A Book A Week: Freedom

Sequels are tough, especially if you are writing about big ideas. Freedom, by Daniel Suarez, the follow-up to Daemon is all about big ideas: exploitation vs. fairness, real wealth vs. the trappings of wealth, the military financial complex vs. community; mostly though it examines the issue of human freedom, what it is, what we think it is, and what manner of freedom we aspire to.

When you deal with big ideas, the second books is often the weak link in the story. Not this time. This story delves deeply into the society of Sobol’s darknet, which came about in Daemon. In Freedom, Peter Sebeck is no longer a detective . . . no longer even among the living as far as his records show. But he is now working for Sobol and his assigned mission is to determine whether mankind’s penchant for self-destruction is a bug of poor leadership or a feature of the species. Hacker/con artist/identity thief Jon Ross is also working for the Daemon, but his direction is a bit more focused: he’s heading deep into enemy territory to do some damage to the bad guys.

There are now two distinct sides in the power struggle: on the one hand there is The System, aka The Powers That Be, who represent the status quo. The System’s big dog in this fight is a gentleman known as The Major, an ex-military CEO of a substantial mercenary army (“trigger happy dipshits who are willing to make a hundred bucks an hour,” as he puts it), with connections to billionaire hedge fund managers, high level military officers in the U.S., Europe, and China, and virtually unlimited resources to make war on just about anyone or anything he can spot with the world’s extensive security apparatus.

Opposing them is Matthew Sobol’s soul given electronic substance–the Daemon–which has by now recruited its own army of operatives who use their skills with the sensibilities, tools, and terms built into Sobol’s fantasy MMPORG, The Gate, to turn the world into something a little kinder and gentler than The System wants. Namely a high-tech, sustainable, community-oriented world, populated by three-dimensional people who produce three-dimensional products for other people.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the story is the ease which which the narration slides from hard core realism to the pseudo-fantasy settings of the Daemon’s virtual world (known as D-Space). To someone with the right sensibilities, technological efforts become spells, background appliances become familiars and self-tutoring computer applications become members of the spirit world. There’s a scene where Ross visits a Chinese factory in Shenzhen to forge a magic ring, for example. Calling an artifact that’s been welded by a robot in a Chinese factory “magic” might seem hokey to a non-gamer, but what if that ring can shield you from surveillance gear in real life? Any camera, any heat sensor, any microphone? I call that a ring of invisibility. The tech is real: the sensibility is imaginary.

One thing I wasn’t sure I liked was the fact that the Daemon isn’t sentient or sapient in any conventional sense of the world while retaining considerable agency over its operatives. Ultimately, it’s a massive network of contingency programs. Something happens in such and such a city affecting this or that person, one set of algorithms is brought on line, and contact that person with a quest. Completing the quest requires use of real world skills dressed up in fantasy RPG lingo, and that’s fine. There’s a great deal to be said for unlocking Level Four Legal Protection when your farm is being threatened by giant agrobusiness lawyers. But the main purpose of the Daemon remains clear: drain enough of the shadow economy’s wealth–and with it, its power–and put it to use building productive projects, that the fake economy collapses so that a real economy can reform.

But not everyone who works for the Daemon wants a better world. One Daemon operative–an ex-rave promoter/pornographer/drug dealer named Loki–has been amassing power from the start of the Daemon’s revolt and doesn’t care about anything other than wiping out the Major and his power base of tycoons. Loki’s power is uber-tech; the best gear the darknet can provide and robot killing machines at his beck and call. The thousands or potentially millions who get killed in the process a re mere collateral damage to Loki. Plus, he has access to some of the creepier “spirits” of D-space and has plans of his own.

I’m glad I took a moment to enjoy Suarez’s near-future vision of a somewhat fairer place, but ultimately I shudder when I think of some genius programmer at Blizzard building a darknet of his own. I have little faith in the ability of your typical World of Warcraft subscriber to actually want to get involved in a semi-covert operation against The Man. It’s possible: my guild-mates are all in their in their thirties and forties and most of us have kids; there’s a reason the guild is called Midlife Crisis. I could see those folks getting in on a project like this. And it would be awesome to be known on the darknet as a 21st level Librarian.

Anyway, the weekend approaches and now I hit the publish button. I need to get my level 85 protection Paladin to 90.

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