« Four planets at sunset | Main | Reading List: Plastic Fantastic »

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reading List: Daemon

Suarez, Daniel. Daemon. New York: Signet, 2009. ISBN 978-0-451-22873-4.
Ever since “giant electronic brains” came into the public consciousness in the 1940s and '50s, “the computers taking over” has been a staple of science fiction, thrillers, and dystopian novels. To anybody who knows anything about computers, most of these have fallen in the spectrum from implausible to laughably bad, primarily because their authors didn't understand computers, and attributed to them anthropomorphic powers they don't possess, or assumed they had ways to influence events in the real world which they don't.

Here we have a novel that gets it right, is not just a thoughtful exploration of the interaction of computers, networks, and society, but a rip-roaring thriller as well, and, remarkably, is a first novel. In it, Matthew Sobol, a computer game designer who parleyed his genius for crafting virtual worlds in which large numbers of individuals and computer-generated characters interact (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) into a global enterprise, CyberStorm Entertainment, and a personal fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars, tragically dies of brain cancer at the age of 34.

Shortly after Sobol's death, two CyberStorm employees die in bizarre circumstances which, when police detective Pete Sebeck begins to investigate them with the aid of itinerant computer consultant and dedicated gamer Jon Ross, lead them to suspect that they are murders orchestrated, for no immediately apparent motive, from beyond the grave by Sobol, and carried out by processes, daemons, running on Internet-connected computers without the knowledge of the systems' owners. When the FBI, called in due to their computer forensics resources, attempts to raid Sobol's mansion, things go beyond catastrophically wrong, and it appears they're up against an adversary which has resources and capabilities which are difficult to even quantify and potential consequences for society which cannot be bounded.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Or maybe not. Before long evidence emerges that Sobol was the victim of a scam orchestrated by Sebeck and his mistress, conning Sobol, whose cognitive facilities were failing as his disease progressed, and setting up the Daemon as a hoax to make a fortune in the stock market as CyberStorm's stock collapsed. This neatly wraps up the narrative, which is just what the police, FBI, and NSA want, and Sebeck is quickly convicted and finds himself on death row for the murders he was accused of having orchestrated. Some involved in the investigation doubt that this ties up all the loose ends, but their superiors put the kibosh on going public with their fears for the time-tested reason of “avoiding public panic”.

Meanwhile, curious things are happening in the worlds of online gaming, offshore Internet gambling and pornography businesses, pillars of the finance sector, media outlets, prisons, and online contract manufacturing. The plague of spam comes to an end in a cataclysmic event which many people on the receiving end may find entirely justified. As analysts at NSA and elsewhere put the pieces together, they begin to comprehend what they're up against and put together an above top secret task force to infiltrate and subvert the Daemon's activities. But in this wired world, it is difficult to keep anything off the record, especially when confronted by an adversary which, distributed on computers around the world, reading all Web sites and RSS feeds, and with its own stream of revenue and human agents which it rewards handsomely, is able to exert its power anywhere. It's a bit like God, when you think about it, or maybe what Google would like to become.

What makes the Daemon, and this book, so devilishly clever is that, in the words of the NSA analyst on its trail, “The Daemon is not an Internet worm or a network exploit. It doesn't hack systems. It hacks society.” Indeed, the Daemon is essentially a role playing game engine connected to the real world, with the ability to reward those humans who do its bidding with real world money, power, and prestige, not virtual credits in a game. Consider how much time and money highly intelligent people with limited social skills currently spend on online multiplayer games. Now imagine if the very best of them were recruited to deploy their talents in the world outside their parents' basements, and be compensated with wealth, independence, and power over others. Do you think there would be a shortage of people to do the Daemon's bidding, even without the many forms of coercion it could bring to bear on those who were unwilling?

Ultimately this book is about a phase change in the structure of human society brought about by the emergence of universal high bandwidth connectivity and distributed autonomous agents interacting with humans on an individual basis. From a pure Darwinian standpoint, might such a system be able to act, react, and mobilise resources so quickly and efficiently that it would run rings around the strongly hierarchical, coercive, and low bandwidth forms of organisation which have characterised human society for thousands of years? And if so, what could the legacy society do to stop it, particularly once it has become completely dependent upon the technologies which now are subverting and supplanting it?

Spoilers end here.  
When I say the author gets it right, I'm not claiming the plot is actually plausible or that something like this could happen in the present or near future—there are numerous circumstances where a reader with business or engineering experience will be extremely sceptical that so many intricate things which have never before been tested on a full scale (or at all) could be expected to work the first time. After all, multi-player online games are not opened to the public before extensive play testing and revision based upon the results. But lighten up: this is a thriller, not a technological forecast, and the price of admission in suspension of disbelief is much the same as other more conventional thrillers. Where the book gets it right is that when discussing technical details, terminology is used correctly, descriptions are accurate, and speculative technologies at least have prototypes already demonstrated. Many books of this genre simply fall into the trap of Star Trek-like technobabble or endow their technological gadgets with capabilities nobody would have any idea how to implement today. In many stories in which technology figures prominently, technologically knowledgeable readers find themselves constantly put off by blunders which aren't germane to the plot but are simply indicative of ignorance or sloppiness on the part of the author; that doesn't happen here. One of the few goofs I noticed was in chapter 37 where one of the Daemon's minions receives “[a] new 3-D plan file … then opened it in AutoCAD. It took several seconds, even on his powerful Unix workstation.” In fact, AutoCAD has run only on Microsoft platforms for more than a decade, and that isn't likely to change. But he knows about AutoCAD, not to mention the Haas Mini Mill.

The novel concludes with a rock 'em, sock 'em action scene which is going to be awe inspiring when this book is made into a movie. Rumour is that Paramount Pictures has already optioned the story, and they'll be fools if they don't proceed with production for the big screen. At the end of the book the saga is far from over, but it ends at a logical point and doesn't leave you with a cliffhanger. Fortunately, the sequel, Freedom™, is already out in hardcover and is available in a Kindle edition.

Posted at August 11, 2010 21:48