…ingenious …instilling fear is the thriller writer's chief goal. In Harris's expert hands, The Fear Index becomes an eerily troubling book, reminding us of the vulnerability brought into our lives by yo-yoing stock markets, Ponzi schemes, joblessness, downsizing, foreclosed mortgages and exhausted pension funds. "Why bother inventing outlandish tales about spies or serial killers," Harris seems to have asked himself, "when the leading economic indicators are enough to strike terror in our hearts?"
The Washington Post
It's an energetically researched tale based on one of the back stories to the crash of 2008: bankers' hiring of physicists to devise hugely complex trading programs that few really understand, and those new strategies running dangerously amok. It's also a familiar story of hubris and its fallout.
The New York Times
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.
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.
Anna Mundow writes "The Interview" and the "Historical Novels" columns for The Boston Globe and is a contributor toThe Irish Times.
Reviewer: Anna Mundow
In this smart but uneven thriller on technology run amok from bestseller Harris (The Ghost Writer), Dr. Alex Hoffmann, an American scientific refugee from the abandoned Texas supercollider who lands on his feet at CERN in Geneva, eventually goes on to found one of the world’s most successful hedge funds. Hoffmann’s secret VIXAL-4, an artificial intelligence project that forecasts financial market movements, appears to have a mind of its own, which is more than can be said for its creator. Unbeknownst even to his English avant-garde artist wife, Hoffmann has shown signs of serious mental problems in the past. Could a series of strange occurrences in the present be random, the work of a mole in Hoffman’s company, or part of his unconscious pattern of self-destruction? Pure science enjoys an uneasy existence with large profit making at the expense of downward-market spirals. Despite some less than engaging characters and a story that sags a bit, this novel’s philosophical underpinnings will keep most readers engrossed. 200,000 first printing; 5-city author tour. Agent: Michael Carlisle. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
“A pulse-pounding tale.” —New York Post
“Robert Harris is at the top of his game.” —The Oregonian
“Harris delivers a superbly entertaining read for our time.” —Newsweek
“A fiendish little tale that has the body of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with the head of Stanley Kubrick’s HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey bolted on top . . . It doesn’t take a super-computer to know The Fear Index is a worthwhile investment of your time.” —USA Today
“Harris has shown himself a master of the thriller form, regardless of context . . . Readers may find themselves lying awake at night unsettled by the story.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Fleet-footed . . . Weaving copious research into a breathless narrative, much as he did in his historical best sellers, Fatherland and Pompeii, Harris in the opening chapters does an agile job of limning the elite world inhabited by Dr. Alexander Hoffmann . . . He expertly conjures a paranoid world where everyone seems to be watching everyone else.” —The New York Times
“Eerily troubling. . . . 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 Book World
“Harris’s brisk, movie-ready yarn may make you reconsider your mattress as a retirement-fund option.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Harris is a master of pacing—the story moves swiftly while never feeling rushed, and the tension increases subtly chapter by chapter.” —Bloomberg News
“Let it never be said again that high finance is boring. With a satirist’s eye for detail and a note-perfect instinct for pacing, Robert Harris brings the Geneva banking scene to ominous life in his twisty new thriller. . . . So perfectly paced it should be read with a bag of popcorn.” —Newsday
“In The Fear Index, Harris creates from the thin air of cyberspace a financial thriller that's likely to unsettle the reader when Wall Street bells toll. . . . . The High Noon–type showdown . . . brings the tale to a stunning and disturbing finish.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Gothic horror. . . . [with] a high-tech twist.” —The New York Times Book Review
“If you want to get a feel for one of the most important transformations in our world today, read The Fear Index. Harris has been widely praised for his adept portrayal of the hedge fund universe. . . .” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“As addictive as any thriller written. Pick this up on an airplane, and you won’t want to land.” —Reuters
“What Harris does so admirably—in my mind, better than any other writing today—is intertwine nifty, page turning plots with important historical, political, or in this case, sociological questions. The late Michael Crichton did this kind of story well. In The Fear Index, Robert Harris does it fantastically.” —Christopher Reich, bestselling author of Rules of Betrayal
“Like the best novels of this genre, it offers something to chew on—and it’s entertaining.” —The Washington Times
