Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Fear Index

A new novelist and new sub-genre this time: an airport novel. Actually, that's probably more than a little bit rude, but I'm pretty sure that The Fear Index, by the British author Robert Harris, has probably sold a lot of copies at Heathrow. Hang onto your hats, we're in techno-thriller territory now ...

Set over 24 hours in Geneva in the cross-over world between high energy physics and high risk finance, the centre of the novel is Dr. Alex Hoffman. An ex-physicist now running a hedge fund, his company's success is driven by VIXAL, an "algorithm" that Alex designed to profit from fear in the market. The novel opens with a night time break-in at the luxury home that Alex shares with his wife, and incipient artist, Gabby. Defying seemingly impregnable security, the intruder appears set to murder the couple before he is disturbed by Alex, escaping into the night after knocking Alex out. This opening event is just the first in a succession of unexpected setbacks that begin to assail the life and career of this Master of the Universe. The next day sees the intersection of a new infusion of cash to his hedge fund from unscrupulous magnates, Gabby's first exhibition of work, and an incipient market crash. But Alex is unable to focus on any of these pivotal events as an unseen and unknown assailant continues to needle him from afar. Worse, a nervous breakdown from his past at CERN is brought to the attention of his friends and the police, fostering doubts that the conspiracy that he claims is enveloping him exists outside his own mind. But as financial meltdown threatens the world's markets, while VIXAL coldly plots a perilous series of trades, Alex begins to discern an underlying cause for his life's sudden reversal.

The Fear Index is not going to win any prizes from the literary establishment, but this is a proper page-turner, very efficiently written and pushing a number of zeitgeisty buttons. Harris sets off at a great pace and never really lets up as Alex is drawn into the bottomless rabbit-hole of a seeming conspiracy that amplifies his paranoia and threatens his sanity.

It's difficult to really care about the central character, Alex, as he is clearly "on the spectrum", and very much at the belligerent, self-entitled end. While VIXAL began as an academic project in artificial intelligence, it's clear that Alex's already narrow interests have narrowed further to see only its skill as a golden goose. Actually, his focus and lack of consideration for others is unlikeable to the extent that one questions the realism of the relationship with his wife.

But such matters of characterisation are quickly swept out of consideration by the blisteringly-paced plot that unfurls in more or less a single day. Of which, Harris does a great job rolling out more and more mysterious hurdles for Alex to clear. Along the way, Harris does a serviceable job at introducing the reader to some concepts from hedge funds, and while he never makes the banker characters worse than amoral, it's difficult to come away with a positive impression of the "trade". He also briefly touches on CERN, does a good job with Gabby's art, and even spends some time on the distorting impact of banking on Geneva's housing market.

There are a few plot strands that aren't entirely resolved [*], but there's enough going on that one doesn't mind to much - or actually notice too much until the final page is reached. It's one of those stories where mysterious events ramp-up the reader's apprehension extremely efficiently, but which don't actually quite stack-up once the curtains are pulled back. But Harris tells his story so well that it's only now that I'm reading a new book that some of the "holes" are obvious to me.

While some aspects of the novel's close were a little unexpected, I did particularly like the closing accommodation that Alex's business partner comes to with VIXAL. He clearly arrives at an appreciation for what it actually is, and accepts its violations and intrusions because of its power and its skill at making obscene amounts of money, regardless of the human cost. It's difficult not to read this as a wider statement about how bankers view the systems and schemes that make them money. But - nicely - Harris trusts the reader enough not to bludgeon them with any explicit socio-economic sniping.

Overall, a lightweight but very enjoyable yarn. It's not wholly without substance, but its observations about the questionable value of banking are clearly second in line to entertainment for Harris. Which is absolutely fine. And while it doesn't need them, it gets bonus points from me for some long-distance flirting with a favoured science fiction theme, but this shouldn't put anyone averse to that genre off this book. Definitely worth a look up if you're in the mood for a palate-cleanser between more weighty literary dishes.

[*] SPOILER! For example, as the novel opens with Alex harbouring not the slightest of slight suspicions, it's not obvious why VIXAL targets him. If Alex was already wondering about its behaviour, perhaps discussing this via e-mails that it then reads, this could have been a jumping off point. Instead, VIXAL pretty much kicks-off a series of events that ultimately lead to harm (albeit quite limited harm) to itself. For something whose main strength lies in predicting, this seems a little daft. But, as I mention above, Harris' novel is sufficiently skilful that this only really occurred to me long after it actually mattered.

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