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3.3 out of 5 stars
The Fear Index
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135 of 153 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2012
Format: Paperback
I am a big, big fan of Robert Harris. I found his book Enigma when my interest in the code breaking of Bletchley Park in WW2 was at its peak; that mix of fact and fiction blew me away and it remains his best book in my mind. On a par with it there is Fatherland, the alternative history classic, and almost level, Pompeii. Archangel is also not to be missed.

So, when I started The Fear Index, I was positively titillated with anticipation - a new Harris is always good news.

Within 50 pages, my enthusiasm was dampened somewhat, and after 150 pages, I was downright disappointed. This tale of a brilliant physicist who leaves CERN to write the best algorithmic investment system ever seen was just not what I have always liked best in Harris.

In my mind, Harris shines when he tells the tale of the single man, cast in a role by chance and personal talent, conquering insurmountable odds. Tom Jericho in Enigma, Xavier March in Fatherland, and Fluke Kelso in Archangel have all been set in a situation where only their personal integrity and hard work will win the day.

Not so in The Fear Index. Harris writes well as always, but the picture he draws of Alex Hoffmann has none of the usual charm of a Harris hero. Hoffmann is arrogant, talented, and definitely the man for the job, but his almost autistic lack of interaction doesn't endear him to the reader. Alex's relationship with his artist wife Gabrielle is superficial and uninteresting, even if the culmination point of that relationship in the art gallery raises eyebrows in the best tradition of Harris' books.

Another thing that worried me much was that Harris ventures into Clancyist methods of adding technobabble to add excitement. I was especially disappointed with the small things that he's always done really well: risking that I will be called a muppet by some people, I'll say that CPUs do not hum - transformers do, and there are no files in a computer's registry. Such small items become more and more evident towards the end of the book.

And the crucial element of any book of this type, namely suspension of disbelief, just didn't go far enough. I will not disclose the plot, but at 2/3 of the book it fell flat for me and I read the rest merely to see what happens, not on the edge of the seat enjoying every moment of it.

I will repeat that he writes just as well as ever (with a few somewhat tired similes, a first for me in his books), and to some people, especially in the world of finance, this may be more interesting than to the average lay person, but my expectations were not met, and I will remain in wait for his next book to see if he goes back to creating a truly interesting character in a complex and dangerous situation.

-Heikki Hietala, author of Tulagi Hotel
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68 of 83 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
There are spoilers in this review.

This is the third Harris book I've read. Fatherland and Archangel were really fun reads that had fresh and interesting story lines. I can't say the same for this one.

This book took longer than usual to read. Not because it is difficult or long, but because I'd keep putting it down and swearing not to pick it up again. But I did, and persevered until the end. I can sum up my disappointment in this book as happening in three phases.

Phase one: The first section of the book was irritating in the extreme. The author spends most of his time describing the obscenely rich house of the protagonist. For example, he doesn't just look at the clock to check the time, instead he glances at the Louis Quinze clock on the mantlepiece. And this after a near death experience. Yeah, so I get it- he's a billionaire. And over and over and over again. He's a billionaire. And he's hot. And the most brilliant man alive. And he's developing the ultimate self-developing (evolving) algorithm. And his wife is hot. And she makes hot art. But she's sad, too, because she can't have children (I guess this "factoid" was supposed to be enough to give the characters and their marriage depth).

Yawn.

Phase two: So, I left the book on the nightstand for two weeks and read other stuff. In a moment of weakness I took it and started reading again. As the perspective changed-- to the investigator-- the book was much less insufferable, and I realized the author was trying to make some point about wealth (heavy handed and uninteresting in my view). The book then began to move along quite nicely, with a bit of a mystery and quick pacing. Although the obtuseness of the main character did get on my nerves every so often I was fine with that as long as the action progressed. I started to guess who was tormenting the lead character with mystery books, hired killers/perverts, secret cameras/ et cetera not because I'm so damn smart, but because there was only development of the story in one direction. The protagonist had no enemies simply because he was so lackluster (in spite of being a hot, brilliant, billionaire). The only one interested in tormenting him HAD to be his brilliant evolving hedge fund algorithm.

