A Book A Week: Daemon

Have you ever gotten a phone call that promises to ruin your whole day? Detective Peter Sebeck just did:

“Detective Sebeck. I was Matthew Sobol. Chief technology officer of CyberStorm Entertainment. I am dead.

“I see you’ve been assigned to the Josef Pavlos and Chopra Singh murder cases. Let me save you some time: I killed both men. Soon you’ll know why. But you have a problem: because I’m dead, you can’t arrest me. More importantly: you can’t stop me.”

Some days, the word “oops” just doesn’t go far enough.

And so we come to the meat of Daemon by Daniel Suraez, a particularly harrowing techno-thriller for anyone who comes from the world of IT and anyone with a bevvy of microchips in their daily life.

The deaths of two top level programmers at CyberStorm Entertainment attract the attention of the police and Detective Sergeant Peter Sebeck is assigned to cover the case. One man died from an apparent electrocution and another was decapitated by a gate winch. Sebeck declares both deaths to be homicide and investigates. Along the way, he gets a crash introduction to hackers, crackers, spoofs,  spear-phishing, identity theft, server protocols, and other tools of the IT trade. He quickly realizes that he’s out of his element and calls in the FBI to take the case over; an unsavory but necessary decision. But Sebeck doesn’t stop there. He meets a programmer named Jon Ross who figures out that the murders were the work of a daemon–a computer program that lives in the background–and lets Sebeck know that the mayhem has only just started.

Ultimately, the daemon is the work of a genius level programmer turned gaming tycoon: Matthew Sobol, father of CyberStorm Entertainment, who died weeks earlier of a brain tumor. But the daemon lives on, working in the background, reading the news as it’s posted on the internet and recruiting new “players” as they become required to beat the police and establish itself as a power in the real world.

The closest thing to this book I’ve seen was years ago when I first read The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer. In that story, an ambitious M.D. proves the existence of the human soul (the “soulwave”) which survives the death of the body. In order to learn more about whether consciousness itself survives, he creates copies of his own mind, alters them for control and experimental status and lets them loose in cyberspace. Murder and mayhem ensue.

Suarez’s story takes the idea further than Sawyer could have, both because of the greater depth which which he presents the world of information technology to the reader, and the powerful agency that his daemon possesses. That’s not Sawyer’s fault by any means; the technology and complexity of the world of computers has increased manyfold since The Terminal Experiment hit the shelves in 1995 and Sawyer was telling a different, much more intimate story.

Suarez, on the other hand, ninja dives straight into the world of computers and the people who use them, and never truly surfaces. He’s one of the few sci-fi writers to comprehend that the world we live in here and now is made of computers. But because 99% of the machines we interact with operate in the background, we don’t think of them or about them until they fail to work properly. In that respect, microchips are very much light electricity or plumbing, and just as vital to our daily lives.

More to the point, nobody complains as bitterly when the toilet stops up or the sink clogs . . . we think of it as annoying as hell, but a call to a plumber is enough to resolve the problem. The worst we do is gripe to our workers are and friends about to $200 bill the correction cost. But if you have worked on a Helpdesk, you know just how shrilly people complain about their gizmos and gadgets. We’ve never really recovered from the revolution in chip manufacturing that enable a single iPod to carry more computational power than in all the computers built before 1980. Hell, my iPhone carries 125,000 times the memory of the multi-billion dollar computers that were built for the Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s. Suarez makes this sense of entitlement work for him (and against us) as he shows us what a world run by computers for their own benefit looks like, right up to deploying computer-operated drone weapons built from stock Hummers and motorcycles. (Hint: if you see a vanity plate that reads AUTOM8D, run like hell.)

The second part of the story is found in the sequel, Freedom, which I haven’t read yet (but will.) in the mean time, Daemon is frightening, timely, and worth looking at. Carefully.


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