By Eric Pettifor
Reading Daemon, one can’t help but compare it to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, perhaps because both deal with rogue artificial intelligences (AI) and can probably be considered science fiction. If I sound a bit tentative about that, it’s because, while Neuromancer neatly fits the mold, set in a time at least some distance from now and featuring all kinds of technology that we don’t have yet, most of the technology in Daemon exists today, and the time setting could be tomorrow or the day after. One is almost tempted to invent a new category for it — technosocial fiction, perhaps.
Prior to reading Daemon, I was among those who regarded Gibson as something of a visionary for the world he created in Neuromancer, but now it almost seems like a fanciful fairytale. This is not to say that Daemon is necessarily more prophetic. A part of me hopes it isn’t. Another hopes that it is.
You might be thinking that given the lack of progress in AI research, any story featuring it might properly be regarded as a fairytale. That’s where Suarez’s genius comes to the fore. True, actual, full fledged AI is still something of a grail, but pseudo-AI, or limited AI, or narrow AI — whatever you want to call what game designers use to get non-player characters in video games to behave in more devious, more human ways — that exists today.
What if a brilliant game designer, an absolute Einstein of the genre, wrote a distributed application that lived “out there” on people’s computers, on company servers, or anywhere a flaw or security hole could let in a worm? And what if this application (or daemon, a term used in UNIX circles for an application that runs in the background doing things unattended) possessed narrow AI of the highest sophistication, the brilliant game designer’s masterwork?
Initially the daemon bides its time, monitoring rss feeds, waiting for news of the death of its creator from brain cancer to start it on its path towards . . . but that would be giving away too much, and, indeed, is part of the fun of the book. Just what is this daemon doing, and what does it want anyway, to whatever extent non-intelligent, narrow AI can be said to “want” anything?
If this was purely a super-technology driven novel, it would fail to live up to its potential, or to the challenge that Suarez seems to have set himself, which appears to be to create and empower his daemon only with technology as it exists today. In fiction, a super bad AI could crack any encryption and do all sorts of unlikely things just because it’s so powerful and the plot requires it. But today’s encryption and security measures as employed by large financial institutions (heck, as employed by your web browser when you visit a secure site) would be beyond Suarez’s daemon. Much of the digital world would be closed or else very hard to crack, aside from some low hanging fruit. (One is astonished sometimes by security lapses committed by institutions which should know better.) There is no Gibsonian cyberspace in this fictive world which can be jacked into and manipulated in some not well defined but science-fictiony way.
Fortunately for the story, Suarez understands that the greatest threat to security is human beings. And in his fictive world (as in our real one) there are plenty of young, smart people — gamers, IT workers, electrical engineers, and so on — many feeling under-appreciated within government and corporations, feeling exploited and alienated in their basement server rooms from the rest of the organization, especially those on the highest floors. And there are plenty of this same type of person unemployed, laid off, out of work, and looking for money. For a smart AI in a networked world, procuring a virtually limitless payroll is no problem. I won’t spoil it with detail, but if you accept the premise of the daemon’s sophistication, its initial moves to acquire wealth are completely plausible.
The element of recruiting young, bright people who feel apart from the mainstream, who take refuge in computer games in virtual worlds the daemon is even more at home in than they, elevates the theme from simply technology gone amok to a kind of class warfare. It is at this level as well that one begins to question who really is the bad guy — the daemon which appears to be a major threat to the corporatist establishment, or that establishment itself? Both are cruel. Only one is fat, complacent, and much, much more vulnerable than its masters ever imagined.
This is a novel which doesn’t contain any characters who are “nice.” They seem to run the range from murderously psychopathic to, at best, people whose moral core is sound, but whose lives don’t always make having a moral core particularly comfortable. Nonetheless, there are protagonists one feels for. I wouldn’t say that character is Suarez’s greatest strength as a writer, but I’ve read far worse by much more famous scifi authors. And there are a lot of characters in this book, the story flicking back and forth between them. They are a colorful enough rogues gallery, though, that when the story shifts it isn’t difficult to go along with it.
I give Daemon four stars out of five for being a brilliantly conceived, if not perfectly executed first novel. (Parts near the end drop down to a more “hope they make an action/adventure film out this” level.) It is speculative fiction, but the speculation is so well founded in the world as it exists now — technologically, socially, economically, politically — that it does almost read as prophecy. The chief thing to tell oneself, if one doesn’t care for the prophecy, is that no one could be smart enough to create a narrow AI that sophisticated. Because if such a thing were possible, if such a distributed daemon could be written for a wired world full of brilliant disenfranchised young people fully prepared to follow a dead guy’s virtual ghost who not only understands their world but is a product of it . . . well, there might be some changes around here.
Daemon is a rollicking good, action packed story that respects your intelligence most of the time. A real treat, I highly recommend it.
Published by Dutton. Hardcover $26.95 (US), paperback $9.99, ebook 8.99