Tuesday, April 3, 2007


A little over a month ago, I got an e-mail from a marketing person at a small publisher in California. We have a book we think you’ll like, she said. Can we send you a copy? she asked.

Now, I’ve received a handful of these e-mails in the past few years. I have a blog that has a few inbound links, and a fair amount of traffic, and apparently the publishers are always looking for a way to get some buzz in the blogosphere.

I’ll be completely honest: I figured the book would be so-so at best. I’d never heard of the author, Leinad Zeraus. I didn’t know the publisher, Verdugo Press. And if they were reaching out to me, well, they were probably scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Guess what: the book is Daemon by Leinad Zeraus, and it’s remarkable. No, really. I can remember the feeling I had, sitting in the audience as the credits rolled after seeing The Matrix on opening day. I knew I’d seen something that was different, important, and something that I’d want to see again. And again. When I finished Daemon this afternoon, I had that same feeling. Daemon is to novels what The Matrix was to movies. It will be how other novels that rely on technology are judged.

The premise is both outlandish and not all that farfetched: a genius programmer has developed a daemon (that is, a computer proram that waits for a predefined trigger in order to execute a series of commands) that looks for word of his death. Once his obituary is published, all hell breaks loose thanks to this computer program. Things quickly spiral out of control, with a computer program exerting increasing influence over individuals, corporations, and even governments.

Remember when you read an early Michael Crichton book, you marveled that he got the little stuff so right? In Andromeda Strain, he knew the brand names of the filters that identified the alien particles. (Millipore, if you’re wondering.) There was just something about it that as you read it, you knew he got it. And he could tell a good story to boot, so the whole experience was satisfying.

Daemon goes quite a bit further. It’s not enough that Leinad Zeraus (the author – a pseudonym? I don’t know) gets all the tech details pitch-perfect, or that the plot is intriguing. It’s the implications of the myriad technological improvements we’ve experienced in the last few years that Zeraus foresees that makes this book such a mind-bender. Is it far-fetched? Yeah. But only in the aggregate: each component on its face is completely reasonable… and as he starts to stitch together where he thinks things might end up, things get scary.

Techies will adore that he gets the details right: cracking a WPA key on a wifi router, scanning a webserver to see if the security patches were applied, tracking a suspect through an MMORPG… it’s all completely authentic. Thriller fans will appreciate the twist on the typical government conspiracy novel: in Daemon, the government may not have the upper hand. And for the politically savvy among you, you’ll enjoy the implications of technology making it easier for “stateless” actors to play a major role on the national stage.

Zeraus weaves these details into a compelling story that is thoroughly engaging. While I doubt we’ll see a scenario quite as terrifying as Daemon play itself out, I do think several of the elements of the book are already upon us. (Indeed, the links at the book’s website point to news stories from the past year that show scenarios quite familiar to the book’s audience.) As Zeraus points out: the video game industry is now bigger than Hollywood. Computers are involved when we talk with friends and family, when we purchase food, entertainment, and travel, and less and less of the details of our daily interactions have physical document trails. GPS makes our location increasingly easy to find, and transmit. The implications of all of this are intriguing, to say the least.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s been years since I was so eager to see where the story went, and so genuinely excited by the attention to detail. I’ve lost count of the number of times an author sullied their work by paying no attention to the technology and just phoning it in. I imagine I’m not the only one who notices when that happens, and anyone who does will be thrilled at Zeraus’s ability to pull it off. If you’re looking for a good read, go buy a copy.


  1. >> Leinad Zeraus (the author - a pseudonym? I don't know)

    I think his real name could be Daniel Suarez. It jumps out at me... If either of the names were Drahcir or Ualk, they'd probably jump out at you, too. : )

    >>Remember when you read an early Michael Crichton book, you marveled that he got the little stuff so right?

    Yes, I absolutely do!

