The Fear Index by Robert Harris (2011)

As most of you will be aware, the Chicago Board of Exchange operates what is known as the S and P 500 Volatility Index, or VIX. this has been running, in one form or another, for seventeen years. It’s a ticker, for want of a better word, tracking the price of options – calls and puts – on stocks traded in the S and P 500. If you want the math, it’s calculated as the square root of the par variance swap rate for a thirty-day term, quoted as an annualised variance. If you don’t want the math, let’s just say that what it does is show the implied volatility of the market for the coming month. It goes up and down minute by minute. The higher the index, the greater the uncertainty in the market, so traders call it “the fear index”.’ (p.115)

This is a very good, very intelligent novel, but the least satisfying of Harris’s five thrillers. Of course there’s a plot, but the plot is spread out among a number of characters – about four main ones; it includes a number of flashbacks and memories to earlier events, which pad out, slow or stop the momentum; and above all, it is heavily themed in a way I didn’t find totally convincing.

The plot

Multi-millionaire American banker Dr Alex Hoffmann is woken in the middle of the night in the high-security, $60- million home he recently bought near the shore of Lake Geneva, to realise there’s an intruder in his house. Someone has got past the 9-foot fence, the locked gates and through the password-protected door, to rummage around in the razor sharp knives in his kitchen. This is where Alex disturbs him. Next thing he knows, he is coming round as the police and his distraught wife revive him. He was clobbered with a fire extinguisher and, as well as a lot of blood, has lost some mental function so that he’s struggling to remember what happened.

He is taken to hospital where he has a CAT scan. This reveals no major damage but the consultant points out a number of white dots on the scan: could be tiny blood leaks but could be other things, for example early signs of dementia. Scared, Hoffmann refuses a follow-up MRI scan and also refuses advice to stay in hospital for 24 hours. He has a busy day ahead of him, and so does the reader, for the events of this 390-page novel take place over the course of one frantic day.

Hoffmann goes to work, meets up with his partner Hugo Quarrel and then plays a key part in his company’s presentation to, and then lunch with, a group of seriously rich investors in his fund. But the day is interrupted by a number of quirks and oddities:

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Someone has sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin’s classic book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), and put the bookmark of the seller in the section about fear, which is full of explanations of the evolutionary origins of fear, and also Victorian photos of human specimens exhibiting fear. But who? He asks his wife, he asks his partner – they both say it wasn’t them. Finally he phones the bookseller, in Belgium, and is nonplussed to be told that he bought the book for himself, via email, and using an account in the Cayman Islands. What?

The figure of fear

In the taxi from the hospital, Hoffmann is shocked to see the man who attacked him in his house sitting at the back of a passing tram, a thin, older man with a ponytail of grey hair. Not only is his shock renewed, but the sighting confirms his impression that the man looks like one of the illustrations from the Darwin book! What is going on?

Gabby’s exhibition

Later that morning he attends the opening of an art exhibition devoted to the works of his beautiful English wife, Gabby. Hoffmann is nervous as he doesn’t really like people, let alone large groups of rich people all bitching at cocktail parties. But he’s not as nervous as Gabby, who’s first proper show this is. The works are all based on one technological idea: MRI scans show the inside of the body, the brain, organic bodies, as layers. Gabby had the idea of printing each successive layer of selected MRI scans onto thin sheets of glass which she suspends above each other, creating a sliced 3D image. She’s done images of a human brain, a body, a foetus, each sliced into glass wafers.

But, for the purposes of the story, the point of this long scene is that the gallery owner, at its climax, goes round and sticks a red sticker on each work indicating that it’s been sold. Everyone expected some to go (Gabby was nervous that none would be sold), but all of them? It is unlikely, improbable, and even embarrassing. It makes it look like a stitch-up and, importantly, means that none of Geneva’s great and good, all elaborately invited to the show, even have a chance to buy one.

Puzzled and, in some cases, insulted, well before the gallery owner has finished placing the stickers, the crowd has begun to drift away. Gabby is furious and has a stand-up row with Hoffmann, convinced that he bought them in a cack-handed attempt to be ‘romantic’ or ‘generous’, but in fact humiliating her in front of ‘everyone who is anyone’. He swears he didn’t, but she runs off, furious.

Gana’s worries

Upset and confused, Hoffmann takes a cab back to the shiny offices of Hoffmann Investment Technologies just in time for the scheduled presentation to the assembled investors. The core of the presentation is Hoffmann’s explanation of the algorithm his company uses to assess the market. Named VIXAL-4, it is tasked with identifying signs of anxiety or fear in market sentiment, and then ‘shorting’, ie selling stocks or other securities or commodities in advance of acquiring them, with the aim of making a profit when the price falls. (Before the presentation, his small management team, particularly the Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, try to buttonhole Hoffmann with their fears that the VIXAL program is buying too many shorted stocks, thus going beyond acceptable defined risk thresholds, but he brushes them aside.)

