Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2,475: The Fear Index by Robert Harris


I downloaded The Fear Index some time ago as part of an Amazon special offer and I am so glad I did as had I paid full price for it, I would have been quite resentful rather than just mildly disappointed.

Robert Harris is, you see, one of my favourite authors.  Other than The Ghost, which is sitting on my shelves waiting to be read (due to a general irritation with Tony Blair, the PM on whom the main character is loosely based), I have read every single one of his novels with pleasure.  From Fatherland via Archangel to his Ancient Roman novels, I have found them intelligent, thought-provoking and entertaining.  You can almost feel the quality and depth of research and the fully-formed ideas that underpin the plots.

And then there is The Fear Index.  Set in Geneva, the main human protagonist of the story is Alex Hoffmann, a cookie-cutter nerd-turned-quant, who has made “a billion, billion-two” from the hedge fund he set up with his partner, another stereotype, this time of a hedge fund manager.

The plot is based around Alex’s new invention, VIXAL-4, a "machine-learning algorithm".  To the likes of you and me, that boils down to a computer that trades without instruction and which learns from analysing real time data, not only on markets and trades but on world news unfolding events.  The extra twist is that the basis of the algorithm is fear; Alex’s theory is that fear is the strongest human emotion and that trading patterns are driven largely by fear.  By analysing the overall level of fear in the markets, VIXAL-4 should be able to predict market movements and, therefore, enable Alex’s firm to make even more pots of cash.

So far, so good.  But then, strange things start happening.  An unordered antique book arrives for Alex, apparently paid for by him.  The entire first exhibition of art by Alex’s wife, Gaby, is bought by a single buyer, humiliating her.  The mysterious buyer appears to be Alex, although he claims not to know anything about it.  There is a break in at Alex’s luxurious Lake Geneva house.  And, more frighteningly, VIXAL-4 appears to be doing things no machine could.  Like predicting plane crashes and trading outside the limits that have been set for it.

Alex’s life rapidly goes from bad to worse, losing his marriage and becoming involved with a sexually perverse murder.  In the space of a day, he is driven from successful hedgie to a near-madman.  It’s actually nice and fast-paced and quite an enjoyable read……..right until the big reveal, which turns out to be massively disappointing and hastily wrapped up.  I actually want to tell you all about it as it is one of the main reasons the book disappointed me so much, but I don’t want to spoil it for you, should you choose to read it.

To be fair, nothing Harris writes could be all bad.  As I mention above, it is nice and fast-paced and it’s an easy read.  He makes a pretty good fist of explaining hedge funds and he manages to create a decent sense of fear and tension.  It’s just that there’s so much more he could have done with his premise.  It feels as if he hasn’t really thought it all out or that he couldn’t be bothered to explore it in any great depth and then lost interest and tried to wrap it up too quickly.  The characterisation too is all a bit glib and cardboard and nothing like his previous books.

It’s frustrating.  There is an excellent thriller in here somewhere; it’s just a shame that Harris couldn’t bring it out.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’s back on form next time.

2 comments:

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