“Harris’s outstanding thriller, a worthy successor to Frankenstein and 2001: A Space Odyssey, will kindle readers’ minds from the first page. Get ready to enjoy a brilliant integration of fascinating research, compelling themes, and vivid characterization.” —Library Journal (starred)
“Full of sharply drawn characters and artfully revealed surprises—and a big dose of paranoia—the book is a first-class page-turner.” —Booklist (starred)
Physicist Alexander Hoffman left CERN (builder of the Large Hadron Collider, an underground particle accelerator near Geneva) following a nervous breakdown. Since then he has continued to develop his algorithmically programmed computer, VIXAL-4, a machine capable of operating independently and teaching itself at a rate far beyond the ability of human beings. Unable to use CERN's data to test his machine, Hoffman and a colleague set up a hedge fund run by VIXAL that monitors fear throughout the digital world to make financial decisions. So far, over the four years during which the stock market has tanked, the machine has helped them increase their assets by over 80 percent. But now, someone is manipulating Hoffman's work to convince others that he's suffered another breakdown. When everyone else thinks you're crazy, but you know you're not, how do you face the fear...and not go mad? And how do you face the horror of a machine that has outpaced all human efforts to control it? VERDICT Harris's (Imperium) outstanding thriller, a worthy successor to Frankenstein and 2001: A Space Odyssey, will kindle readers' minds from the first page. Get ready to enjoy a brilliant integration of fascinating research, compelling themes, and vivid characterization. [Five-city tour; 200,000-copy first printing; see Prepub Alert, 11/3/11.]—Ron Terpening, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson
A smart and sophisticated novel about machines becoming conscious--or about humans becoming paranoid about whether machines can become conscious. Super-intelligent research physicist Dr. Alex Hoffmann lives with his artist wife Gabrielle in a mansion in Geneva, Switzerland. Formerly a scientist with the CERN project, Hoffmann has branched off into artificial intelligence, creating a machine called VIXAL-4, which helps the one percent become even richer by monitoring investments and making fast and nuanced predictions about market trends. Although the stock market in general languishes, VIXAL-4 clicks along at an 83 percent rate of return, so Hoffmann's business partner, Hugo Quarry, who's more adept with human interaction than the reclusive Hoffmann, lines up some billionaire angels for investment possibilities…and that's where things begin to go wrong. First, an intruder breaks into the Hoffmanns' house, breaching an impressive and expensive security system that had recently been installed. Then, at the opening reception for Gabrielle's first show, someone buys up every one of her works. Could it be the intruder? Is someone toying with Hoffmann, sending him a message that his life is not as secure as he thinks? Hoffmann tracks down and kills a man he believes is trying to kill him, and VIXAL-4 starts doing untoward things, making financial decisions that seem to be independent of any human control. When Hoffmann discovers a camera hidden in his smoke detector, he starts to suspect that Genoud, the man who had installed the security system, might be out to get him, so he takes off on the lam, becoming ever more irrational and out of control. Amid the welter of financial details, Harris creates a novel of tension and suspense by focusing more on the human than on the mechanistic.
Read an Excerpt
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow. —Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
Dr. Alexander Hoffmann sat by the fire in his study in Geneva, a half-smoked cigar lying cold in the ashtray beside him, an anglepoise lamp pulled low over his shoulder, turning the pages of a first edition of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin. The Victorian grandfather clock in the hall was striking midnight but Hoffmann did not hear it. Nor did he notice that the fire was almost out. All his formidable powers of attention were directed onto his book.
He knew it had been published in London in 1872 by John Murray & Co. in an edition of seven thousand copies, printed in two runs. He knew also that the second run had introduced a misprint—“htat”—on page 208. As the volume in his hands contained no such error, he presumed it must have come from the first run, thus greatly increasing its value. He turned it round and inspected the spine. The binding was in the original green cloth with gilt lettering, the spine-ends only slightly frayed. It was what was known in the book trade as “a fine copy,” worth perhaps $15,000. He had found it waiting for him when he returned home from his office that evening, as soon as the New York markets had closed, a little after ten o’clock. Yet the strange thing was, even though he collected scientific first editions and had browsed the book online and had in fact been meaning to buy it, he had not actually ordered it.