    Your review makes me want to read this book. My only concern is that I'm not as savvy about this content as I am about, say, genetics, microbiology, and epidemiology. Will I "get" it well enough to enjoy it?

  2. Danielle - Good call on the pen name. You might be on to something. :)

    As to your second question, I think you will get it. While some of the topics are rather sophisticated, Zeraus does a great job explaining the concepts behind them without turning it into a dry textbook entry on the subject. I think the hardest thing to do for an author is make it seem realistic to the non-expert, and credible to the expert. Zeraus pulls that off (or at least I think he does - would love to hear your thoughts after you read it).

    I'm probably going to end up writing more about the book shortly. It's still with me a few days later... I'm eager to find out where the story goes next (things do not get all nicely wrapped up by the end of Daemon), and each day I see something in the news that resonates with one of the primary themes of the book. I'm also anxious to talk about the book with others who've read it!


  3. I take a small exception to "Daemon is to novels what The Matrix was to movies." I have always thought that Matrix is to movies what Neuromancer was to novels. But since you were 8 when this triple-crown (Hugo, Nebula, Dick) winner was published, the brilliance of the world Gibson presented in 1984 may have be slightly tarnished if you read it for the first time in the 90s.

    That said, I will definitely read this book. And by this book, I mean your copy...

  4. Ouch. That hurts.

    Re: Gibson, his writing never really clicked for me. I always admired his ability to write about the future with prose that would make perfect sense to someone _in that time_, but to me, always seemed jarring and difficult to internalize. Maybe it's just me... but in his books, the future always felt disconnected from our present (which I know is part of the point - but that made it harder for me to latch on to).

    With Daemon, part of what's so effective is that it's effectively set in the present. Consequently, stuff that seems futuristic is in fact already happening, which creates a sense of foreboding. The conclusions he draws are unsettling, and fascinating.

    So... I'm not a particularly good guy to compare Daemon with Gibson's work. But I'd eagerly put it into the same league as Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson.

  5. I originally read Neuromancer as a high school senior (1984) as part of a course in science fiction, and it was an almost religious experience. While I had been fortunate to have been working with PCs for about 6 years, the concept of "the net" was far from mainstream. It opened my eyes to what distribtued processing might be able to accomplish, and really helped me understand that workstations were much more than just "toys". It is the single reason I never went the mainframe route (although the AIs in Gibson's work were labeled as such, I knew better) and ended up as an engineer with desktop technologies rather than working in a factory.

  6. My comment addresses Danielle's question:

    I don't consider myself a technical person, and yet I loved Daemon. It's a fantastic thriller. I also learned a lot about cyber culture from the book. I don't normally have any time or interest in playing video games, but after reading Daemon it's begun to intrigue me. Some of the characters in Daemon are hard-core gamers (and hackers), and the author weaves in and out of the gamer's perspective, playing online. Those chapters were particularly fun to read, and now I better understand all this craziness for online games. And some of the ramifications...

    Daemon is a socio-political-techno thriller with lots and lots of technology and gadgets. From some of the Amazon reviews, it sounds like many of the readers are technical junkies, and they say the technology depicted in Daemon is real. I wouldn't know for sure but I can say it scared the heck out of me. In fact, while reading Daemon, I became much more aware of how many parts of my life connect to the web. My ATM transactions, purchases, email, using my laptop at Starbucks. Ever since I read Daemon, I keep noticing computer hacks that make the news.

    But this book covers much more than just technology. In fact, computer systems are compared in places to natural ecosystems, and parasites are addressed at some length in at least one chapter ('Red Queen Hypothesis').

    Check out the acknowledgements, and you'll see a list of other works that "helped to crystallize some of the sociopolitical themes in this story." The list ranges from Jared Diamond, to Thom Hartmann, to Carl Zimmer. For this reason I found Daemon to be a seriously relevant book. Throughout, Zeraus makes insightful observations about our society -- and then pushes it into the very near future. It really leaves you thinking.


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