The Fear Index

If fiction often prompts us to consider who we are, then science fiction, horror, and crime novels typically confront us with who -- or what -- we might become: victim or villain, god or monster. Robert Harris seems an unlikely writer to take on this murky question. In novels such as Enigma, Pompeii, and Ghost, he appears to prefer the solid ground of historical and political fact to the slippery terrain of philosophical speculation. But Harris, like many of his characters, has a sly and daring side to him. In Fatherland, for example, he imagined a postwar Britain ruled by victorious Nazis, and in Archangel, a modern Russia in which Stalin still lurks.

Now, in The Fear Index, he portrays a worldwide financial meltdown and individual mental breakdown while paying homage to Darwin's writings, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, George Orwell's 1984, and the cyber vision of Bill Gates. The result is an oddly triumphant hybrid: an irresistible thriller that is also a disquieting meditation on the nature of man and of man's creations.

"All his life he had seen things faster than other people," Harris writes of his protagonist, Alex Hoffmann, a physicist obsessed with the creation of "autonomous machine reasoning…an algorithm that would learn what to look for…and then teach itself what to look for next." Hoffmann, who previously worked on the Large Hadron Collider, is now the genius behind Hoffmann Investment Technologies, a Geneva-based hedge fund run by Hugo Quarry, a British financier and Hoffmann's sole intimate, apart from his wife. "[H]e did not have friends, but the corollary of his solitariness, he had always assumed, was that he did not have enemies either."

Nevertheless, Hoffmann wakes one night to find a murderous intruder in his Geneva mansion. He is knocked unconscious, his assailant flees, and Swiss police begin a dilatory investigation. Within hours, reason yields to paranoia as Hoffmann learns that he may be an unwitting agent of the malevolence invading his personal and professional life. Vixal-4, the algorithm he created to capitalize on the interplay between fear and market volatility, embarks on an apparently cataclysmic series of trades that could paralyze international markets while generating billions in profit for the Hoffmann/Quarry fund. "They had created King Midas out of silicon chips," Quarry muses as financial and political instability spreads, "in what way was its phenomenal profitability not in their human interest?"

Harris vividly depicts the weirdly enchanted world of the computer-enslaved office, staffed by "a ghost army of PhDs," and the tidal forces it rides, "the seven-hundred-trillion-dollar ocean of stocks and bonds, currencies and derivatives that rose and fell ceaselessly against each other day after day…." Yet he never loses sight of Hoffmann, a frail loner who must confront not only a flesh-and-blood killer but also, in the novel's gothic denouement, an intelligent, self-governing machine. "There was something about the absorbed and independent purposefulness of the scene that he found unexpectedly moving," Harris writes of the computerized cortex at work, "as he supposed a parent might be moved by witnessing a child for the first time unselfconsciously at large in the world." Is this one of Darwin's "incipient species" or a genius-spawned monster? Harris leaves us with that question and, above all, with a sense of pity and horror at the vulnerability of humanity and of the treacherous financial markets on which the species depends.

About the Columnist
Anna Mundow, a longtime contributor to The Irish Times and The Boston Globe, has written for The Guardian, The Washington Post and The New York Times among other publications.

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