Which leads to Phase Three: (more spoilers)

The super intelligent and free-ranging computer program. Yep, the algorithm evolved, alright. It took over his bank accounts, sent him rare books, built a super computer in a warehouse across town, spied on him through cameras it had installed all over his office and house. Yet... it still wasn't smart enough (evolved enough) to see him coming at his monster CPU with 5 cans of gas and a blow torch.

I just feel dumb even summarizing this plot line. It wasn't unique, and it wasn't even done amusingly. There are similar "evil awarenesses" who invade the internet and gather intelligence in (highly improbable) ways in episodes of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files. And those were done over a decade ago and much more convincingly.

Don't waste your time on this book.
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38 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
This is a very topical thriller based around the current economic depression and its beginnings. The plot throws a different twist on Artificial Intelligence getting out of hand and plays on the human fear of computers taking over, as well as the AI using THE FEAR INDEX to determine where to invest. The book revolves around the main character Dr Alex Hoffman, a physicist who sets up a hedge fund which, using his self-learning programme, earns him a vast fortune. Strange things start to happen and Alex realises he is not as fully in control of his life as he thought and begins to doubt himself and events. The writing is good, the descriptions and dialogue spot on.

Where the book let me down was in the somewhat stereotypical characters and lack of their development, the hedge fund investors are all self-involved geeks and the policeman predictable. The Darwin analogy, although interesting, seemed to fizzle out and not reach its full potential, much like the novel.

Don't get me wrong, this is a good book and I enjoyed reading it, but it could have been so much more!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
This is my second attempt at reviewing The Fear Index. After finishing the book, I posted my thoughts on what a disappointing read it is, and I stand by that opinion. If you are expecting a Techno Thriller that will keep you reading all night, with bitchin' babes skilled in all twelve martial arts, with a cliffhanger in each chapter and sinister forces from the Vatican, you'll be sorely disappointed in this novel, because it's a slowwwww read. The book's second flaw is that once you figure out who the real killer is, there's no point in reading further, because it's more of the same, over-and-over. The killer's identity is absurdly conspicuous, yet other than the protagonist, none of the characters can figure out such an obvious thing, so they think the protagonist is Stark! Raving! Mad! It's pretty annoying.

Yet, on reflection, this is the only book that gets the future right, and the importance of that is profound. It's no spoiler when I reveal that the novel employs sci-fi plot #3 (there are only five different sci-fi plots): a super-advanced computer, a boon to all mankind, starts running amok. That much is obvious, because much of this book is simply people running up to the protagonist and saying, "Something's wrong!" and he replies, "Not now, I'm too busy!" "But . . . but . . . Have you seen what VIXAL is doing?" The point is made over and over, until you want to scream at the page, *OK! We get it! The furshlugginer algorithm's gone haywire!*

The salient feature of this rendition of such a shopworn plot is that for the first time anywhere (to my knowledge) Robert Harris, to his everlasting credit, gets it right. The future will not be anthropomorphic. Arthur C. Clarke got it wrong. Robert A. Heinlein got it wrong. Freddy Nietzsche got it wrong. An anthropomorphic automaton with a character disorder is a nineteenth-century concept (the novel begins with a quote from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), yet all the sci-fi geniuses have failed to realize such a simple fact.

Perhaps they should be forgiven, because that is the primary defect of the human race. We cannot conceive of intelligence without personality, because our illusion of self, of personhood, is so strong that we cannot function without it. Each person's mental voice jabbering away inside one's head cannot be shut off, even in dreams. If it were to stop, you think you'd end, too. (The only solution to this defect in the design of humans is to master Transcendental Meditation, during which one silences all the internal jabber. As a result, one achieves enlightenment and realizes that the concept of an individual identity is an illusion -- or so I've heard it said. I have instead given in to the baseness and compulsively write book reviews.)

The word *person* comes from the Latin *persona,* meaning a mask worn in an ancient play, and only human beings depend on such a mask. If other intelligent forms of life are examined -- apes, parrots, cephalopods, urban raccoons -- we see that they have no persona, no identity, yet we are so bound to the concept of self, that we project personalities and names onto individual creatures who seem to have previously existed just fine without such human artifice. Likewise, it's obvious that if there is a God or gods, and if He is omniscient and omnipotent, He has no need of a personality or a language. (At least the Muslims are more enlightened then Christians, in that they have not assigned a personality or image to Allah.)

