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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Fear Index

Robert Harris

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To purchase The Fear Index

Title: The Fear Index
Author: Robert Harris
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011
Length: 286 pages
Availability: The Fear Index - US
The Fear Index - UK
The Fear Index - Canada
The Fear Index - India
L'indice de la peur - France
Angst - Deutschland
L'indice della paura - Italia

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Our Assessment:

B : decent writing and suspense most of the way, but ultimately a pretty conventional cyber-thriller -- and a wasted opportunity

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A 1/10/2011 .
Entertainment Weekly B+ 27/1/2012 Thom Geier
Evening Standard . 15/9/2011 David Sexton
Financial Times . 23/9/2011 John Gapper
FAZ . 23/11/2011 Hubert Spiegel
The Guardian . 30/9/2011 Mark Lawson
The Independent . 23/9/2011 Boyd Tonkin
London Rev. of Books . 29/9/2011 Thomas Jones
New Statesman . 6/10/2011 Alex Preston
The NY Times B 27/1/2012 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/3/2012 John Schwartz
The Observer . 17/9/2011 Emmanuel Roman
San Francisco Chronicle A 29/1/2012 Gerald Bartell
The Spectator . 1/10/2011 Charles Cumming
Sunday Times . 18/9/2011 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph . 29/9/2011 Benjamin Evans
The Telegraph A- 3/10/2011 Charles Moore
The Times . 10/9/2011 Peter Millar
The Washington Post A- 23/2/2012 Dennis Drabelle

  Review Consensus:

  Solid thriller

  From the Reviews:
  • "The fact that this plot is wholly implausible does nothing to diminish the fun. 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." - The Economist

  • "Harris' brisk, movie-ready yarn may make you reconsider your mattress as a retirement-fund option." - Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Like all Harris's books, this one is readily enjoyable as a suspense story, although some may find the ultimate explanation slightly preposterous (not as far-fetched as that delivered in Archangel however). But what makes Harris's thrillers so much more rewarding than those of his rivals is that they all, whatever their ostensible subject, come out of his deep and expert interest in politics, broadly conceived -- which is to say, in power, in how power is taken, held and lost; how some people are able to dominate others; how wealth and status, fear and greed, work." - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "(A) fine dystopian parable, especially impressive for the fact that instead of giving up on what really goes on in most banks and hedge funds and making them the mere backdrop for money-laundering and ancillary skulduggery, as many thriller writers have done, his heart of darkness is the thing itself." - John Gapper, Financial Times

  • "Angst ist ein routiniert gebauter Thriller, der Einblicke in die Finanzwelt erlaubt, die über weite Strecken beklemmend realistisch erscheinen: Wer endlich einmal wissen will, wie ein Hedgefonds funktioniert oder wie man es anstellen muss, um als Millionär nur zehn Prozent Steuern zu zahlen, greife zu diesem Buch. Dass die Logik und der angestaubte Frankenstein-Plot einige Mottenlöcher aufweisen, muss man ebenso hinnehmen wie den langatmigen, arg bemühten Showdown zwischen Hoffmann und seinem entfesselten Geschöpf." - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Enjoyable as a techno-thriller in the mode of Michael Crichton (whose quasi-scientific style seems to be echoed in some sections)" - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "As fine examples of the genre always have, Harris's speculative fiction hothouses the seed of possibility that lurks within new technologies into a monstrous growth." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "(F)or my money Harrisís most enjoyable novel since Enigma (...) Itís all fairly silly, and fairly entertaining: what better way to pass a few idle hours as the global economy goes down the pan than by reading about a bunch of really rich and really unpleasant people having a really terrible time ?" - Thomas Jones, London Review of Books

  • "While The Fear Index works well as a science-fiction-tinged thriller and delivers a high-spec Hollywood finale, Harris has woven some fascinating subplots into the novel." - Alex Preston, New Statesman

  • "This fleet-footed, if sometimes hokey, novel takes place in the rarefied world of hedge funds (.....) Itís an energetically researched tale (.....) Itís also a familiar story of hubris and its fallout." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "This is creepy fun." - John Schwartz, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Harris is a master of pace and entertainment, and The Fear Index is a thoroughly enjoyable book. A lot of research has gone into it Ė from the rare-book market to hedge fund investors -- and many details are amusingly accurate." - Emmanuel Roman, The Observer

