The Fear Index Audio CD – Sep 29 2011
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"A nail-biting listen - the financial world has never seemed so thrilling - beautifully read by Phillip Franks" -- Kati Nicholl Daily Express "There is a cool edge to Franks' voice as he tracks Alex's surging paranoia to a blockbuster climax" Daily Telegraph
About the Author
Robert Harris is the author of Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, Imperium, The Ghost and Lustrum, all of which were international bestsellers. His work has been translated into thirty-seven languages. After graduating with a degree in English from Cambridge University, he worked as a reporter for the BBC's Panorama and Newsnight programmes, before becoming political editor of the Observer and subsequently a columnist on the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph. He is married to Gill Hornby and they live with their four children in a village near Hungerford.See all Product Description
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So, when I started The Fear Index, I was positively titillated with anticipation - a new Harris is always good news.
Within 50 pages, my enthusiasm was dampened somewhat, and after 150 pages, I was downright disappointed. This tale of a brilliant physicist who leaves CERN to write the best algorithmic investment system ever seen was just not what I have always liked best in Harris.
In my mind, Harris shines when he tells the tale of the single man, cast in a role by chance and personal talent, conquering insurmountable odds. Tom Jericho in Enigma, Xavier March in Fatherland, and Fluke Kelso in Archangel have all been set in a situation where only their personal integrity and hard work will win the day.
Not so in The Fear Index. Harris writes well as always, but the picture he draws of Alex Hoffmann has none of the usual charm of a Harris hero. Hoffmann is arrogant, talented, and definitely the man for the job, but his almost autistic lack of interaction doesn't endear him to the reader. Alex's relationship with his artist wife Gabrielle is superficial and uninteresting, even if the culmination point of that relationship in the art gallery raises eyebrows in the best tradition of Harris' books.
Another thing that worried me much was that Harris ventures into Clancyist methods of adding technobabble to add excitement. I was especially disappointed with the small things that he's always done really well: risking that I will be called a muppet by some people, I'll say that CPUs do not hum - transformers do, and there are no files in a computer's registry. Such small items become more and more evident towards the end of the book.
And the crucial element of any book of this type, namely suspension of disbelief, just didn't go far enough. I will not disclose the plot, but at 2/3 of the book it fell flat for me and I read the rest merely to see what happens, not on the edge of the seat enjoying every moment of it.
I will repeat that he writes just as well as ever (with a few somewhat tired similes, a first for me in his books), and to some people, especially in the world of finance, this may be more interesting than to the average lay person, but my expectations were not met, and I will remain in wait for his next book to see if he goes back to creating a truly interesting character in a complex and dangerous situation.
-Heikki Hietala, author of Tulagi Hotel
This is the third Harris book I've read. Fatherland and Archangel were really fun reads that had fresh and interesting story lines. I can't say the same for this one.
This book took longer than usual to read. Not because it is difficult or long, but because I'd keep putting it down and swearing not to pick it up again. But I did, and persevered until the end. I can sum up my disappointment in this book as happening in three phases.
Phase one: The first section of the book was irritating in the extreme. The author spends most of his time describing the obscenely rich house of the protagonist. For example, he doesn't just look at the clock to check the time, instead he glances at the Louis Quinze clock on the mantlepiece. And this after a near death experience. Yeah, so I get it- he's a billionaire. And over and over and over again. He's a billionaire. And he's hot. And the most brilliant man alive. And he's developing the ultimate self-developing (evolving) algorithm. And his wife is hot. And she makes hot art. But she's sad, too, because she can't have children (I guess this "factoid" was supposed to be enough to give the characters and their marriage depth).
Phase two: So, I left the book on the nightstand for two weeks and read other stuff. In a moment of weakness I took it and started reading again. As the perspective changed-- to the investigator-- the book was much less insufferable, and I realized the author was trying to make some point about wealth (heavy handed and uninteresting in my view). The book then began to move along quite nicely, with a bit of a mystery and quick pacing. Although the obtuseness of the main character did get on my nerves every so often I was fine with that as long as the action progressed. I started to guess who was tormenting the lead character with mystery books, hired killers/perverts, secret cameras/ et cetera not because I'm so damn smart, but because there was only development of the story in one direction. The protagonist had no enemies simply because he was so lackluster (in spite of being a hot, brilliant, billionaire). The only one interested in tormenting him HAD to be his brilliant evolving hedge fund algorithm.
Which leads to Phase Three: (more spoilers)
The super intelligent and free-ranging computer program. Yep, the algorithm evolved, alright. It took over his bank accounts, sent him rare books, built a super computer in a warehouse across town, spied on him through cameras it had installed all over his office and house. Yet... it still wasn't smart enough (evolved enough) to see him coming at his monster CPU with 5 cans of gas and a blow torch.
I just feel dumb even summarizing this plot line. It wasn't unique, and it wasn't even done amusingly. There are similar "evil awarenesses" who invade the internet and gather intelligence in (highly improbable) ways in episodes of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files. And those were done over a decade ago and much more convincingly.
