This is my second attempt at reviewing The Fear Index. After finishing the book, I posted my thoughts on what a disappointing read it is, and I stand by that opinion. If you are expecting a Techno Thriller that will keep you reading all night, with bitchin' babes skilled in all twelve martial arts, with a cliffhanger in each chapter and sinister forces from the Vatican, you'll be sorely disappointed in this novel, because it's a slowwwww read. The book's second flaw is that once you figure out who the real killer is, there's no point in reading further, because it's more of the same, over-and-over. The killer's identity is absurdly conspicuous, yet other than the protagonist, none of the characters can figure out such an obvious thing, so they think the protagonist is Stark! Raving! Mad! It's pretty annoying.
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.