paula's Reviews > The Fear Index

The Fear Index by Robert Harris
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Mar 22, 12

bookshelves: adult-fiction
Read in March, 2012

** spoiler alert ** I think this book is more ambitious than it appears to be. A thriller set in the world of European high finance and IT, it is decorated with glass office buildings and large Mercedes cars, but populated with immensely unlikable characters, one of whom creates a monster. Robert Harris is trying for Frankenstein here - after all, it was Dr. Frankenstein's lack of insight and not his technical expertise that really created the monster - and it is a similar lack of insight into the nature of the organism he has created that dooms Harris's protagonist, Alex.

Alex is nominally a physicist, but his expertise really lies in the identification of data predictors and analysis. So he has created an algorithm that analyzes the activity of the financial markets in order to make a shit-ton of money doing microtrades and predicting market events. And in the tradition of bad robots everywhere, the algorithm begins to work too well. It's at this point that one might expect the computer to start maximizing its efficiency by bypassing unpredictable human intervention and manipulating events itself - a la War Games - but that's not what it does. Instead, it appears to have identified so strongly with its creator that it attempts to make all his dreams come true. With hilarious results! No. Not hilarious. I'm kidding.

Where the book fails is in establishing this connection between Alex and his monster. Alex is your standard slightly Aspy science guy, but not until the very end of the book do we find him alone with the algorithm. We don't see the long hours crafting it, fine-tuning it, lovingly placing the bolts into the creature's neck, so to speak. So the book fails the belief test when we are asked to believe that the algorithm wishes to please its master, but also when Alex quite stupidly underestimates its foresight.

On the other hand, I was extremely impressed with the readability of this book. It's truly a one-sitting book. And there are some very cogently expressed insights about computers and about finance. There's a paragraph or two about the tasks we expected robots to take off our hands - housework and labor - and what computers turn out to be actually better than us at - analysis and decision-making - that made me close the book and think for a minute or two. This put me in mind of Cory Doctorow, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson.
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