Hoffmann’s presentation

Hoffmann’s presentation is, in a way, the author’s message, as he gives a brisk summary of philosophical thinking about humankind, which emphasises risk, fear and anxiety. Anyone who can master and control this emotion, can control the world. VIXAL-4 is only an algorithm but it is the smartest yet created for identifying risk and fear, and then co-ordinating buying activity, in anticipation of market falls in value and prices.

Fear then murder

As the presentation draws to a climax Hoffmann sees out the window, at a bus stop opposite, the thin, pony-tailed man who attacked him. He interrupts his presentation to bolt out the door, run down the stairs, out into the street and follow the man as he disappears down an alleyway. He chases through narrowing streets until he realises he is in the seedy brothel district, and is astonished to get a text giving an address. When he tentatively gets to the address, and climbs the stairs and opens the door, he is, sure enough, greeted by the lank, grey-haired assailant, who immediately tries to attack him. There is a prolonged and gruesome struggle, with the assailant repeatedly attacking, until Hoffmann, overcome by fear and anger, throttles him to death. He ties shoe laces round his neck and hangs the corpse from a wardrobe door in a feeble attempt to dress the murder up as a suicide. Then he turns on the laptop the man had – and is horrified to read extensive extracts around the idea of a willing victim searching for someone to murder them via the internet – and to emails which appear to have been sent by him directly to the attacker, asking him to kill him. Like the Darwin book he never ordered. Like Gabby’s artworks he never bought.

The conspiracy

By this stage I think it is a slow reader who hasn’t realised that the computer programme is out of control and is clearly mimicking Hoffmann’s behaviour – or putting into action his deepest wishes. Hoffmann, being slower on the uptake than the reader, thinks that someone is out to get him – a real person or rival is trying to frame him or drive him crazy.

Walton’s story

This hypothesis is reinforced by a separate plotline concerning a former colleague of Hoffmann’s at CERN the physics research institute where Hoffmann originally worked. Out of the blue this man, Professor Robert Walton, turned up at the exhibition of Gabby’s art works. Hoffmann denies he invited him but Walton claims he emailed him personally. Now the distraught Gabby takes Walton up on an open invitation to visit him at CERN.

Here she gets the visitors’ tour and some history of CERN, dedicated to unravelling the mystery of the smallest sub-atomic particles etc. For the purposes of the novel, though, she hears Hoffmann’s backstory for the first time: namely, that he was recruited in the mid-1990s as a keen young PhD student, and immediately applied himself to devising programs to handle the vast trillions of data points which the experiments were producing. He developed a computer program which was capable of identifying which data was significant, and learning from its experience. As you might expect, the program began to spread beyond its initial host computers, learning by experience how to overcome firewalls and jump into other systems, until the CERN authorities eventually shut it down and terminated Hoffmann’s line of work. He had worked 20 hour days for months and, unable to accept that his baby was being destroyed, had a massive nervous breakdown and was sacked from CERN.

Good God, Gabby thinks. Is Hoffmann now in the grip of another mental collapse? Has part of his mind done all the mystery acts – ordered the Darwin book, bought all Gabby’s art, and so on – while the conscious part of his mind is completely unaware, and even denies it?

Hoffmann’s therapist

Craziness is confirmed as a possibility when we follow Hoffmann to another part of the city where he reluctantly knocks on the door of the psychotherapist who treated him when he had a nervous breakdown 6 years earlier. Dishevelled, bleeding from his head wound and bruised from the savage fight in the seedy hotel room, Hoffmann presents a threatening appearance which he doesn’t improve by, after initial polite conversation with the lady psychiatrist, pushing her out of the way so he can access her records on him. There he is horrified to find that, in their most secret confidential sessions, he spoke of his deep desire to end it all by being murdered in exactly the same words which were used in the emails to his mystery attacker. Someone must have hacked into the psychotherapist’s records, cut and pasted his words, and gone trawling the internet for an assassin. My God, someone really wants to kill him. Hoffmann hears the psychotherapist’s staff calling the police, and barges his way out of the building and into a cab.

Who put them under surveillance?

When Hoffmann arrives back at the HIT offices, looking terrible and sounding like he really is having a nervous breakdown, he has a brainwave. The screensaver on the attacker’s laptop shows him, Hoffmann, leaning back in his plush expensive chair in his office. Suddenly he realises it was taken from a spot directly above him in the ceiling. Appearing utterly frenzied and mad to his terrified partner, Hugo, Hoffmann stands on a chair and rips down the fire alarm unit in the ceiling and, concealed within it, finds a webcam. Now he thinks about it there’s one of these in every room in the building and – my God! – at his luxury home.

