Book Review: 'Kill Decision,' by Daniel Suarez

The third novel from the Digital Era’s Tom Clancy
Suarez writes of drones that fly themselves and launch attacks without direct human involvement Illustration by Morgan Schweitzer

Kill Decision
By Daniel Suarez
Dutton; 391pp; $26.95


In a penthouse overlooking the Potomac, Marta, a Washington PR consultant, sits at her dining room table late at night, drinking alone. Suddenly, a large raven glides across her terrace and into the room—and clambering after the bird comes its owner, a soldier code-named Odin.

“I’ve been expecting you,” Marta says. “What can I do for our friends in The Activity?”—an elite U.S. intelligence unit. Odin tosses “an insectlike robot the size of a toaster oven” onto the table.

“Ah, drones,” she says.

“Autonomous drones,” Odin answers.

Thus begins a climactic scene in Kill Decision, a compulsively readable pulp thriller by Daniel Suarez about the future of robotic warfare. Odin, the book’s hero, is on a mission to discover who’s behind a series of attacks on U.S. soil by aerial vehicles that are not only unmanned but also unsupervised—“drones that fly themselves and make a kill decision without direct human involvement.” Meanwhile, Marta hustles on behalf of aerospace interests, manipulating the levers of both old and new media to convince America that the only sure protection against drone attacks is … more drones.

Kill Decision is Suarez’s third novel, following Daemon and Freedom™, bestsellers that have built his reputation as the Tom Clancy of cyber security. Suarez has developed a cult following among tech elites, who find their worldview reflected in his fiction. He knows his stuff. While moonlighting as a novelist, Suarez, 47, worked as an information technology consultant, designing software for finance, entertainment, and defense companies, including Litton Industries, now part of Northrop Grumman. The job taught him about technological vulnerabilities that could cause significant social disruptions but that are rarely discussed publicly, because they’re either classified by the government or concealed by private companies.

Success didn’t come easy for Suarez. Forty-eight literary agents passed on the manuscript for Daemon, about a software program that takes over the world by manipulating human behavior to preserve the program’s own existence. Undaunted, Suarez self-published the book in 2006 under the pseudonym Leinad Zeraus (his name spelled backwards). The novel became an underground hit in the upper echelons of Silicon Valley. Rick Klau, who now leads the Startup Lab at Google Ventures, was Daemon’s first big fan; he sent it to friends including former White House Director of Cyber Security William O’Brien. Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog and co-founder of The Long Now Foundation, sent a copy to MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito, who wrote a blog post calling the book “extremely believable and realistic and still mind-blowing.” Daemon was republished by Dutton in 2009 and optioned by Paramount Pictures.

Like Suarez’s previous books, Kill Decision is a work of “soft” or “near-term” science fiction, a subgenre depicting plausibly strange and alarming directions society could soon take. Many masters of this form, such as the late Ray Bradbury, are careful, quiet stylists. Suarez’s more rollicking style sometimes leads to careless and repetitive prose. A crowd of “hundreds of thousands” becomes a crowd of “tens of thousands” within minutes. In the space of two pages, we learn that Marta’s office has an “expansive view” and an “expansive desk.” And that terrace on her apartment onto which Odin climbs? “Expansive.” Most of the book’s self-consciously pulpy contortions, though, might have brought a smile to Raymond Chandler’s lips. One young, high-living social media guru is always doing things like “look[ing] up from his Châteaubriand in surprise.” When a group of programmers finds its source code has been posted publicly, it’s “like finding the love of their life in a gang-bang porno.”

Suarez is also influenced by dystopian cyber-punk novels, such as those by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, but his project is more earnest. The book is palpably eager to be useful, to frame the debate on the origins, techniques, stakes, and possible outcomes of drone warfare more clearly than anyone else has. In this, it is an unqualified success—more so than even the most in-depth nonfiction works on the topic, such as P.W. Singer’s Wired for War.

Unlike investigative reports and somber editorials, Kill Decision has a bulging bag of tricks to keep readers engaged: car chases, skydiving, sex, drone massacres. It’s a hell of a fun read, packed with mini-tutorials on the inner workings of ant colonies, video surveillance systems, the minds of ravens, and the geography of Kinshasa, among other obscure topics. And its hero’s journey feels fresh and vital: Odin is a man of conscience, a quality that atrophies if the enemy appears only at a distance, and onscreen. Conscience, Suarez suggests, is the only force that can control the most destructive excesses of technology.

Over the course of his three novels, Suarez has developed a broad, consistent critique of techno-capitalism. He contends our emphasis on efficiency will strangle society if citizens don’t become more vigilant about guarding their freedoms and nations don’t start being more transparent about their technological capabilities. His argument applies not only to the defense-industrial base but also to manufacturing, services, and every process that relies on the almighty algorithms that run the computer systems that run the world.

Kill Decision’s dialogue cues these warnings with timpani. (“Tell me why it’s a revolution in military affairs.”) Yet if it didn’t, most readers might not get the message. America should be having a vigorous public discussion about drones and deadly force. Kill Decision is a beach read the world actually needs.