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With first novels, there is often a feeling of awkwardness. The writer hasn’t quite found his or her voice yet, or hasn’t fully realized the world in which the novel is set. (“Incompletely realized world” would be true of a mainstream novel taking place in modern-day Los Angeles as it would be of a novel taking place on a not-quite-terraformed Mars. How I might perceive or write about Los Angeles if I were to visit would be completely different from the perception of someone who lived there, for instance. And no two people actually living in Los Angeles would have the exact same perception, even if they lived in the same neighborhood, on the same street.) The writer might or might not succumb to the meme that a story must have a great deal of sex and violence in order to be interesting. The writer might or might not decide that it’s Absolutely Necessary to have unlikable anti-heroes, because unlikable anti-heroes are a “must” for real literature. (The Holden Caulfield Effect, you might say.)
This is the case with Daniel Suarez’ Daemon.
It’s a science fiction thriller about a computer game designer named Matthew Sobol who creates a daemon (a program that runs continuously in the background and performs certain functions based on a schedule/timetable or in response to some other event or action,) that goes live after his death. Its activation sets into motion a sequence of events that include massive criminal activity and several murders, and the attempts of law enforcement are largely unsuccessful at figuring out what’s going on, or at stopping the Daemon in the first place. This is mostly because most of what they’re doing involves covering up the existence or presence of the Daemon. The few sympathetically portrayed law enforcement types are either being played for patsies or are frustrated by conflicting missions and red tape.
The daemon chooses a disparate group of people as it’s pawns or henchmen, among them are a recently fired “lifestyle” news reporter, a police detective, a prison inmate, and an identity thief, who are all assigned “roles” to fulfill. The news reporter is given a role as an “investigative reporter,” the prison inmate is cast as an Operative from Serenity, the police detective is cast as a crooked cop, and the identity thief gets to join the Thule Society. The pov is mostly focused on these characters, with occasional side trips that slowly reveal the various projects the Daemon is engaged in, while hinting (with various sizes of “plot anvil”) at what Sobol’s real goal is.
Though not it is not in itself sentient, the Daemon manages to create situations and anticipate events with startling accuracy, creating a sort of underground movement or grouping of organizations centered among the gaming/hacking communities and other fringe or marginalized elements of society. It also seems to have an equally uncanny ability to use emotional and intellectual manipulation, which I think interfered somewhat with the conceit that it was “only” a computer program.
Daemon is kind of a wish-fulfillment thriller for gamers and hackers, where the world really is a lot like a computer game, and the very best (or very worst) might get picked to join the New World Order. I wasn’t very impressed by the lack of strong female characters in this novel. The female characters present in the story only seemed to be there to fill the roles of The Hot Scientist Chick, The Loyal Wife in a Cold Marriage, and The Bitchy/Shallow Chick News Anchor. There’s a definite “phoned in” quality to their characterization that was extremely disappointing–one-note “victims” and “pawns.” (It would possibly be misleading or unfair to state that the characters I liked best were the one that was dead, and the character that was actually a computer program.) On a more positive note, there were some interesting ideas, and I liked the Mad Scientist with an Agenda story line. Sobol was a great character, and the fact that he was dead didn’t stop him from being interesting. There’s apparently a sequel in the works, and I will probably be checking it out.