Monday, March 16, 2009

The most Crichtonesqe novel since Crichton

by Daniel Suarez

Few readers were more saddened by the premature death of Michael Crichton than I was. Ever since his death (and truthfully even before it) I'd read any novel that promised to introduce "the next Crichton." Invariably, I'd come away disappointed. Until Daemon. Daniel Suarez's debut novel gave me hope for the future of smart, complex techno-thrillers. What a read! What a find! Thank you, Amazon Vine!

Daemon is the story of... Well, it's a little hard to summarize. The catalyst of this novel is the death (from brain cancer) of Matthew Sobol. Sobol is the young, multi-millionaire genius behind a computer gaming empire. Specifically, he made his fortune designing MMORPGs, and if you're like me, you're a reader who doesn't know squat about Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games. That's okay, you'll get educated along the way.

So, Matthew Sobol spent a lot of time thinking about society and the world we live in as his death approached, and apparently he found it lacking. Or, perhaps, the tumors in his brain drove him mad. Take your pick. In either case, Sobol set in motion an elaborate plan that would be kicked off, only after a computer read of his obituary in the news. That was the catalyst that released the eponymous computer daemon into the world.

For those that don't know (i.e. me), a daemon is a process that runs in the background and performs a specified operation at predefined times or in response to certain events. And that's precisely what Sobol's Daemon does. The obituary triggers the murders of some of the programmers that took part in the daemon's creation--in quite creative ways, I might add. And that is literally the start of the novel, and how we get introduced to homicide detective Peter Sebeck. Pete is our everyman, the one who asks the questions about technology so that the reader doesn't have to. And initially, it seemed that Sebeck would be the protagonist of a fairly typical police procedural. I could not have been more wrong.

First, rather than have a single (or a few) protagonists and antagonists, Suarez tells his tale with an ever-expanding cast. It's very hard to tell who will be a major character and who will make a brief appearance, never to be seen again. And even among the more major characters, don't get too attached, because no one is safe in this novel. This daemon is playing for keeps. Through the computer attacks, it is almost as if Sobol still lives (all the while begging the question: How do you punish a dead man?). He makes phone calls. He sends videos. And he punishes anyone who gets in the way of his destructive plans. He also rewards those who help him, because even the most powerful computers in the world need occasional human henchmen.

The way Sobol recruits from among society's disgruntled and disenfranchised reminded me so much of Randall Flagg in Stephen King's The Stand that I'm inclined to believe it's Suarez's homage to the man. I found it a little hard to believe how many people were willing to sell their soul to the daemon, but what do I know. Interestingly, none of the heroes in this novel is all good, and none of the villains is all bad. It certainly made for more interesting reading. Sometimes I couldn't even figure out who the good guys were.

Crichton has long been criticized for writing underdeveloped characters. Suarez, quite frankly, isn't even trying to develop many of the characters, sometimes populating entire chapters with characters notated only by the agencies they represent: CIA, FBI, NSA, DARPA, and so on. The stakes in this novel certainly do expand beyond the Thousand Oaks Police Department. The daemon is an enormous, world-wide danger.

The pace of this novel is relentless, and more than a few plot twists took me completely by surprise, including an enormous shocker in the final pages. The novel comes to a satisfying enough conclusion, but quite a few threads are left unresolved. I was sort of okay with the things left up in the air--food for thought, you know--but Publisher's Weekly promises a sequel. I am so there!

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