  • "(A)s exciting as this first half is (save for a melodramatic, distracting and disposable subplot involving Hoffmann's wife and her career as an artist), it's largely a MacGuffin for what follows. (...) Harris has fashioned in The Fear Index a thriller that's part Kafka, part Orwell, part Darwin -- with just about all parts exciting and pertinent." - Gerald Bartell, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The Fear Index, which unfolds over the course of a single day in Switzerland, can be read as Harrisís response to the financial turmoil of the last few years. (...) What follows is a slow-burning story of suspense and paranoia with a climax that will delight Harrisís legion of fans. The Fear Index may lack the giddy momentum of The Ghost, but its moral purpose is graver. Harris skewers the hubris and greed of the financial classes; the very people, indeed, who will consume the book with such relish." - Charles Cumming, The Spectator

  • "Best known for historical novels, this former political journalist proves his range with a techno-thriller that feels as topical as Newsnight. Beyond this equivocal virtue, the novel has a sophistication that lifts beyond banker-bashing. Harris takes aim at a corrupted system from a moral and intellectual height that practically induces vertigo. Down at street level, however, his drama sometimes feels sketchy." - Benjamin Evans, The Telegraph

  • "The Fear Index is a frightening book, of course, as, with its title, it intends. Harris has an excellent sense of pace, and understands as much about fear in literature as Hoffmann does in markets. But in the end, the book is cosy. In fact, his thriller is constructed -- presumably intentionally -- like a successful Hollywood film, right down to the massive explosion in the last few pages. (...) It is all hugely enjoyable." - Charles Moore, The Telegraph

  • "Run-of-the-mill fisticuffs and explosions come as a letdown after so much ingenious buildup. Even so, The Fear Index has enough suspense, cleverness and spookiness to warrant being added to your portfolio -- er, I mean, your library." - Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The action in The Fear Index is all set on a single day -- 6 May 2010, the day of the so-called 'flash crash' on the New York Stock Exchange (when the Dow Jones fell some 600 points in a single five-minute span). The central character is Alexander Hoffmann, a one-time physicist who used to work at CERN before going on to start a hedge fund -- also in Geneva -- with Hugo Quarry. Quarry is the people-person, the one who wines and dines the investors, the public face of the company; Hoffmann is the very, very private man behind the scenes (so private that he has a firm on retainer which is paid to keep him out of the news) -- the man with the algorithm that generates the incredible profits.
       The fund they've built up is an algorithmic fund, meaning that it's not human decision-making that drives the trades, but rather that it's practically all done by computer program: an algorithm dictates what and when to buy and sell (and executes the trades at speeds far exceeding what any human could). And Hoffmann's algorithm is real winner -- as Quarry notes:

