The Fear Index

The Fear Index
Robert Harris
Hutchinson, 336pp, £18.99

In The Ghost, Robert Harris's thinly veiled evisceration of a certain former prime minister and his hatchet-faced wife, the narrator - a ghostwriter - says he makes a point of doing little research on his subjects. He claims, with no little irony, given the work that evidently has gone into the novel, that writing from a position of ignorance creates a bond between author and audience. In Harris's latest thriller, the absurdly gripping Fear Index, we get closer to the truth. Harris's great skill is to inhabit fully and convincingly the worlds he writes about - whether Cicero's Rome, modern-day Russia or Swiss high finance - showing off his vast research yet never allowing the white-knuckle narrative to lose momentum.

Set in Geneva in the spring of 2010, The Fear Index uses the factual springboard of the 6 May computer-triggered "flash crash" to launch a tale that owes as much to science fiction as it does to the conventional thriller. Dr Alexander Hoffmann is an emotionally stunted scientist who has moved from experimental work on the Large Hadron Collider to set up an algorithmic hedge fund (an investment company that uses complex mathematical formulae to direct its investment decisions).

The computer program that Hoffmann has created - VIXAL - takes prompts from a huge array of data that it gleans from the internet, using everything from stock and commodity prices to obscure measures of investor confidence. The fund scores success after success until, in a chilling scene, it seems that the program is able to predict not only the movement of stocks, but even acts of God. Evoking the fear of all-powerful supercomputers, evident as early as 1909 in E M Forster's "The Machine Stops", but most famously expressed in the novels of Isaac Asimov and Philip K Dick, VIXAL is a modern-day Frankenstein's monster, driven only by its extraordinary need to make money and a deeply ingrained Darwinian survival instinct.

While The Fear Index works well as a science-fiction-tinged thriller and delivers a high-spec Hollywood finale, Harris has woven some
fascinating subplots into the novel. Many of the chapters are prefaced with quotations from Charles Darwin who, like Richard Dawkins, is often invoked by bankers to justify the dog-eat-dog morality of the financial markets. Hoffmann eschews the term "artificial intelligence" to describe his creation, instead referring to the VIXAL program as a form of "autonomous machine reasoning". It would appear that Hoffmann believes the computer is the next step in the evolutionary process, and that the role of human beings is to prepare the way for their successors.

So far, so sci-fi. What is interesting here is that the apologia Hoffmann delivers for VIXAL near the end of the novel could so easily be
applied to the banker architects of the financial crash. VIXAL "possessed no emotion or conscience . . . it had no purpose other than the
self-interested pursuit of survival through the accumulation of money . . . One could no more pass moral judgement on it than one could on
a shark." Clearly Harris has spent a great deal of time with the inhabitants of the autistic spectrum who practise at the sharp end of high finance, and the monomaniacal, emotionless VIXAL can be read as a metaphor for the grasping City traders who brought about the crash. Indeed, the program is a more fully rounded and sympathetic character than many hedge funders of my acquaintance.

Another neat flourish is the link between the advanced physics taking place at Cern and the financial crisis. Harris argues convincingly
that the closing down of the US super-collider the "Desertron" in the early 1990s was in part responsible for the credit crunch. Though, in the novel, Hoffmann is taken up by the project at Cern, many of the real-world physicists who found themselves out of work following the closure of the Desertron migrated to jobs in the research departments of Wall Street investment banks. The baffling complexity of the financial models they created led to a situation - nicely represented in The Fear Index by Hoffmann the super-nerd and his slick sidekick, Hugo Quarry - where only a select few computer boffins understood how the great money machine worked, while bankers with more conventional backgrounds worked in blind faith that the models would stand up in times of stress. We all know how that turned out.

Literature has done well out of the financial crisis. It is telling that the best factual account of the crash, John Lanchester's Whoops!, was written by a novelist. We now have an array of highly convincing novels set against the world of high finance, a domain previously under­explored in fiction. From Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December to Justin Cartwright's Other People's Money to Jonathan Dee's sparkling, if heartless, The Privileges, some of the most successful novels of the past few years have been City-based. Delving into the heart of a complex, abstract world without oversimplifying or seeming clunkingly didactic, The Fear Index deserves its place on this list.

Alex Preston is the author of "This Bleeding City" (Faber & Faber, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide