Thursday, February 23, 2012

Catastrophic speculation

In The Fear Index, Robert Harris explores the volatility of the present instead of his customary time travels to the past

The following review was posted recently the Books page of the History News Network site. 

As  a writer of historical fiction, Robert Harris has few peers in the range of settings for his novels, his skill in evoking an era, or in maintaining a strong narrative pace. Yet whether the story in question has been one of ancient Rome or the alternative history of Nazi Europe in the 1960s, there is an important recurring theme in his work: a fascination with power and hubris it breeds. This fascination has taken readers into realms that include cryptography, engineering, and the profession of ghostwriting. As befitting a writer of thrillers, his protagonists, who work in the shadow of figures that range from Cicero to Stalin, typically find themselves in a race against time. But time -- its sheer implacability, and the way it transcends even the most complacent or colossal human will -- is, thankfully, power's great adversary.

In The Fear Index, Harris locates these themes in a the contemporary world of finance. His protagonist this time is an American physicist, Alexander Hoffman, whose frustrated career ambitions on the Texas super collider project in Texas in the 1990s and with the European particle accelerator (CERN) the following decade, lead him to become a so-called "quant" who has developed an apparently infallible financial algorithm. At the start of this one-day account of his life, Hoffman, who now lives in Geneva with a British wife and as well a Brit business partner, is preparing a presentation to bring a few deep-pocketed investors to his firm. But his apparently serene existence gets thrown into turmoil when he finds an intruder in his high-tech home in the middle of the night, an event which sends him into a cascading series of crises.

That's because, much to Hoffman's own amazement, he has an unknown enemy with astounding powers to subvert even the most impregnable security. Unless, of course, that enemy is himself: Hoffman is forced to question his sanity, and as this story proceeds, you find yourself (along with his wife, that partner and other characters, among them one of those stolid police investigators who always seem to be on hand in these stories) questioning it even more than he does. Meanwhile, his computer program continues its uncanny, inexorable work, taking frighteningly aggressive positions on world markets as those markets become increasingly unstable.

To some extent, Harris hints at where this is all going on the basis of his chapter epigraphs alone, which begin with a passage from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and is followed by a series of quotes from the works of Charles Darwin. Harris speaks through Hoffman in a little set piece in which he explains how we once thought computers (in the form of robots) would take over menial work, whereas we lean on them to calculate (and execute) that which we are incapable of mastering intellectually ourselves. Interestingly, while we experience the story chiefly through Hoffman's point of view, Harris destabilizes our confidence in him -- we come to understand that he's got an Asperger-like personality in the best of times -- even as we find our suspicions falling on other main characters. We eventually come to understand what's actually happening to Hoffman in a big final production (Hollywood, anyone?) that nevertheless avoids tying all the loose ends together.

In short, The Fear Index is a thoroughly conventional thriller that's highly adaptive to an airport environment. But it's a literate, thought-provoking book. It doesn't quite rank as high as Fatherland (1992) or Pompeii (2005) in the Harris canon. But there are few better companions for time travel -- even when, as in this case, that travel takes place in millionths of a second.