Monday, September 22, 2008
Book Review: Daemon - by Leinad Zeraus
I just finished the most thought provoking cyberpunk novel I think I've ever read: Daemon by Leinad Zeraus. Here's my review (without spoilers).
Daemon comfortably stands with Neal Stephenson's Crytonomicon and Snow Crash, or Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly, and parts of it even read like clippings from a Bruce Schneier security-and-privacy newsletter. It's clear that the author clearly is (or has been) a computer programmer and system/network administrator, and that he has performed Steven Levy-style research on the subject.
The story uses massively multi-player online gaming industry to deliver a virtual reality dimension, similar to The Matrix, designed by a recently deceased madman (or savior a la V for Vendetta?). Pre-recorded voice recordings, video clips, and 3-D projections by this deceased master AI programmer are delivered to chosen subjects with a cold, calculating precision reminiscent of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Daemon itself is a creepily-possible, tremendously-parallel collection of viruses, worms, and script-lets deployed to the far corners of the earth, triggering to execute on real world events. (The book begins with the virus springing into action when it finds the obituary of its creator.) For big events, think Reuters, or news.google.com. For smaller, more precise and personal events, think about logging into your email client, or swiping a badge at the parking garage. Either way, countless numbers of the Daemon's objects are simply spinning in a while(1) loops until noticing particular entries added to some database somewhere. And then, seemingly not-nice things happen. This man versus machine-man is an interesting twist on similar struggles in, say, Battlestar Galactica or Bladerunner.
But sure, flipping some bits in software to launch an exploit and crash a few systems or a network is something I suppose we've become mildly used to. Well, the Daemon goes far, far beyond the modem-coupler hacking of the War Games era. The really mind bending (pun intended) aspect of the book is the depravity of the Daemon's AI-driven psychological hacks. Since the dude who wrote this beast is dead and gone, his program actually convinces real, live people to do his (its?) bidding in the physical world. Some of that bidding is none too pretty. Take the graphic artist depicted e-deaths in modern 1st-person-shooter games and start raining that down on the people who are at odds with the Daemon.
But the death and gore is secondary to the havoc the Daemon threatens to wreak on the global economy if the wrong stories start showing up on its RSS feeds. Enron, Worldcom, and the current mortgage crisis have nothing on what would happen to our collective 401(k)'s if all Fortune 1000 companies suddenly lost control of their own computer networks. Wall Street worst case doomsday.
One the whole, the book is really entertaining, and thought provoking, and the subject matter was right up my alley. Linux and GNU both make brief cameos, and the author somehow manages to work in an allusion to a Texas A&M Bonfire (yeah, I'm an Aggie). I would tell you to pick up a copy immediately, but the first run of the paper back is out of print and selling for a premium used. A new, hardback edition will be available in January of 2009, with a sequel to follow. Definitely worth a read!