Software consultant Daniel Suarez has written a thriller so frightening that even the government has taken note. Daemon — his novel about a homicidal computer program unleashed by a dead computer-game titan — has caught the attention of bigwigs not only in Silicon Valley but in Washington, D.C., as well. (”I guess I knew that I hit upon a really sound idea for a technothriller when the government contacted me,” he says.) In between chatting up the White House and writing the book’s 2010 sequel, Freedom, Suarez found time to talk about Daemon — originally self-published, but released this month through Dutton — and the scary prospect of a tech-savvy future.
How did you first come up with the concept for Daemon?
In the mid-to-late ’90s, I wrote this meteorological software and sold it online. I got busy with another project, [and] about three or four months later, I went back and checked the account, and there was all this money in there because people had been buying the program. I had it set up so that the website was paid for by the [same] account. It was automated. It occurred to me that I didn’t even need to be alive for it to continue.
And what’s the problem with that?
If you don’t have to be a human being to do most of the things human beings do, that changes society…. It seems to me a scary prospect, having these not-self-aware bots running everything.
Kind of like Terminator.
It is, in a way, except Terminator was a self-aware, really advanced machine. Now, much of society is run by these really dumb machines — bots who don’t know much except the one thing they’re supposed to do. That’s superefficient, but it’s also a little worrisome. This was one of the reasons I wrote the book.
To warn people about what could happen?
I would say it’s a cautionary tale. You cannot get yourself in this situation if you have people running everything, as opposed to bots.
Apparently, the government’s taking notice. Somebody contacted you about cyberterrorism…
Yeah, although I’m really reluctant to talk about that. But it made me happy, actually, because it seems that there are some smart people who are trying to figure out what to do about these things. I wanted to make it very real and very scary so people could wake up to this situation that we’re in.
And clearly people in the government aren’t the only ones paying attention to Daemon.
It always surprises me. I’ll get e-mails from 55-year-old housewives. And that just blows me away because I’m thinking, really? I’ll get new-media people, bloggers, people who are big Twitter devotees, gamers, Googlers, and people at Microsoft. I think [it’s] because technology really transcends all lines. It’s almost like the new literacy. I don’t want to say it’s the zeitgeist of the moment, but in a way it is. Everybody has a computer that’s hooked to the Web, and it sometimes freaks them out.
But really, a computer-generated killing spree couldn’t actually happen, right?
It could. Now you’d need a great deal of resources and smarts to pull it off, but I knew I was onto something when I had computer scientists telling me, ”I really can’t point at any one thing in this book that’s impossible.”