Hoffmann calls in their highly paid security consultant, Maurice Genoud, who astonishes Hoffmann and Quarry (though not, by this stage, the reader) by revealing that he, Hoffmann, ordered him to instal these webcams in every room in the office and at his home. No, he never did, Hoffmann shouts furiously. At which point Genoud brings in his laptop and calmly shows him the series of emails he, Hoffmann, sent him, Genoud, with detailed instructions for their installation. Not only that, but the emails give detailed requests for security to be set up at the new ‘server farm’ in a remote industrial estate on the outskirts of Geneva. What? This is the first time Hoffmann or Quarry have heard about this place.

VIXAL-4

In the background during all of this, the quants, the market analysts, are getting more concerned about the wild positions VIXAL-4 is committing the company to. In particular, it has withdrawn all the ‘hedges’ ie the safe bets, which are meant to balance out the speculative profitable bets. Their Risk Manager, Gana Rajamani, chooses this moment to insist that they close VIXAL-4 down. Responding to this clamour, Hoffmann reluctantly walks into the room containing all the servers and turns off the power. The computers go off. There is silence in the computer room. But when he walks back into the main office Quarry and the quants are still waiting for him to do it. They haven’t noticed any change. VIXAL-4 is trading more furiously than ever. The industrial estate! What if a parallel system has been set up there?

Gana is murdered

Gana begins further criticism of the programme which merely prompts Hoffmann to launch a tirade against his priggish cowardice, and Quarry, the hatchet man, to sack Gana on the spot. Gana clears his desk, walks to the lift, whose doors ping open, he steps through them and – disappears. Disappears? The lift wasn’t there; he stepped into empty space!

Any sci-fi fan will by now be completely sure that the computer program has taken over. It heard Gana threaten it and, like Hal in 2001 A Space Odyssey, and all the other rogue computers in thousands of sci-fi stories, it is now defending itself from attack.

Hoffmann runs down to the basement, prises part the elevator doors with a car jack and, sure enough, discovers Gana’s body splatted on the bottom of the elevator shaft. Not only that but, as in a thousand horror movies, the shaft door slam shut and the elevator begins descending towards him at top speed. It is only by holding the thick steel jack vertically, that Hoffmann halts the elevator’s descent and survives in the foot or so of space beneath it and the floor. Then it goes back up and he is able to prise open the lift shaft doors and escape.

Fiery climax

Now his mission is clear: to stop VIXAL-4 which has clearly acquired a mind of its own. He hijacks a car from a bemused Austrian businessman and drives at top speed out to the grim industrial suburb of Zimeysa. On the way he stops at a gas station to buy five petrol containers, rags and matches. Yes he is planning to blow it up. By now Leclerc the Swiss policeman who had been called in to respond to the original mugging of Hoffmann at his home, and was told by his boss to stay with the case, has also found the murder scene in the seedy hotel, been called by the irate psychotherapist and arrived at the offices of Hoffmann Investment to find it in turmoil. And then to discover what is left of Gana’s body at the bottom of the lift shaft. Reports of a wild-eyed man buying petrol at the gas station alert him, Quarry and Gabby to Hoffmann’s destination and Hoffmann has barely passed the installation’s security barriers and passwords before a whole posse of police cars and fire engines appear at the gates.

Briefly, Hoffmann explores the strange intricate installation the program has designed for itself, pouring petrol as he goes. Gabby and Quarry get as far as the door and beg him to leave but, with one last adoring look at his baby, Hoffmann flicks the cigarette lighter and WHOOMPF! it all goes up in flames. there are a terrifying few pages as Hoffmann finds himself running through the maze of rooms and compartments before emerging onto the roof as a human torch and plummeting to the ground below.

Epilogue

However:

a) Hoffmann survives, for in the final pages we are told he is in hospital, swathed in bandages and burn cream.

b) When Quarry finally makes it back to the Hoffmann Investment Technologies office in the evening of what has been a very long day – he discovers the quants all still sitting looking at their screens, even though it’s past 8pm. Why? Because VIXAL-4 is still trading. Hoffmann blew up the remote computer centre but — the programme has obviously installed itself somewhere else, in the cloud, throughout the internet, everywhere. And not only is it still functioning, it is still making huge profits for the company. After is initial shock, Quarry leans back in his chair. The police will charge Hoffmann with various misdeeds. They know he went mad and tried to destroy a computer centre. But they don’t know why. Maybe Quarry should relax and let the programme carry on making him a billionaire. Perhaps, after all, this is the future, and it is unstoppable!