His immediate thought had been that it must have come from his wife, but she had denied it. He had refused to believe her at first, following her around the kitchen as she set the table, holding out the book for her inspection.
“You’re really telling me you didn’t buy it for me?”
“Yes, Alex. Sorry. It wasn’t me. What can I say? Perhaps you have a secret admirer.”
“You are totally sure about this? It’s not our anniversary or anything? I haven’t forgotten to give you something?”
“For God’s sake, I didn’t buy it, okay?”
It had come with no message apart from a Dutch bookseller’s slip: “Rosengaarden & Nijenhuise, Antiquarian Scientific & Medical Books. Established 1911. Prinsengracht 227, 1016 HN Amsterdam, The Netherlands.” Hoffmann had pressed the pedal on the waste bin and retrieved the bubble wrap and thick brown paper. The parcel was correctly addressed, with a printed label: “Dr. Alex- ander Hoffmann, Villa Clairmont, 79 Chemin de Ruth, 1223 Cologny, Geneva, Switzerland.” It had been dispatched by courier from Amsterdam the previous day.
After they had eaten their supper—a fish pie and green salad prepared by the housekeeper before she went home—Gabrielle had stayed in the kitchen to make a few anxious last-minute phone calls about her exhibition the next day, while Hoffmann had retreated to his study clutching the mysterious book. An hour later, when she put her head round the door to tell him she was going up to bed, he was still reading.
She said, “Try not to be too late, darling. I’ll wait up for you.”
He did not reply. She paused in the doorway and considered him for a moment. He still looked young for forty-two, and had always been more handsome than he realised—a quality she found attractive in a man as well as rare. It was not that he was modest, she had come to realise. On the contrary: he was supremely indifferent to anything that did not engage him intellectually, a trait that had earned him a reputation among her friends for being downright bloody rude—and she quite liked that as well. His preternaturally boyish American face was bent over the book, his spectacles pushed up and resting on the top of his thick head of light brown hair; catching the firelight, the lenses seemed to flash a warning look back at her. She knew better than to try to interrupt him. She sighed and went upstairs.
Hoffmann had known for years that The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was one of the first books to be published with photographs, but he had never actually seen them before. Monochrome plates depicted Victorian artists’ models and inmates of the Surrey Lunatic Asylum in various states of emotion—grief, despair, joy, defiance, terror—for this was meant to be a study of Homo sapiens as animal, with an animal’s instinctive responses, stripped of the mask of social graces. Born far enough into the age of science to be photographed, their misaligned eyes and skewed teeth nonetheless gave them the look of crafty, superstitious peasants from the Middle Ages. They reminded Hoffmann of a childish nightmare—of grown-ups from an old-fashioned book of fairy tales who might come and steal you from your bed in the night and carry you off into the woods.
And there was another thing that unsettled him. The bookseller’s slip had been inserted into the pages devoted to the emotion of fear, as if the sender specifically intended to draw them to his attention:
The frightened man at first stands like a statue motionless or breathless, or crouches down as if instinctively to escape observation. The heart beats quickly and violently, so that it palpitates or knocks against the ribs . . .
Hoffmann had a habit when he was thinking of cocking his head to one side and gazing into the middle distance, and he did so now. Was this a coincidence? Yes, he reasoned, it must be. On the other hand, the physiological effects of fear were so directly relevant to VIXAL-4, the project he was presently involved in, that it did strike him as peculiarly pointed. And yet VIXAL-4 was highly secret, known only to his research team, and although he took care to pay them well—$250,000 was the starting salary, with much more on offer in bonuses—it was surely unlikely any of them would have spent $15,000 on an anonymous gift. One person who certainly could afford it, who knew all about the project and who would have seen the joke of it—if that was what this was: an expensive joke—was his business partner, Hugo Quarry, and Hoffmann, without even thinking about the hour, rang him.
