Friday, November 14, 2014

Book Review: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

The Fear Index by Robert Harris was the latest book selected in our Santiago book club. This is a thriller and a very fast read. Different from what we've read recently, hence the selection.

Here is the Goodreads blurb:
Meet Alex Hoffmann: among the secretive inner circle of the ultra-rich, he is something of a legend.
Based in Geneva, he has developed a revolutionary system that has the power to manipulate financial markets. Generating billions of dollars, it is a system that thrives on panic - and feeds on fear.
And then, in the early hours of one morning, while he lies asleep, a sinister intruder breaches the elaborate security of his lakeside home.
So begins a waking nightmare of paranoia and violence as Hoffmann attempts - with increasing desperation - to discover who is trying to destroy him - before it's too late ...

And now for my spoiler-free review.

Overall Impression
This was an interesting thriller about a physicist who developed an incredibly effective algorithm for use in hedge funds to make lots of money. The algorithm is continuously evolving and kept a tight secret. The secrecy and ultra-rich nature of the protagonist, Alex Hoffman, makes him paranoid and indeed, his fears are confirmed as he appears to be the target of complicated scheme to either kill or break him. The story is fast paced, with a few odd side tours and holes that could have been improved on. The characters are OK, but they could have been better. My main disappointment lies with the resolution as I felt the author did a poor job of concealing the solution or otherwise surprising us.

Plot
This is a classic thriller revolving around the ultra-rich hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffman. With his secret algorithms he's been able to consistently make incredible profits. It looks like someone broke through his extensive security one night and things start getting worse as he gets increasingly paranoid and odd emails, bank accounts, and payments, all under his name, start showing up. At the same time, his algorithm has started to behave erratically and taken on too much risk for the hedge fund to manage. The story builds up in tension and the pace quickens which turns it into a very fast read. A few side stories and characters seem to go nowhere, but the main thread is what keeps you interested. There's also a few holes here and there that either don't get addressed or get brushed off.

Unfortunately, I found the narrative style somewhat lacking or clunky at times. Like most novels, the author writes in third-person limited, yet frequently shifts to other people's thoughts as well as past and future events as a sort of omniscient narrator. There's nothing inherently wrong with an omniscient narrator. In fact, for an excellent example of a "murder mystery" with an omniscient narrator I recommend you check out Dune by Frank Herbert. From the get go you know who kills Duke Leto and why; it's just a matter of seeing it unfold.

In The Fear Index, the switching between limited and omniscient can be quite jarring and leaves you wondering how much information the narrator really has or why certain characters have their thoughts revealed but not others. Hence, you end up wondering if the real bad guys are the ones he hasn't jumped to, which cheapens the overall experience. Maybe that's just the author's style, but I found myself looking for clues on the mystery in the narrative style rather than in the plot itself. As for the mystery, I kept dismissing the obvious one responsible until I realized this was indeed a techno thriller. Hence, I was somewhat disappointed at the resolution.

Characters
There are several prominent characters in the story: Alex Hoffman, Hugo Quarry, Gabrielle, the detective Leclerc, and a few others. The story mostly focuses on Hoffman. We do see through the other's eyes often enough, but their backgrounds, histories, and personalities are only shallowly presented. The book is about Hoffman period; the other characters are there just so we can see him in action.

Hoffman himself is a stereotypical physicist. He worked at CERN on particle physics and computing algorithms and then took those algorithms to the markets, turning to finance with his colleague Hugo. Alex is aloof, not good with social situations, a little paranoid, and completely obsessed with his work. Contrastingly, he also appears to be physically fit as there are parts when he runs around and defends himself. Still, what are his hobbies, aspirations, goals in life? None of those are clearly fleshed out except for his ambition in developing what is effectively artificial intelligence. His narrow focus paints him as somewhat one-dimensional.

Setting / World Building
The Fear Index is set in the real world, though clearly fictional. It does tie in, however, to the event surrounding the Flash Crash of May 6, 2010. This was a day in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged and then recovered in minutes. I'm not well-versed in finances so I don't know too much about the event or it's real-world causes. It was actually rather interesting to see the intricacies of the financial world, though. In this novel, the author attributes the crash to the hedge fund run by Alex and Hugo, specifically the new algorithm they're using.

The algorithm, VIXAL, that they use is never fully described but it is based on measuring people's fears and then using that information to play the stock exchange to maximize profits. It's developed as an advanced algorithm that can learn by itself and thus, in principle, improve itself faster than any human could. This turns the book into a techno thriller along the lines of someone like Michael Crichton. However, The Fear Index feels like it happens closer in our future (despite being set in 2010) than some of Crichton's work. Still, this is effectively a techno thriller, though as I read it, I was fooled into thinking it was a more classical mystery.

Final Thoughts
This was an interesting novel with a decent premise, though I felt it could have been much better. The characters could have been expanded a little more, though perhaps the nature of the story prevented this. The plot could also have been tighter, though the pace was very good.

The biggest drawback, in my opinion, is that this is a thriller and there is a mystery behind who is responsible for everything going on. The answer is obvious very early on, but the author tries hard to convince you otherwise. In the end, I was disappointed at the conclusion as I really expected him to pull a surprise or twist or big reveal of some sort.

So in the end, I would mark the book as average: good for it's premise and pacing, bad for it's execution and resolution.

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