Intelligence and Agency in Daniel Suarez’s Daemon

           Most of the narratives we have examined this semester have raised questions about what it means to be human in the face of something alien, something often bigger than the human mind can grasp, but impossible to deny. This vast Other—intelligent and inconceivable—has been one way of looking at deity, but in science fiction most often there is no true deity, only what can be proven or shown to exist, but has not yet been understood. The ability to examine and understand, the concrete knowledge of existence at the least, seems to be a cornerstone of the genre.  In the end, science and religion can, and do, ask many of the same questions about existence and humanity. Their methods of proof are just purportedly different.

Daniel Suarez’s novel Daemon takes up many of the same questions. Instead of examining an encounter with an alien intelligence of some sort, however, the being or construct that takes the place of an alien or a god, is the Daemon – “a computer program that runs continuously in the background and performs specified operations at predefined times or in response to certain events” (Suarez Loc 28). Matthew Sobol, a brilliant computer game designer and programmer, dies of brain cancer, but not until he has constructed a computer program to carry out his wishes, to construct a world of his devising, after his death. Upon Sobol’s death, the Daemon orchestrates the murder of the other two men who had a hand in developing it and is launched into the world to set up the parameters to carry out Sobol’s plans.

Throughout the novel, the Daemon is given near god-like status by those who all but worship it and demonic status by those who fear and fight it. It is beyond the comprehension of most and it is spoken of and treated like it is an autonomous agent with an agenda of its own. Even those with the knowledge of computer science to grasp what the Daemon is tend to still attribute the events it triggers to the Daemon itself, as if it were something to be outsmarted or reasoned with, as if it had wants and needs that could be figured out.

This reaction to something so seemingly vast is one that all of the protagonists we have examined this semester have had. Whether confronted with a monolith, a Raman ship, a sphere or a planet made of an oceanic brain, some of the main questions have been: “what does it want?” and “why is it doing this?” The attribution of desire and an intelligence we are capable of understanding has been one made in nearly every narrative we have examined, as if, surely, somehow, we must be able to relate to what is out there, if we could just find the key: the right code, the right button, the right prayer.

This tension in how to connect and understand is at the heart of Daemon in many ways. The Daemon seems to operate like the monolith, the ship, the sphere, the planet. It acts and lives change, people die, people live, the stock market rises, a door opens, a lock turns. The Daemon has human agents working for it around the world, and they are obedient to it like one might be to a god, or a higher intelligence. But unlike the monolith, the sphere, the planet…the Daemon wants nothing; it has no desire; it has no greater “why” it is striving toward. The Daemon is nothing but a computer program. In many ways, it can be seen more like Hal or the Raman ship than the monolith, sphere or Solaris—it does what it was programmed to do. However, unlike Hal, who seems to have some consciousness, something separate from pure programmed decisions, the Daemon is purely an exercise in computer code, functioning through a logic tree, albeit a highly complex one.

The Daemon is programmed to read the news online around the world and trigger certain events. Human agents are then presented with certain opportunities. They may choose to do as the Daemon asks, or they may not. If they do, they often find that there is no way out but by death—but the first choice is theirs. Between these human agents, who receive their instructions based on their choices and the events scanned in the news, and the events triggered solely by other events that get reported, the Daemon is able to gain control of the majority of America’s corporations and public life, but only through those agents and events. The Daemon does not “decide” to do anything—it is triggered by a preset event (i.e. “If X happens, then do Y”). The intelligence behind it is Sobol’s, a human man, and instead of something beyond our understanding driving its actions and choices—what the Daemon does is fully a function of human agency and choice.

Somehow, this conundrum, this view of the Daemon escapes most of the characters in the book. There is a sense that if the Daemon could just be contained, or controlled through the code the United States has been given, then the genie could be put back in the box. However, there are many indications that it has gone far too far for that—the Daemon’s agents are too well placed, the code too deeply embedded, and those working for and with the Daemon (or with Sobol, in many ways) are too frightened or too caught by their own power to cease and desist their actions.