The characters

Dr Alex Hoffmann An American, Hoffman came to Switzerland in the 1990s to work at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider. He worked there for 6 years designing programs to manage the vast amount of data generated by the Collider, but got into trouble with the authorities for creating an artificial intelligence programme which threatened to run out of control. A chance meeting with Hugo Quarrel, just as CERN were closing down his project, persuaded Hoffmann that he could apply the same technique – devising an algorithm which would learn which data was significant – to analysing money and risk. He’s not really interested in money – or people – except as expressions of data and behaviour.

Gabby the modern artist. This makes it rather unlikely that he should therefore have hooked up with the astonishingly beautiful Gabby, an Englishwoman who did an art degree in Manchester. She, for her part, is uncomfortable with his astonishing, obscene wealth. A memorable incident in their relationship was when he bought a whole tank of lobsters in an up-market restaurant purely to release them back into the sea. During their blazing row at the art gallery, she reveals that she hates the vast house he has only just bought and moved them into.

Hoffmann’s business partner Hugo Quarry, gladhanding and pressing the flesh but Hoffmann and his investment algorithms are the heart of Hoffmann Investment Technologies – with its swish ten-story paperless office and 60 quants or quantitative analysts aka quants (p.72) working silently at their computer screens, on an average annual salary of half a million each (p.73)

The Swiss detective Jean-Philippe Leclerc is called to the scene of the break-in at Hoffmann’s mansion. Already tired at the end of a shift, looking a bit rumpled in his dirty raincoat, he is not happy when his boss rings him and tells him to stay with the case and shadow Hoffmann, in other words to pull a double shift. Harris has to have Leclerc do this, in order to have him cover the events of the next 24 hours, to slowly uncover the trail of murder and mayhem which Hoffmann is leaving behind him, and to be in at the climax at the exploding computer centre.

The theme of fear

  • Fear is the emotion referred to in the Darwin book
  • Each chapter opens with a quote, generally from one of Darwin’s books, some about the topic of fear and anxiety in animals, later on about the way the process of evolution itself is unstoppable
  • Hoffmann becomes a walking record of anxieties and paranoia:
    • he thinks the intruder is going to kidnap or harm Gabby, or kidnap her
    • he is told he might have dementia, triggering anxiety
    • he gives a long cerebral explanation of fear as the key factor of international trading markets
    • he and his partner become genuinely fearful at VIXAL-4’s irrational behaviour
    • he is fearful of whoever sent him the book
    • he is fearful of whoever bought all Gabby’s artworks
    • during the fight with the attacker, he resorts to basic animal-fear, fight or flight blind fury.
  • The VIX index is the fear index. Fear stalks the financial markets, in an all-too-predictable way.

The word fear is frequently repeated throughout the text, as if simple repetition will somehow instal it at the heart of the fiction. But although the final 50 pages or so are every bit as nailbiting and intense as Harris’s other thrillers, somehow all these different people all having different sorts of fear diffuses the effect.

The more Harris explicitly mentions fear of this, that or the other, the more we feel we’re being coerced or hassled into accepting a thesis and not responding imaginatively to a fully worked-out work of fiction.

A miscellany

Interesting though each one of them is individually, it feels like the book is grappling with too many issues:

  • the threat of artificial intelligence (or autonomous machine reasoning, AMR, as Hoffmann prefers to call it, p.49) running out of control
  • the computerisation of the world’s stock exchanges vastly increasing the risk of irrational crashes
  • the dark side of the internet putting in touch people who murder and who want to be murdered
  • hyper modern art ie the MRI scans on glass

as well as lengthy sections explaining Hoffmann’s work at CERN and the Large Hadron Collider and modern particle physics.

It is a tribute to Harris’s grasp and ability as a writer that he manages to pull so many disparate threads together into one coherent narrative. Nevertheless, the plot goes on hold too many times while we are subjected to another factual briefing about computerisation or artificial intelligence or the amount of data generated by CERN or the speed of stock market transactions or any of a score of other interesting but distracting topics.

The book still has some slick and fancy turns of phrase:

A tram rattled to a halt and opened its doors, spilling out passengers along its entire length, as if a knife had been passed from end to end, gutting it. (p.76)

But nowhere near as many or as atmospheric as in its predecessor, The Ghost. And too many of its sentence read like this:

Evolution remains a self-interested process, and even the interests of confined digital organisms may conflict with our own. (p.309)

They’re interesting in themselves, and necessary to explain the book’s multiple scientific issues. But they make it read at many points more like a Wikipedia article than a novel. Despite its gripping and thrilling climax, for me the majority of the book felt like it consisted of too many disparate elements, which the actual story struggled to pull together, and which were too resolutely factual and documentary to really come to life.

Plus, at a bucket level, the whole book relies on us caring what happens to an American banker. And who, in our day and age, is going to do that? Probably the majority of its readers actively want him to come to a sticky end.


Credit

The Fear Index by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy

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