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Panic stations

The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Jennifer Rohn 11 March 2012

Details from the hardcover edition

If science in novels is incredibly rare, tales about the science of economics are rarer still

When we think of science, our minds typically conjure up microscopes, telescopes, steaming test tubes – all the gear dedicated to finding out how the physical universe works. It’s easy to forget about the theoretical sciences whose purpose is to understand and unravel the behavior of human-created systems. Economics is one such system, and it’s fair to say that, despite its increasing importance in our everyday lives in these times of austerity and recession, the average person’s understanding of financial systems is just as sketchy as his or her grasp of general relativity or molecular biology. But if science in novels is incredibly rare, tales about the science of economics are rarer still.

The Fear Index, by Robert Harris, is one such book. Its protagonist, Dr Alex Hoffman, starts his career as a computer scientist and mathematician at CERN. After leaving the particle physics laboratory under a dark cloud, he ends up as a billionaire thanks to his brainchild, an artificial intelligence hedge-fund management program called VIXAL. Setting up shop with his business partner Hugo Quarry and a team of geeks, their firm gives VIXAL free rein to play the markets faster and looser than any human could, feeding exclusively on fear and panic cycles in the markets to reap large rewards.

The book takes place during one momentous 24-hour period in Alex’s life, when his comfortable existence begins to go off the rails. It all starts with a late-night intruder on a stormy night, and ends up with Alex – and the reader – beginning to question his own sanity. I saw the ending coming before I was even halfway through the novel, but this is probably because I’m well-versed in the ancient trope of the well-meaning scientist losing control of his creation. Fortunately Harris doesn’t play it completely straight, even indulging us with a self-conscious nod to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey in one scene. Despite this, the sense of fear and tension builds as the pages fly by, giving the reader the sort of grubby discomfort familiar to fans of Ian McEwan.

Lab lit fiction is especially satisfying when the author succeeds in delivering a glimpse into a hidden world. If you don’t know the first thing about stock markets and hedge funds, like me, you’ll emerge from this novel a little bit more enlightened. During the height of the panicked global market that takes place near the novel’s climax, you almost feel as if you’re on the trading floor. The book is a formulaic thriller, but there is a hint of dystopia that redeems its genre. And the ending, though predictable in general, culminates on a particularly interesting note that I doubt most would see coming.