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The Fear Index

The Fear Index

The Fear Index

By Robert Harris, narrated by Christian Rodska

One of the most successful hedge funds in the world has run into some trouble.  Its owner, the reclusive computer programming genius Alex Hoffmann, woke to find an intruder in his home, and seems to be at the center of a vast conspiracy designed for some unknown purpose to bring chaos into his life.  He, his wife, his business partner, and the workaday policeman investigating the break-in feel things must have to do with Hoffmann’s hedge fund and its alchemical algorithm whose lightning-fast trades seem to spin gold from the electronic aether.

A few thoughts:

  • At the heart of it, a thriller about an algorithmic hedge fund seems pretty dull, but Harris does an excellent job working in the confined spaces of Geneva and the Internet.  The story is plausible and thus pretty scary, thus fitting all the necessary conditions for a good thriller.
  • The characters aren’t very deep — each has his/her own facet in the shape of the story.  Reading other reviews of the book, I see that people are really disappointed in this aspect of it, but it didn’t bother me much because I’ve not read Harris’ other work (which people seem to like a lot more).  I will say, though, that I really liked the segments in which Hoffmann, who it turns out has had a turbulent psychological past, wrestles with the question of whether he has gone mad.
  • Rodska’s narration works perfectly, with different, unaffected voices and accents for the different characters, and a steady ratcheting up of the tension.

Harris’ book is a taut thriller with a solid premise built in the modern electronic architecture.  It isn’t a work of deep literature, but entertaining, nonetheless.

Afterward, SPOILERS SPOILERS AND MORE SPOILERS

It’s always strange to realize that you’ve figured out the “mystery” to a book far before the main character has.  I can’t help but wonder when the author thought we would know what was going on.  Frankly, as soon as the book revealed the nature of the self-evolving algorithm (maybe a quarter of the way through), it became evident to me what was happening.  I’ll give Harris credit, though, he avoided the mistake of the awakening sentience conversation, ala War Games or 2001.  By making the algorithm voiceless and faceless, he maintained what, for me, is an entirely plausible scenario.  I don’t think it’s likely that we will create a human-like A.I., but I think we will reach a point where autonomous machine reasoning exceeds our understanding of its mechanisms and exceeds the bounds of our own logic.

And it’s at that point that we all arrive on the fear index.

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