Frankenstein’s Numbers – ‘The Fear Index’ by Robert Harris

I love the central idea of this book; that it’s fear that drives humanity and controls our desires. Alex Hoffmann is a billionaire computing genius, and co-founder of a successful hedge fund. He believes fear dominates the stock markets. That rumours dictate share movements, and whether a broker can hold his nerve, is all that stands between fortune and ruin.   He made his fortune by creating an algorithm that takes advantage of fear in the marketplace.  After a break-in at Hoffmann’s high-security mansion, he finds himself at the centre of a terror campaign.  Alex has used fear to his great advantage, and now somebody is trying to use it to manipulate him, to force him to become predictable. But to what end?

Anybody who has read ‘Fatherland’ will know that Harris is a master at maintaining suspense.  So it’s no surprise that The Fear Index is very readable.  But I felt there was something missing.  Whilst the novel’s build up is good, its conclusion feels underpowered.  When Harris reveals the twist, it is hard to greet it with anything more than indifference.  There is lots of interesting stuff in the book, particularly about how computers rule the stock-exchange; its all in the algorithm.  Harris describes complex financial transactions in an interesting way.  The problem ultimately though is that computers and money are dry subjects, and don’t engender much of an emotional response in the reader.  This is compounded by the novel’s human cast being flat and hard to engage with.  At times it reminded me of Dan Brown.

It’s hard to fully highlight the novels deficiencies without giving away too much.  It is a novel heavily in debt to Frankenstein. Sadly though, this is Mary Shelley’s masterpiece with almost every shred of humanity squeezed out.  For Frankenstein fans there are lots of references to Shelley’s text that are fun to spot, but otherwise ‘The Fear Index is a pale imitation. Whilst factually arresting, as an examination of the human condition,  power and scientific ethics, ‘The Fear Index’ stands in the monster’s shadow. This is a solid holiday read.  Harris’s prose forces you to keep turning the pages, but ultimately its lightweight and forgettable.


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