Because humans cannot do without such personality-dependent attitudes, every sci-fi cyborg, robot or artificial intelligence has been anthropomorphic, usually a high-functioning autistic. But with this novel, it becomes obvious that once superior and independent intelligence is achieved, it will not need a personality or a cloying voice, nor will it need to speak to humans. The Fear Index also demonstrates that since universal Darwinian principles yet apply, human beings may be regarded as cockroaches . . . or at best, beasts of burden and certainly disposable. SETI is scanning the skies for a spaceman named Glorp or other anthropomorphic beings, but humans, shortsighted because of their masks, never seem to anticipate with accuracy. It may be, based on the events of May 6, 2010, that the successor to humans as boss of the planet is already here. You are seated before one at this very moment (you are perhaps unaware that when you're not looking, they communicate silently with others of their kind), and you likely take better care of it than you do your own body.

Thus, while I didn't especially enjoy The Fear Index as entertainment, it does raise a topic of orphic proportions that other authors have overlooked, and I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 5, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Robert Harris is among the best in the world at writing historical fiction and alternate histories and filling them with tension and suspense, and I am excited anytime he comes out with a new book. But I can't help but feel that the success of the film based upon Harris' The Ghost a/k/a The Ghost Writer has had a negative influence on Harris' writing. The Fear Index feels like nothing so much as an interesting idea for a movie, which Harris couldn't write directly for the screen because it's not his oeuvre. And let's face it -- any novelist would find it a challenge to write a thriller based on hedge fun trading, although to Harris' credit, he manages to make that a lot more fun than it sounds.

The set-up for the story is great: uber techno-geek turned billionaire hedge-fund manager gets banged up in a creepy home invasion the night before a big presentation to a group of wealthy investors about his company's algorithmic trading program. Convinced the intruder is trying to mess with his head, he begins to unravel, even as his company stands on the brink of unprecedented success. Harris brilliantly ties Darwin's theory of evolution and survival of the fittest to the world's financial markets, drawing parallels to social psychology and the so-called "fear index," that is the market's volatility.

To say much more about the plot I'd have to include spoilers, so I'll just say that the resolution of the mystery is far less satisfying than the first half, requiring the protagonist to do things that don't ring true, even for a man who may be suffering a break-down, and scenic details that will doubtless look good when this gets made into a film, but which really make no sense (sorry for being vague here, but pointing out the glaring lapses in logic would involve revealing spoilers). Suffice it to say that the ending is rather predictable, bogged down moreover, with acronyms and such "I'm smarter than you are" terms as "buy-side liquidity" and "nine-halves trade now", which Harris doesn't bother to explain, realizing, perhaps, that continuing to explain the workings of the market would interfere with the action of the denouement. Even the writing lacks Harris' usual eloquence, with clunky transitions, jarring shifts between tenses, and grammatical errors, which I can only imagine are the result of Harris rushing to get this done while the events signalling the beginning of the world's current economic crisis are still fresh in people's minds.

Harris fans and market junkies are likely to be entertained, if not enthralled. Those new to Harris would be advised to start with one of his earlier and far more satisfying works.
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35 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I thought this was an very well-written page turner with a believable plot. It focuses on a hedge fund manager that uses an artificial intelligence application to gain an insurmountable competitive edge in the market, but then things quickly get out of control.

Robert Harris has some genuine expertise in this area because of his previous book "Enigma", which gave a very realistic account of how the British broke the Nazi code in World War II. That book included an accurate historical account on Alan Turing's work, and he was really the father of modern computer science and developer of the "turing test" for artificial intelligence.

Harris's familiarity with the subject matter comes through in this book. One of the biggest complaints that I usually have about books like this is that the dialog is corny or contrived, or the plot is unrealistic. That happens when authors don't really understand their subject matter or what people who work in a technical field are really like. Harris offers up realistic dialog and narrative that seems natural and believable, even if the characters are not necessarily deeply developed.