over three years, even as the financial markets have tanked, we've returned them a profit of eighty-three percent and I defy anyone to find any hedge fund anywhere that has produced such consistent alpha.
       It's also made Hoffmann a ridiculously wealthy man, with a sixty-million dollar house and a personal fortune somewhere north of a billion.
       On this particular day they're set to unveil Hoffmann's new baby, the algorithm VIXAL-4, which looks even more promising. Starting with the Chicago Board of Exchange's volatility-measuring VIX, this algorithm mines data looking for indications of fear -- as:
One thing we've been able to do, for instance, is correlate recent market fluctuations with the frequency rate of fear-related words in the media -- terror, alarm, panic, horror, dismay, dread, scare, anthrax, nuclear. Our conclusion is that fear is driving the world as never before.
       And so that's what the algorithm capitalizes on -- looking for real-time indicators in the flood of information streaming through computers worldwide, and then acting (trading) on the interpretation of the information.
       This is a pretty good premise for a book, particularly now, in a world where machine-trading (i.e. automated trading based on algorithms, with very limited human input beyond the design of the algorithms themselves) has become so dominant, leading to an explosion in the volume of financial-instrument trading (and making piles and piles of money for a select few -- while arguably doing very, very little in actually contributing to the economy (beyond (dubiously) arguably making markets more 'efficient')). Unfortunately, while Harris begins with this setting and these facts, they're only a jumping-off point for a novel that's not about modern-day markets at all. Instead, Harris' novel is yet another a book on Artificial Intelligence -- a very different beast -- getting out of hand, like Philip Kerr's forgettable Gridiron (US title The Grid).
       Yes, The Fear Index is a Michael Crichton novel, with all the best and worst of Crichton: well-informed and -researched, but only up to a point; fast-paced, with conventional thriller-elements nicely tied into the scientific plot; human hubris -- especially regarding technology -- shown to be a fatal flaw; and, finally, a decent premise that is ultimately allowed to spin way out of any realistic control. Much of the way, Harris' writing is a class better than Crichton's, but that goes downhill too -- fast -- in the silly concluding sections of the book.
       The key to everything -- and specifically what Harris is 'warning' about here -- is:
     "And VIXAL-4 is an autonomous machine-learning algorithm," said Hoffmann. "As it collects and analyses more data, it's only likely to become more effective."
       Of course, any reader of science fiction novels knows autonomous machine-learning algorithms are a red flag, and that 'effective' will definitely not turn out to be effective in the way any of these naïve people imagine.
       In fact, the clues start much earlier: the first chapter has an epigraph from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the ultimate messing-with-nature novel. And, while VIXAL-4 really is Hoffmann's intellectual baby, it's worth noting that he's been trying to have one with his wife but that just resulted in ... a miscarriage. And, as is revealed only late on in the day, the reason Hoffmann was dismissed from CERN was because he had been trying to implement an algorithm based on similar ideas there and it too had gotten out of hand ..... Yes, the warnings signs are plastered all over this novel.
       The novel begins with a nice creepy bit, with Hoffmann coming across an intruder in his supposedly so well-protected mega-million-mansion. He's already been a bit unsettled by receiving a valuable Darwin edition -- he collects first editions, for want of much else to spend his fortune on -- and this is only one of several things that happens that are hard to explain. Or rather, where he finds the explanations hard to believe, because they keep coming back to him: the evidence suggests that he is behind much of what is happening but he has no recollection of any of it. To help sow confusion -- in his and others' minds -- it helps that he has a bit of a history of mental instability. On the other hand, all the odd things that are happening are computer-based -- e-mails he allegedly sent, for example -- and for a computer scientist he's pretty slow in putting two and two together. (In perhaps the best line in the book, Harris has it that: "If my mind were an algorithm, thought Hoffmann, I would quarantine it; I would shut it down"; unfortunately, Harris doesn't allow Hoffmann to make the obvious intellectual leap -- hey ! maybe VIXAL-4 has become a bit too ... mind-like for comfort ! -- until it's too late (though arguably, given his set-up, it was always way too late ...).)
       The reasonably solid thriller story spins out of control at a certain point, and the entire concluding sections (and explanations) are just plain silly (with Harris even resorting to the most tired of cliché's in this kind of novel: the elevator-shaft death). By making it a novel about Artifical Intelligence Harris goes sci-fi -- and loses whatever plausibility he'd built up; these ideas and games might work in a futuristic novel, but not one set in the present day. The idea behind data-mining VIXAL-4 is not unreasonable -- indeed, there already are algorithms which work on the same (basic) principle -- but by the end it's simply too good to believe: one of the problems of the contemporary information age is how much information there is out there, and there is no way any program could deal with it as efficiently as VIXAL-4 supposedly does. Even worse, VIXAL-4's other little games -- with Hoffmann and the company -- are also far too unbelievable: we're talking both data recognition and then actions (of which ordering a book and having it delivered to Hoffmann while making it look like he bought it himself is among the simplest) that would require a cognitive ability that's still very far beyond any contemporary computer program. And finally, VIXAL-4's autonomy -- though amusingly creepy in its final manifestation (granted: Quarry's reaction -- "the slightest bow of obeisance" -- is amusing) -- is also far too unrealistic.
       Harris does a very good job of explaining much of this part of the financial services industry (right down to the tax-reasons Hoffmann and Quarry set up shop in Geneva), and things like automated trading -- up to a point. (Among the few false notes is the idea that Hoffmann didn't even know what a hedge fund was until Quarry recruited him: as a physicist specializing in computers Wall Street businesses and positions of this sort must have been something he heard about daily while in graduate school.) But instead of sticking to financial services Harris goes off into a world of ... escapist fiction: The Fear Index isn't a warning of what might happen, it's a reassuring (because completely implausible) piece of science fiction. That's unfortunate, because automated trading -- and the current state of the financial services industry -- offer enough nightmare scenarios for any number of novels, and Harris' approachable presentation might have been able to bring some of the actual dangers closer to home. Instead, readers can just smile and toss the book unconcernedly aside, reassured that: it can't happen here -- at least not in the immediate future.
       A wasted opportunity by a decent suspense-writer.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 April 2012

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The Fear Index: Reviews: Robert Harris: Other books by Robert Harris under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Robert Harris, born in 1957, achieved international success with his first novel, Fatherland. He has been a correspondent for the BBC, and a columnist for the Sunday Times.

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