It’s been done before, but never quite like this. Computers that kill, robots running amok, assemblages of inorganic matter that attain a creepy sentience and a will to power – yes, these have been tropes of science fiction for a long time. HAL 9000 from Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Colossus from 1969 movie The Forbin Project come immediately to mind, and the roots of this idea go back, I suppose, via Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the old tales of gods and titans – artificial creatures turning the tables, like rebellious children, on their creators. Daniel Suarez’s Daemon is firmly in this tradition, but manages to give the venerable genre an unexpected and welcome twist.
Which is that instead of a malign intelligence arising solely in some hulking central cyber-brain, the evil one is everywhere and nowhere, spread out across millions of computers over the internet – a “distributed daemon” (they do exist.) Operating much like a virus or a weed, the Daemon proves to be a formidable adversary and as difficult to contain as a flu pandemic – at least with HAL you could be sure of disabling him in one go, by pulling all of his modules out of their sockets.
There is much to enjoy in this novel. At times, Suarez writes like Michael Crichton at his best, gleefully displaying his prowess with cutting-edge technology like a demon barber with a shiny new razor and putting to good use some very nice ideas indeed, some new and some familiar – buildings and vehicles that take on a malevolent life of their own, frangible ammunition, MMORPGs and my favourite, the HSS or HyperSonic Sound system (a real device, in fact, the brainchild of American inventor Elwood “Woody” Norris), which can create voices that seem to come out of thin air.
But what impressed me most is how the Daemon operates. Distributed across thousands of servers across the world’s continents, it is everywhere and nowhere, possessing no central “brain”, and displaying a relentless and manipulative intelligence, despite the simplicity of its individual parts. It is a machine entity created by a human (the late Matthew Sobol, millionaire programmer, gamer and evil genius), which in turn uses other humans like computer subroutines, sending them out to toil and fight for the Daemon like hordes of soldier ants. Truly amazing stuff.
Alas, what lets the author down, however, is his powers as a novelist. Say what you like about Michael Crichton’s characterisation, he could put together a rattling good story and give it a proper beginning, middle and end. Not so Daniel Suarez – or rather not yet, this being his debut novel. His beginning is terrific, but his middle drags and his ending… doesn’t. His pace is off, with characters and storylines appearing, then disappearing for chapters on end, then briefly reappearing, then vanishing forever. One character is the centre of attention during a big chunk of the story early on, but then is apparently mislaid and forgotten about until he pops up again just in time for the climax.
And talking of the climax – with some movies, you get to the point where there is no more real story, plot development or surprises to emerge, just one long final chase or fight scene. This happens in Daemon too, and it really does come across as a bit of a low-on-brainpower, Hollywood-inspired actionfest. Don’t get me wrong, I love fights and chases (in novels, mind you, not in real life) and relish the idea of killer machete-wielding robotic motorcycles as much as anyone; however, after all that Daemon had already delivered, I did want some more story, preferably with a proper ending at the end of it.
But, you know, I probably am going to acquire and devour the recently-published sequel. I have a strong feeling that Daniel Suarez, for all his rough edges, is absolutely one author who will bear watching.