Ultimately, as most science fiction does, Daemon can be seen as a meditation on the state of humanity and the choices we make. Do we shoot a nuclear missile at the first sign of intelligent life beyond our own or do we disarm it and trust a more benign purpose? Do we destroy the creations of a curious alien or do we reach out to it? Do we learn to acknowledge and face our subconscious or do we reject the ability to look our own shadows in the face? Do we agree to work with a dead man via a computer program to engineer the destruction of society as we know it or do we fight to maintain the status quo?

One of the more interesting permutations of these questions within Daemon is the underlying question about whose world it is, who controls it, and those which question not the Daemon’s agency but the notion of human agency and freedom. Because while the Daemon can only react to the actions of humans and thus, as discussed above, it is human agency in some ways which fuels the plot, that very agency becomes more and more suspect as the novel progresses.

Peter Sebeck, ostensibly the protagonist of the novel, if one can be named, can only react to the Daemon at first. It is beyond his understanding, even with the help of another computer whiz. He, however, when faced with the Daemon itself, never seems to attribute to it the power others do. It’s always Sobol for him, the human face, the one that created and launched the Daemon. His skepticism ruins his life in some ways, because he cannot fathom the reach of the Daemon at first, but he never sees the fight as one against some program: it is always about the people from Sobol down to the smallest cog in the chain of the Daemon’s army. Philips and Ross never forget Sobol is behind it all, but given he is out of reach their attention must stay on the Daemon. Sebeck keeps his eye on the ball, maintaining that Sobol is behind it all, no matter how far-fetched it sounds, it was meant to be far-fetched (304). For him, the Daemon and Sobol become interchangeable, rather than a godlike Other (305). His ultimate acceptance of this is why he is the one who seems to hear what Sobol is saying, where others, even when confronted with Sobol’s agenda, only focus on the Daemon, declaring Sobol’s messages to be “just propaganda. Another misdirection” (325). They are handed the why and a chance to use their own agency, but they choose not to.

Sebeck listens and chooses the role Sobol offers—to find justification for the freedom of humanity so they do not end up serving society instead of society serving humanity (428). Sobol does not think this is likely. He believes that “democracy is not viable in a technologically advanced society,” because there is too much of an ability to destroy (428). The Daemon’s own agents have proven this in many ways. They were given a choice, their agency in stepping out and serving the Daemon seems, on its face, to be forcing society to serve the Daemon’s and their aims. However, the Daemon carefully chose agents most likely to fit into this particular worldview (319), and once they are working for it threatens them with death if they defect (340). Therefore, their agency is somewhat suspect—they made an initial choice and now they are servants of the Daemon, not people working their own free will.

By stepping into line with them, accepting the role that Sobol has offered him, Sebeck risks losing his own freedom to choose. He had to accept the Daemon, and that was done of some level of free will, but his acceptance of it places him in a position from which there is no easy escape. To ensure his family’s continued support, he must agree to allow the Daemon to support them, to agree to be counted on (425). To ensure his continued freedom and life—and the protection, one presumes of the Daemon—he must agree to play Sobol’s part for him (426). Thus, a paradox is set up at the end of the novel to continue into the second—how can Sebeck defend humanity’s freedom, the chance for society to serve humanity, if he, himself, is in the service of the technological constructions which would rule them?

Perhaps that is an answer offered in the sequel to the novel, but there are no easy answers in Daemon. Sobol claims that the fate of civilization itself hangs in the balance, and some choices are already one. A distributed civilization is one we already have, even if we do not recognize it. There already is no true central authority, and Sebeck’s job is to determine, it seems, if there is any human authority left, or any right to it. The Daemon then can be seen being placed back up on the pedestal of a higher intelligence that controls things and forces humanity to face its own insignificance. If even the anarchist-leaning agents of the network and the very person chosen to defend humanity’s right to choose have been stripped of true agency and choice, then humanity’s service to something else seems assured. It is not an alien or a god that renders us insignificant, but the very application of our own connection and efficiency. In many ways, that is far more chilling than any alien encounter could be.

Work Cited

Suarez, Daniel. Daemon. New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 2009. Kindle