Don't waste your time on this book.
Where the book let me down was in the somewhat stereotypical characters and lack of their development, the hedge fund investors are all self-involved geeks and the policeman predictable. The Darwin analogy, although interesting, seemed to fizzle out and not reach its full potential, much like the novel.
Don't get me wrong, this is a good book and I enjoyed reading it, but it could have been so much more!
Yet, on reflection, this is the only book that gets the future right, and the importance of that is profound. It's no spoiler when I reveal that the novel employs sci-fi plot #3 (there are only five different sci-fi plots): a super-advanced computer, a boon to all mankind, starts running amok. That much is obvious, because much of this book is simply people running up to the protagonist and saying, "Something's wrong!" and he replies, "Not now, I'm too busy!" "But . . . but . . . Have you seen what VIXAL is doing?" The point is made over and over, until you want to scream at the page, *OK! We get it! The furshlugginer algorithm's gone haywire!*
The salient feature of this rendition of such a shopworn plot is that for the first time anywhere (to my knowledge) Robert Harris, to his everlasting credit, gets it right. The future will not be anthropomorphic. Arthur C. Clarke got it wrong. Robert A. Heinlein got it wrong. Freddy Nietzsche got it wrong. An anthropomorphic automaton with a character disorder is a nineteenth-century concept (the novel begins with a quote from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), yet all the sci-fi geniuses have failed to realize such a simple fact.
Perhaps they should be forgiven, because that is the primary defect of the human race. We cannot conceive of intelligence without personality, because our illusion of self, of personhood, is so strong that we cannot function without it. Each person's mental voice jabbering away inside one's head cannot be shut off, even in dreams. If it were to stop, you think you'd end, too. (The only solution to this defect in the design of humans is to master Transcendental Meditation, during which one silences all the internal jabber. As a result, one achieves enlightenment and realizes that the concept of an individual identity is an illusion -- or so I've heard it said. I have instead given in to the baseness and compulsively write book reviews.)
The word *person* comes from the Latin *persona,* meaning a mask worn in an ancient play, and only human beings depend on such a mask. If other intelligent forms of life are examined -- apes, parrots, cephalopods, urban raccoons -- we see that they have no persona, no identity, yet we are so bound to the concept of self, that we project personalities and names onto individual creatures who seem to have previously existed just fine without such human artifice. Likewise, it's obvious that if there is a God or gods, and if He is omniscient and omnipotent, He has no need of a personality or a language. (At least the Muslims are more enlightened then Christians, in that they have not assigned a personality or image to Allah.)
Because humans cannot do without such personality-dependent attitudes, every sci-fi cyborg, robot or artificial intelligence has been anthropomorphic, usually a high-functioning autistic. But with this novel, it becomes obvious that once superior and independent intelligence is achieved, it will not need a personality or a cloying voice, nor will it need to speak to humans. The Fear Index also demonstrates that since universal Darwinian principles yet apply, human beings may be regarded as cockroaches . . . or at best, beasts of burden and certainly disposable. SETI is scanning the skies for a spaceman named Glorp or other anthropomorphic beings, but humans, shortsighted because of their masks, never seem to anticipate with accuracy. It may be, based on the events of May 6, 2010, that the successor to humans as boss of the planet is already here. You are seated before one at this very moment (you are perhaps unaware that when you're not looking, they communicate silently with others of their kind), and you likely take better care of it than you do your own body.
Thus, while I didn't especially enjoy The Fear Index as entertainment, it does raise a topic of orphic proportions that other authors have overlooked, and I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.
The set-up for the story is great: uber techno-geek turned billionaire hedge-fund manager gets banged up in a creepy home invasion the night before a big presentation to a group of wealthy investors about his company's algorithmic trading program. Convinced the intruder is trying to mess with his head, he begins to unravel, even as his company stands on the brink of unprecedented success. Harris brilliantly ties Darwin's theory of evolution and survival of the fittest to the world's financial markets, drawing parallels to social psychology and the so-called "fear index," that is the market's volatility.
To say much more about the plot I'd have to include spoilers, so I'll just say that the resolution of the mystery is far less satisfying than the first half, requiring the protagonist to do things that don't ring true, even for a man who may be suffering a break-down, and scenic details that will doubtless look good when this gets made into a film, but which really make no sense (sorry for being vague here, but pointing out the glaring lapses in logic would involve revealing spoilers). Suffice it to say that the ending is rather predictable, bogged down moreover, with acronyms and such "I'm smarter than you are" terms as "buy-side liquidity" and "nine-halves trade now", which Harris doesn't bother to explain, realizing, perhaps, that continuing to explain the workings of the market would interfere with the action of the denouement. Even the writing lacks Harris' usual eloquence, with clunky transitions, jarring shifts between tenses, and grammatical errors, which I can only imagine are the result of Harris rushing to get this done while the events signalling the beginning of the world's current economic crisis are still fresh in people's minds.
Harris fans and market junkies are likely to be entertained, if not enthralled. Those new to Harris would be advised to start with one of his earlier and far more satisfying works.