Robert Harris’s latest book The Fear Index is a thriller set in the exciting world of high finance and computing. The fact that it is genuinely thrilling, given the topics, is testament to Harris’s skill.
The story revolves around a genius boffin physicist called Dr Alex Hoffman who creates a program that can learn, analyse and help pick stocks and shares. Essentially it’s an AI stock trader. The program looks at data and learns how to predict when stockbrokers are getting particularly jittery. As I have written before, traders are very easily panicked but if you could predict what stock they were about to crap themselves about before the market does, you could make a fortune by shorting stock (essentially a bet that the share price will go down).
The program works brilliantly and keeps getting better and soon Hoffman and his business partner are making so much cash it would cause an anti-capitalist to have an instant nervous breakdown. But strange things are happening at home – Hoffman is attacked by an intruder in his house and he receives a first edition Darwin book from someone.
I can’t relate any more of the story but it is a thriller so you should know it gets very exciting.
I have been trading for about 6 months now, so am a mega expert on how the markets work and the terminology used, but don’t worry. Mr Harris explains everything very well. The financial stuff is just background anyway. Think of this book as more of a Michael Crichton techno type of novel.
I enjoyed The Fear Index. It was gripping, exciting and well written. Sadly there were a few things I felt let it down a tiny bit. The characters where slightly cliched. The scientist isn’t good at dealing with social situations and doesn’t care about money, just his work. His business partner is a good looking ex-London trader who lives a bachelor life, treats women as objects, and wants a really flash yacht. As with most fast-paced thrillers though, this doesn’t really matter.
The Fear Indexhas a number of themes it is trying to explore. These are all well and good but occasionally feel a bit hammered home by quotations. The AI is like a new lifeform that is learning and evolving. Theme: evolution – so there are lots of quotes from Darwin. Is the Doctor truly in control of his creation? Here’s a quote from Frankenstein. There are other quotes from people like Bill Gates and Clinton concerning people, fear, computers, etc. It could be argued that these quotes enhance the themes discussed and add new angles to the narrative but if that is the case then I felt the themes weren’t quite explored enough. Which is slightly contradictory, so ignore me.
To summarise, I would have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed The Fear Index. While I may have stated that it could have done with a bit more characterisation and exploration of themes (without the bullet-point feel of the quotes), it should be kept in mind that this is a thriller. It’s also set in the high-speed world of finance and computing and the events take place within a day. So in fact, job done. Enjoyable, interesting, fast-paced, and recommended. Enjoy.