How a smart contract gets away with murder: A review of ‘The Oracle’

If you’re looking to learn more about how a blockchain oracle could potentially kill you,this is the book for you


Midjourney modified by Blockworks


I’m finally getting to review a book that isn’t about Sam Bankman-Fried or Bitcoin erotica.

Instead, it’s my take on the first crypto novel that I’ve come across — and a thriller no less, which is close to my favorite genre of all (the mystery, of course).

Ari Juels’ The Oracle asks the question: What would happen if a smart contract could kill someone? And as a Cornell Tech computer science professor and chief scientist at Chainlink Labs, Juels definitely has the technological chops to explore how that could realistically happen. (Especially since he co-authored a paper on criminal smart contracts back in 2016).

But more importantly, Juels has the imagination to consider the deeper moral quandaries that a crypto developer would face when confronted with the idea that his own oracle technology could kill him — and that the only way of stopping murder is to subvert the very immutability of blockchain itself.

But before we dive into a world of murderous smart contracts, I want to note that this is not the type of crypto-filled novel that I’ve maligned in the past. The Oracle does not include crypto in its plot just to seem relevant, nor does it butcher the way that the technology actually works for the sake of a storyline.

In fact, the protagonist (a very talented developer living in New York) knows so much about crypto — and spends so much time explaining very high-level tech concepts to either uninformed FBI agents, his start-up coworkers or the reader — I did have to glance at the book’s cover a few times to reassure myself that this really was a novel. 

I even tried to take off my crypto reporter hat, pretend that I hadn’t been covering this technology for five years, and see how much of the book’s more intricate tech-related plot points I could still understand. Blockchain and oracles, check, but I’ll admit that the more in-depth explanations of trusted hardware and multi-blockchain flash loans may escape the everyday reader. Moral of this story is: If you’re looking for a book where you don’t need to do any thinking about cryptography, this isn’t the place for you. 

But the moral of the book’s actual story is much deeper. Look past the international art theft, kidnapping and murder, and you’re left with a debate over how immutable a blockchain should really be. 

Without spoilers, when an anonymous online group calling themselves the Delphians puts out a call via smart contract for the murder of an archeology professor, our middle aged hero (the developer of said smart contract software) is thrown headfirst into the FBI’s investigation when his own murder is called for next.

You can see the traces of an author deep into the cryptocurrency world everywhere, because he gets our main character’s reaction just right when he’s asked to essentially hack his own oracle into believing a lie. Cue the FBI’s indignant frustration:

“It is wrong to let a man be killed.”

“It is wrong. Abhorrent. But the greater wrong would be to take a system designed for individual empowerment, a system free from interference by any government, and subvert it. We’re building oracles to be the definitive sources of truth.”

This main conundrum is an obvious parallel to the issue confronting the Ethereum community when The DAO was hacked way back when (which is mentioned in the book), as well as a nod to the assassination markets that were briefly a thing on Augur’s prediction markets (also mentioned).

For those in the know, the book is filled with small Easter eggs that make you nod your head and go “yes, this is what crypto is like.” Vitalik Buterin makes an appearance, wearing a unicorn-themed shirt, and a Coindesk article about the murderous smart contracts is described as “not superaccurate” (ouch). 

Or, in a darker vein, when one of our hero’s friends early on warns him of major global banks’ secret plot to cripple the blockchain industry because they themselves didn’t get in early enough, it sounds sadly familiar. It’s the type of anti-crypto conspiracy theory that, unfortunately, some crypto fanatics believe to be true.

Read more from our opinion section: Love crypto? Read this book. Hate crypto? Read this book.

But the fascinating plotlines about stolen ancient Greek art and history — as well as the ancient Greek flashbacks woven into several chapters (and I wanted more of them!) — kept the book from being just a technical guide to oracles and the crypto industry disguised as a novel. 

And even though (semi-spoiler alert), the sun god Apollo hasn’t actually come back to life in the in the internet, issuing deaths via smart contract instead of via arrow, the idea of how a Greek god would manifest in our century (roughly, this book is set slightly in the future) is fascinating. 

“If Apollo were to stir from his sleep in the twenty-first century and stride down Mount Olympus into the realm of mortals, how would he show himself? Not in the old places, surely. Not on a dusty field of battle, among the ruins of a Greek temple, or in a chariot in the sky. Maybe he would shimmer into view in cyberspace. Sensing his presence, disciples would arise. They would draw together in underground chatrooms and forums. They would worship and plan and rekindle in some new, disembodied form the eternal flame of Delphi. The idea had a perverse allure.”

Yes, there are silly and slightly unrealistic storylines — like the protagonist’s kidnapping by a New Jersey mafioso family that wants him to make them millions in crypto, immediately, with the help of their computer genius child. (Which begs the question, why don’t they just have their own crypto prodigy do that herself without the kidnapping shenanigans?) 

And I will admit that it is hard to build suspense in a thriller where the biggest turning points often involve just pressing buttons on a computer. In one case, Juels does manage to up the ante by having the biggest button pressing moment take place on a glass bridge in a thunderstorm. 

But overall, The Oracle is a cheerful thriller that masterfully mixes ancient Greek, art history, art theft and cryptography. If you’re looking to be titillated while learning a bit more technical know-how behind whether an oracle could potentially kill you, this is the book for you.

I don’t care much about tech, I don’t care a whole lot about finance, either. I care about writing stories and watching weird things unfold. And that’s why I’ve ended up in crypto.

But because I’m missing that passion for what crypto and blockchain are all about — finance, tech, privacy, yadda yadda — I’m going to write instead about what I am actually interested in. Everything about crypto that has very little to do with crypto.

That’s what this column will be about. All the tangential stories that come out of the blockchain and crypto space, what I think about them, and how I navigate it all as a skeptical former Russian literature major.

It’s precisely my perch as an outsider that lets me do what I do: Opine on all sides of any crypto issue, no strings attached, no skin in the game.

If you want to talk crypto with me, let’s go off topic.

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