The Fear Index by Robert Harris

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The Fear Index by Robert Harris

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Chris Bradshaw
Reviewed by Chris Bradshaw
Summary: After tackling Nazis, Romans and former Prime Ministers, Robert Harris turns his attention to the financial markets and hits the target once again in this snappy and somewhat terrifying new thriller.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Hutchinson
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0091936969

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With the FTSE recording its biggest quarterly drop in years, turmoil on the bond markets and the prospect of economic meltdown and the possible disintegration of the euro zone, Robert Harris' new thriller couldn't be more timely.

The Fear Index centres on Geneva based hedge fund operator Alex Hoffman. The publicity shy American, a former scientist at the CERN project, is the big brain behind the VIXAL 4 software system, an incredibly complex system that uses computer algorithms to predict the movement of financial markets and subsequently rake in billions of dollars in profit for himself, his English business partner Hugo and a motley assortment of international investors. With VIXAL4 turning everything it touches into virtual gold it appears that Alex Hoffman Investments are bang on course to bank even more billions in commissions.

An innocuous looking break-in at Hoffman's home where nothing is stolen and nobody is seriously hurt is the cue for a nightmarish period of paranoia and uncertainty. Who sent Hoffman a first edition of Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals? Who bought all of the pieces at the his wife's maiden art exhibition? Who transferred millions from his bank account a month ago? And what kind of fraudster would repay that money back to the very same account, not only in full but with interest? Who is trying to mess with Hoffman's mind and more importantly, why?

So begins a cycle of paranoia, violence and mental disintegration that has implications not just for Hoffman, his family and his business partners but for the markets as a whole?

Anyone who has read any of Harris' previous novels from Fatherland (the what if the Nazis had won the war), his Roman trilogy and the thinly veiled critique of the Blair premiership in The Ghost will know that he can relied up to create a pacey, punchy thriller and The Fear Index is no exception with enough twists, turns and set pieces to keep most thriller junkies more than satisfied. What sets Harris apart from most thriller writers is examining some very big ideas while also keeping the pages turning at a nifty pace.

What if a computer could automatically sift millions of media sources, pick up underlying bad news trends and subsequently make a whacking great profit off the back of it? A chilling example from The Fear Index centres on shorting a share in an airline which subsequently goes on to crash. It sounds far fetched. But.... A market was created where people could wager on the likelihood of a war taking place. It was quickly shelved on the grounds of bad taste but the likelihood is that it would have proved a more accurate predictor of conflict than a number of spy organisation. Following a bookmaker's odds will usually give a better idea of something happening than relying on experts. Follow the money as the saying goes.

Similarly, Harris raises ethical questions about the role of artificial intelligence. Just what could happen if the computers take over. Anyone who has seen US drama Battlestar Galactica, like all the best science fiction, a fine allegory for troubled times, "humans built them, they evolved". Into what uncharted territories could computers be taking us and would we be able to stop them when they get there?

The Fear Index is a novel about big money and the excesses of market capitalism, about the wafer thin margins between genius and madness. It's timely, relevant and as a thriller should be, rather entertaining.

Further reading suggestion: Prediction: How to See and Shape the Future with Game Theory by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

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