Robert Harris, The Fear Index

This is the story of a computer system, created by Alex Hoffman, able to manipulate financial markets. It is fantastically successful, making an enormous amount of money for Alex and his associates, trading on the fear of human traders that they have made mistakes, or missed some vitally important signal from the markets. And then, of course, the computer takes over, and Alex is unable to control it. I won’t reveal how this happens. If you enjoy this kind of thriller, to do so would spoil your enjoyment.
Suspension of disbelief often arises in this kind of book, but when it keeps on coming back and hitting the reader again and again and again it undermines the story. There’s no problem with the central concept, that a computer can trade automatically. Such trading systems already exist.
It’s not that. It’s the little details that have to be taken care of to make the story that the computer has taken over plausible. For example, the computer is watching the humans, through webcams in the smoke detectors, which have been installed by the security chief, on the instructions of Alex, who denies he gave these instructions. He didn’t give them. The computer did. He keeps on being told that he has done this, done that, and knows that he hasn’t. He has to have had some sort of mental crisis years before so that he can ignore the possibility that he is right: he did not do these things. There are many other examples of this. He’s married, but he clearly doesn’t understand his wife, and she doesn’t understand him, but this isn’t explored in any way that adds to our understanding of Alex’s character. In fact it isn’t explored at all.
It’s a plot-driven novel, a ‘read-on-the-beach’ book. You can read it in a day, and not remember much about it a week or so later. As an easy read, to fill time, it does quite well. But as a serious work of fiction, it doesn’t even get off the starting blocks. So why am I bothering to review it? It’s because claims have been made about its topicality and about the accuracy of its description of computer trading. A reviewer in The Economist wrote “The Fear Index is an escapist thriller to rank with the best of them, and as a guide to what hedge funds actually do, it is surprisingly clear and instructive.”. I thought it was remarkably unconvincing, but who am I to argue with The Economist? However, I’m not alone (read the one star reviews on Amazon).
It was shortlisted for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for best thriller of the year at the 2012 Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards. Remind me never to read anything that earns this accolade.


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