Who knew my mother would turn out to be right most of the time? Certainly not my teenage self. But, as she may have mentioned a time or three, it does indeed do me good to sleep on things before committing some of my more…enthusiastic shall we say?…thoughts to print. If I’d written this review the day I finished the book it would have been a complete rant…full of swearing and vitriol and at least nine libellous statements. Now I’ve calmed down a little I can put things into perspective. The book is still a long way short of my favourites list for the year but I am now prepared to concede it probably isn’t the confirmation we’ve all been looking for that civilisation as we know it is done for. Rather it’s just another in the growing line of barely adequate books from brand name authors who apparently can’t be edited.
The Fear Index takes place in Switzerland where ex-pat American über-genius Alex Hoffman has left his prestigious job at the Large Hadron Collider to set up a hedge fund. Using his mad mathematician skills he has created the world’s best algorithm for determining what the world’s financial markets will do before anyone else and has made himself, his business partner and their investors giant piles of cash. The sorts of cash piles you can’t get to the bottom of even when you buy $60 million houses. As the book opens Hoffman experiences a series of strange events – receiving a very expensive rare book through the mail, having a bizarre intruder at his house and closing down his wife’s art exhibition opening in a peculiar way – which point portentously to something being rotten in the state of money-making.
Harris did a lot of research in preparation for this book. I know he did a lot of research because it’s all in the book. Lengthy passages of jargon-rich exposition appear throughout, most often as the clunkiest dialogue two (or more) fictional human beings ever uttered. Real people, even nerdy ones, do not in my experience stop what they are doing every few minutes to explain the basic facts of their own work to each other. The other way the research has been included is that random bits of unrelated knowledge have been shoe-horned into the plot in a series of inexplicable scenes. For example somewhere among his reading the author learned of that German case where someone agreed to be eaten by someone else so in it went, regardless of how well (or not) it fit with the rest of the story.
Another thing that made this book a giant yawn for me is that it would appear the author never met a stereotype he didn’t like. There is not a single character in the book who even approaches credibility or uniqueness and they are all depicted very superficially. So the nerds are all vaguely autistic, the policeman is a bumbling fool of the Inspector Clouseau variety, the rich men are all greedy and uncaring and the knife-wielding psychopath has a ponytail. Even the computer program which turns out to have a personality all of its own is an imitation (though a poor one) of HAL 9000.
There can be little doubt that the shifts in the world’s financial markets and collapsing of whole economies in recent years could provide fascinating fodder for a thriller. There are a plethora of bad guys, innocent victims a-plenty, technology that only a handful of the smartest people on the planet understand and your choice of conspiracy theories about who is to blame for it all (depending on your political leanings and/or your personal threshold for what constitutes greed). Robert Harris took all of this promise and turned it into the most crushingly boring book I have read in a decade. To me it was a collection of tediously displayed research joined together by a series of ‘twists’ telegraphed so far in advance of their actual occurrence that I thought the author was repeating himself by the time I actually got to them.
If you want to read some dramatic, even thrilling, writing about last year’s ‘flash crash’ or the general morass that global finances have become try the newspaper columns or books of good financial journalists like Scott Patterson and Michael Lewis and for proper ‘machine becomes sentient being’ tales head for Arthur C Clarke or Robert A Heinlein and leave this dud to languish in the bottom of the bargain bin.