Most of the time, Robert Harris writes great speculative fiction — I’m mostly a fan, and have hugely enjoyed several of his novels. However, I’m afraid that Fear Index isn’t a book I can recommend.
In Fear Index, a genius computational particle physicist turned rich and successful algorithmic hedge fund manager in beautiful Geneva has a spectacularly bad day: Is the world going mad? Is a mysterious adversary trying to drive him crazy? Is past depression coming back to haunt him? Is he falling victim to a brain tumor? And what is going on in his company whose computers are placing incredibly risky, but eventually hugely successful bets in the market?
Set before the background of the Dow Jones Flash Crash in May 2010, Fear Index has many of the ingredients of a great thriller, and is often well written. However, half way through the novel, Harris runs out of ideas: It’s blindingly obvious that the AI has gone both conscious and mad, and is plotting a massive assault on the market, leading to the 2010 flash crash. Also, the AI (which is predicated on predicting fear in the markets) has set out to kill its inventor, who in turn tries to kill the AI — only to predictably realize at the novel’s climax that it is now beyond his powers to do so.
In the end, this novel is yet another knock-off of the sorcerer’s apprentice theme, set in the age of the computation, communication, and algorithmic trading, complete with the depressed genius, yet another quick visit to CERN and yet another cameo appearance by Tim’s old NeXT workstation — and, even worse, yet another conscious-by-accident AI as the main antagonist that (when it isn’t highly profitable on the stock market) rents computing centers, buys old books, hacks the psychiatrist’s laptop, and manipulates the building’s elevator. The characters are mostly clichés, and while the AI’s machinations are quite creative, Harris lacks the imagination to give the reader any motivation why that would be the case. I’ll take 2001’s HAL over Harris’ VIXAL-4 any time.