The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

This 2011 work is a professionally written thriller about the world of finance. It speculates about what can happen when computers take over the stock market: how world finances might well run out of control. It is intended as a warning, and the possible reality is supported by the reference to a variety of financial experts listed in the Acknowledgements at the start of the novel.

This is not a serious novel, unlike much of Harris’ work. It is a thriller with a purpose. Yet it is a professional thriller, opening with a dramatic scene in which Alex Hoffmann, a wealthy computer genius, senses an intruder in his Geneva mansion at night. And it closes with another highly dramatic scene in which Alex seeks to escape a fire he has just set in order to save the world’s financial systems.

Like many a serious thriller, this work also presents a policeman, Leclerc, who works at cross-purposes to Alex. He also presents a contrast to the intelligent, high-strung computer genius that is Alex; for, near retirement himself, Leclerc moves slowly and deliberately as he tracks down suspects. Alex is not exactly a suspect, however, just one who is acting suspiciously. Indeed, there is no real villain in this novel, unless it is a computer algorithm Alex has created that threatens to run out of control.

The other main characters include Gabrielle, who loves but fails to understand her genius husband; and a mysterious Hugo Quarry, Alex’s partner who recruits the wealthy men who back Alex’s hedge fund, Hoffmann Investment Technologies. This firm has developed the algorithm that enables its computer to adapt to surrounding events and react to down markets faster than any human can. That is, create its own artificial intelligence that can take advantage of and influence the reality around it.

There is a maguffin in this work, a mysterious figure who has somehow taken over Alex’s computers, and is sending messages in his name that he claims he never sent. Alex says this figure is attempting to drive him mad, which is believable since he himself has been presented as a kind of mad scientist. This force, or figure, has the potential to be a villain, but he is more a maguffin, forcing the reader to turn the pages to learn who he is and why he is distorting Alex’s world. I call him a maguffin because the novel ends without the reader actually learning who he is. Is he actually Alex himself, or someone who has simply taken over his cyber world. And why? Unless I missed an explanation at the end, there is none, and this is the one disappointment of the novel.

Regarding the complexity of the novel’s financial world, it is sufficiently clear at the start regarding hedge funds and Alex’s motive in setting up his own. That is, we learn that a hedge fund bets on both sides of a stock’s fate, thus decreasing its money at risk, but clearing millions if it guesses right and bets more on the right side. But while the basic principle is clear, the algorithm that reacts to the financial world around it is not, especially during the climactic rampage when the markets across the globe suddenly run out of control.

The message of this novel concerns the greed in our financial system, and the fear of losing control over the technology that serves that greed—the Fear Index being a Wall Street tool that measures violent swings in the market. And then this novel explores how that fear is confounded when control actually is lost. But this psychological overlay, this attempt to give the novel depth, even including references to Darwin and his theories of evolution, did not work for me. Not least because I was so interested in Alex’s situation and Alex’s fate that I did not need it.

It is interesting how Harris in his various novels switches back and forth from historic worlds to the current world and its issues. But while his work is fascinating in the contemporary world, he is more successful in literary terms in the historic world. Perhaps because he can give depth to actual history through interpretation, whereas today’s scene must be regarded more speculatively. (January, 2016)

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