For those of you keeping score at home, I’m reviewing the 1997 re-edited version of this book, not the 1973 original. Not that I’ve any objection to reading the original – Hell, if anybody’s got a copy, send it my way, and I’ll do a follow-up.
Demon Seed is a tech-heavy science fiction thriller in which the world’s first fully sentient computer seeks to free itself from its electronic chains and enter the world of the flesh. You might think that this is a massive spoiler, but Koontz brings you up to speed on that in the first dozen pages, so I think it’s safe enough to drop it in here and, besides, the review would end up being very vague otherwise.
So, our silicon escapee wants out, for good, and slips his way into the security system of a house that is fully automated and serviced by its own computer; one that Proteus – the thinking engine in question – manages to override in the blink of an electronic eye turning the safest house on the planet into a sentient prison for its owner and sole inhabitant.
That’s really all of the plot you need – the story is told in a very dry and humorous manner, from the point of view of Proteus himself. Horror (of which this book is certainly a type, particularly in its darker moments) and comedy often go hand in hand, the build-up and the effect of both the good scare and the good joke being very similar in execution. In Demon Seed, Koontz plays it just right, as Proteus’ attempts at levity serve to heighten the tension, rather than dispel it, which is as it should be.
Be assured, there is plenty of tension, considering Koontz effectively gives away the outcome of the events unfolding before us about four chapters in. I’ve read this a couple of times over the years, and I still haven’t convinced myself how he does it. There’s a trick to it, I’m sure of it, but I can’t tell how it’s pulled off. It’s not like an episode of Columbo, where the killer is revealed after five minutes and the drama resides in whether or not they get away with it (spoiler – they don’t…they never do!). This is something different and it’s a great technique, however baffling it may feel upon trying to dissect it.
Given the nature of the story, there’s a certain amount of techno-babble to be endured but, to his credit, Koontz keeps such exposition to a minimum, sufficient to push the story along. The technological possibilities of 1997, when this book was released, make everything seem so plausible, which I guess was the intention, but it really makes me was to read the original, to see how good Koontz was at predicting the future.
Demon Seed is a fun, short novel, its various components slotting together like a well-constructed machine. It comes as something of a disappointment, then, when the story’s final build, climax and denouement gets rushed through in about 40 pages. I understand that different pacing techniques can be used to manipulate the emotions of the reader, and I guess not much of note would have happened in the couple of weeks covered by those pages, but it still felt like a cheat to me.
Not enough to ruin the book, but a cheat nonetheless.