“Hello, Alex. How’s it going?” If Quarry saw anything strange in being disturbed just after midnight, his perfect manners would never have permitted him to show it. Besides, he was accustomed to the ways of Hoffmann, “the mad professor,” as he called him—and called him it to his face as well as behind his back, it being part of his charm always to speak to everyone in the same way, public or private.
Hoffmann, still reading the description of fear, said distractedly, “Oh, hi. Did you just buy me a book?”
“I don’t think so, old friend. Why? Was I supposed to?”
“Someone’s just sent me a Darwin first edition and I don’t know who.”
“Sounds pretty valuable.”
“It is. I thought, because you know how important Darwin is to VIXAL, it might be you.”
“ ’Fraid not. Could it be a client? A thank-you gift and they’ve forgotten to include a card? Lord knows, Alex, we’ve made them enough money.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe. Okay. Sorry to bother you.”
“Don’t worry. See you in the morning. Big day tomorrow. In fact, it’s already tomorrow. You ought to be in bed by now.”
“Sure. On my way. Night.”
As fear rises to an extreme pitch, the dreadful scream of terror is heard. Great beads of sweat stand on the skin. All the muscles of the body are relaxed. Utter prostration soon follows, and the mental powers fail. The intestines are affected. The sphincter muscles cease to act, and no longer retain the contents of the body . . .
Hoffmann held the volume to his nose and inhaled. A compound of leather and library dust and cigar smoke, so sharp he could taste it, with a faint hint of something chemical—formaldehyde, perhaps, or coal gas. It put him in mind of a nineteenth-century laboratory or lecture theatre, and for an instant he saw Bunsen burners on wooden benches, flasks of acid and the skeleton of an ape. He reinserted the bookseller’s slip to mark the page and carefully closed the book. Then he carried it over to the shelves and with two fingers gently made room for it between a first edition of On the Origin of Species, which he had bought at auction at Sotheby’s in New York for $125,000, and a leather-bound copy of The Descent of Man that had once belonged to T. H. Huxley.
Later, he would try to remember the exact sequence of what he did next. He consulted the Bloomberg terminal on his desk for the final prices in the United States: the Dow Jones, the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ had all ended down. He had an email exchange with Susumu Takahashi, the duty dealer in charge of execution on VIXAL-4 overnight, who reported that everything was functioning smoothly, and reminded him that the Tokyo Stock Exchange would reopen in less than two hours’ time following the annual three-day Golden Week holiday. It would certainly open down, to catch up with what had been a week of falling prices in Europe and the United States. And there was one other thing: VIXAL was proposing to short another three million shares in Procter & Gamble at $62 a share, which would bring their overall position up to six million—a big trade: would Hoffmann approve it? Hoffmann emailed “OK,” threw away his unfinished cigar, put a fine-meshed metal guard in front of the fireplace and switched off the study lights. In the hall he checked to see that the front door was locked and then set the burglar alarm with its four-digit code: 1729. (The numerals came from an exchange between the mathematicians G. H. Hardy and S. I. Ramanujan in 1920, when Hardy went in a taxi cab with that number to visit his dying colleague in hospital and complained it was “a rather dull number,” to which Ramanujan responded: “No, Hardy! No, Hardy! It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”) He left just one lamp lit downstairs—of that he was sure—then climbed the curved white marble staircase to the bathroom. He took off his spectacles, undressed, washed, brushed his teeth and put on a pair of blue silk pyjamas. He set the alarm on his mobile for six thirty, registering as he did so that the time was then twenty past twelve.
In the bedroom he was surprised to find Gabrielle still awake, lying on her back on the counterpane in a black silk kimono. A scented candle flickered on the dressing table; otherwise the room was in darkness. Her hands were clasped behind her head, her elbows sharply pointed away from her, her legs crossed at the knee. One slim white foot, the toenails painted dark red, was making impatient circles in the fragrant air.
“Oh God,” he said. “I’d forgotten the date.”
“Don’t worry.” She untied her belt and parted the silk, then held out her arms to him. “I never forget it.”