Overall, this is a fun and informative read. It's a good way to get some familiarity with artificial intelligence and the issues it will bring. Keep in mind that AI is NOT fiction ... this is really happening and is going to have a BIG impact in lots of areas of our lives, not just Wall Street but also jobs and employment.

If you're interested in this subject, a great (and very readable) NON-FICTION book is The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, which talks about how artificial intelligence, robotics, etc is going to affect the real world job market and economy within the next 10 years or so.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 31, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Harris is an interesting, creative author whose imagination brings forth unusual stories. In this instance he has combined a financial thriller with a psychological mystery and science fiction morality tale as we follow 24 hours in the life of a physicist turned hedge fund manager who starts the story receiving a first edition book and ends it in a modern day Dante's inferno, as we attempt to answer the question- is he insane, the victim of a malicious enemy or something else altogether?

The author is very good at descriptive narration, and he devises quirky yet appealing characters. The plot itself starts off very well, and until about three quarters through it you will find yourself engrossed and somewhat bewildered about where it is going, though the final section will probably disappoint some as it is too quick, and too "mundane" a resolution for what had promised to be a very unusual story.

If anything this book is too short, and can be read in one or two sittings, and I found myself wishing it had been longer and more offbeat in its climax. But I guess these are good things- when I read a bad book it cannot be short enough!

So as some others have written, this book probably could have been "better", but it is still an interesting and even engrossing story which contains the seeds of enough reality that it can be frightening too. Since I don't want to spoil it for others, I will leave it at that- and a four star recommendation.
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19 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I am the most boring man in the world. People recognize that I have the emotions of my computer algorithm. I have been known to cause narcolepsy when I walk into a room. People, who have read this book, can be recognized by the staples holding their eyes open and the super glue holding their finger on the forward key of their kindle. I am the most boring man in the world. Alex is the most boring man in the world.

And this is the most boring book in the world. 323 pages of drivel is what we have here. There are long narcisstic explanations of the expensive house and Alex's possessions. Alex, the main character, receives a book, and an intruder hits him in the back of the head. Alex gets a ct scan. This is 20% of the book. Alex spends 10% of the book explaining trading principles and his algorithm to a group of investors.

Gabrielle, Alex's wife, lost a baby years previously. She has used ct scans to make art of her dead fetus. You don't care about her, the dead fetal art, nor do you believe they care about each other or the dead baby. Another 10% or more of the book is devoted to the dead baby art.

The characters are boring. The dialogue is limited and boring. The plot is limited to non-existent. The story is literally purchase, purchase, email, email, trade, trade and rogue algorithm. The end. The emails, purchases, and trades are something you are told about. There is no action. There is zero interaction with our villain. These things you are told are the sum total build-up to the anticlimatic ending.

The book is disconnected, and you are never informed why the computer program went rogue. You won't care either.

For this is the most boring book in the world.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Robert Harris' Enigma is a masterpiece. Ghostwriter got a bit tangled up in recent politics. For the Fear Index, Harris went on a quick trip around CERN and dashed off some Dan Brown junk fiction, as if we hadn't already had enough.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The trouble here is not the idea, which is the machines-take-over meme of seven of ten techno-thrillers. It's weak execution. For starters, the jig is up early The author, for no obvious gain, lets you in the minds of Hugo, Gabrielle and LeClerc, who are the only semi-characters in the book other than Hoffman, who himself never acquires much shape. You deduce, far earlier than you want to, what's going on. For an airport terminal pick-up, that's fatal.

Also certain key plot elements, such as the complete buy-out of all Gabrielle's art, all the medical issues and procedures, etc., don't even make sense within the strained logic of the overall plot. Surely, if the VIX machine is both smart and intent on driving Hoffman mad, there would be countless easier ways than the ones it chooses (especially considering how easy it dispatches with that risk manager). The fact is, it's never clear exactly why the machine is trying to screw with Hoffman anyway.

I will still trust this author with historical fiction - Fatherland, Enigma were winners -- and he retains a nice feel for European cities. But he's out of his element here, and perhaps out of his century.
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