it’s always a risk to pick one from the pile and give it a whirl. Fortunately for me, one of my closest friends identified Daniel Suarez’s Daemon as one that would be worth my time. But even my high expectations couldn’t prepare me for how much I was delighted with and impressed by this book. Despite getting off to a slow start, Daemon had me on the edge of my seat for many hundreds of pages, all the while teasing me with clever ideas and moral quandaries that deepened my investment in the characters and story.

Even though it is now more than a decade old (which can seem more like a century in this genre), Daemon still feels fresh and topical. The story begins with the death of Matthew Sobol, an elite video game designer, which sets a complex series of events in motion. These developments are choreographed by a “Daemon” computer program Sobol designed in his final years of life. The Daemon is distributed throughout the Internet with no central core, and “runs in the background waiting for some event to take place” (82). The Daemon is neither intelligent by human standards nor capable of pursuing its goals with what we usually think of as autonomy or agency. It is governed by a set of predetermined algorithms (“if-then” rules) that Sobol designed and preloaded into its programming. The Daemon constantly scans the Internet for news about what is going on in the world, and then reacts according to what its algorithms decree.

The Daemon thrives in a world full of people “hanging their personal fortunes on technology they didn’t understand” (33). Rather than hacking directly into high-security public and private sector computers, the Daemon recruits disgruntled or bored employees to subvert these organizations from within, even to the point of “gamifying” this process with punishments and rewards for its acolytes: “The Daemon is not an Internet worm or a network exploit. It doesn’t hack systems. It hacks society” (456).  So, despite being a “mindless program,” the Daemon is able to manipulate digital environments in ways that precipitate stunning feats of economic organization and collective action with far-reaching consequences for the non-digital world. The Daemon is a wonderful and dynamic storytelling mechanism that explores how we define (or fail to define) “intelligent” behavior, and how human intelligence may differ from or be similar to machine intelligence.

Most of Daemon’s pagecount is devoted to showing how the lives of a diverse cast of characters change as they become embroiled in Sobol’s master plan for reshaping the global economy and human civilization. While the systemic tendencies of Sobol’s Daemon become clear over time, Sobol’s motivations and overarching goals are relatively opaque; this adds a delicious element of moral ambiguity as some characters resolve to stop the Daemon while others join it with revolutionary zeal. For any reader willing to think outside the “humans should always be in control of their own lives” box, the question of who to root for can be genuinely perplexing. Additionally, while Suarez leans toward the oversimplified and negative view of government that is common amongst techies, he is not above portraying government figures who are genuinely heroic and concerned with doing the right thing. All of this keeps the reader wondering exactly what Suarez is trying to teach us about the current structure of human civilization and its possible futures.

Overall, Daemon is a book that that simultaneously succumbs to and overthrows the literary flaws that typify the technothriller genre. Suarez’s prose is nothing special, but he does manage occasional flights of genuine linguistic creativity. His characters feel and act like wooden clichés at first, but actually develop in quite interesting ways as the story proceeds. The gender dynamics in Daemon feel painfully bro-grammery, but the story’s central romantic thread has progressive potential. Suarez appears to have put a lot of effort into making Daemon something more than just another mindless romp through a sea of glitzy futuretech. Undeniably, that effort paid off.

By the end of the book, the Daemon seems increasingly unstoppable––always one step ahead of those seeking to resist its growing influence. Setting the stage for a sequel, the Daemon charges one of the main characters with an intriguing quest:

I suspect that democracy is not viable in a technologically advanced society. Free people wield too much ability to destroy. But I will give you the chance to determine the truth of this. If you fail to prove the viability of democracy in man’s future, then humans will serve society––not the other way around. Either way, a change is coming. (613)

It’s hard to think of a better way to send a reader straight to the opening sentences of your next book, which is exactly where I’m headed!

Rating: 9/10