This book is a neo-noir mystery. In terms of plot, it’s a fairly straightforward yarn about a detective who is tasked with tracking a mysterious femme fatale. Along the way, he delves into a depraved criminal underworld, is forced to flout the normal rules of police procedure at risk to his own career, and ultimately finds his own and his family’s lives threatened.
I guess this all sounds pretty standard for a detective mystery, doesn’t it? Well, I deliberately phrased it so. But I guarantee you, this is like no other detective story you’ve ever read.
It’s set in the distant future, when everything can be copied; the matter rearranged. This includes human beings. It’s not at all unusual for a person to die, and a new copy to be “instantiated” from the data stored in some central insurance system. Cosmetic alterations of all sorts can be performed instantaneously and at will.
This is in addition to the extreme nature of virtual reality programs, which can simulate anything anyone desires, creating a completely immersive experience.
In this world, the nature of reality itself starts to get fuzzy, and indeed, in the early part of the book it was hard for me to even conceptualize what was going on. Such a universe feels so bizarre it becomes difficult to ground oneself in anything relatable.
And yet… in a way it was relatable. At least to me, a terminally-online millennial, who grew up with the internet and video games. The logic of Demiurge is the logic of the 21st century media infotainment complex, carried to its natural conclusion. (It’s important to note here that the first edition was written in the year 2000.)
That was the really haunting thing about this book for me. There are sentences describing the most fantastic and mind-bindingly weird concepts, followed by sentences that feel like they could be describing the world we live in now. The overall effect is… disturbing.
Actually, many things about this book are disturbing. The femme fatale that our hero is tracking leads her admirers… clients… victims… whatever you want to call them… into a world of strange and unsettling perversity. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say that it wouldn’t be a stretch to say this book contains psychosexual horror elements.
The really chilling aspect of it is, for every unsavory thought and act referenced in the pages of Demiurge, the text seems to implicitly ask, “Could you imagine this would happen, if technology permitted?” And in every case, I could. This is no lurid penny-dreadful; making up horrible things for shock value. No, far more subtle than that… it is a window into the collective id of the age of Techno-Decadence.
Every chapter begins with epigraphs from various texts, some real, some fictional, and all related to the themes of identity, reality, and the nature of the human mind. The book would be worth reading for these passages alone, which contain brain-twisting ideas and downright eerie visions of the cyberpunk nightmare that waits for us in this imagined future.
As I approached the climax of the book, I was worried the story would, like so many noir tales, sink too deep into its own exquisitely thick atmosphere of nihilism. This can happen easily in this sort of story, when the sheer crushing weight of all the grimdark overwhelms everything else.
But no, thankfully that didn’t happen. Pacotti was able to stick the landing, and in the final chapters, he ties things up well, and in so doing, provides a character who is, I think, the perfect hero for the age of social media. It’s rare in modern storytelling to have the main character give a speech un-ironically defending his actions and his values. But then, noir detectives are rare in modern storytelling too; and that’s what makes the final chapters of Demiurge feel like coming home. After a mind-breaking, head-spinning dive into the darkest depths of humanity and technology, we come up for air and have something familiar, at last, to grab hold of.
Maddening, disturbing, terrifying, confusing, prophetic, and not without rays of hope and real emotion; Demiurge is a metaphysical magnum opus for our time.