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?