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The Fear Factor

Robert Harris (author of Pompeii, The Ghost Writer, the Cicero trilogy, and others) has published a new novel, The Fear Index, which is as much a primer in hedge funds and computer controlled algorithmic trading in stocks as it is an engrossing thriller. The particular conflict that the book raises is not science fiction. Harris confessed in a PBS interview that the premise of his plot, that a trading program should scan corporate reports, financial columns and other business news to detect any mention of worry, unease, expectations of loss, or panic and use these as the basis of trading, was not simply his invention; it was old news. He had been preempted by real life practices.

Alex Hoffman, the beleaguered protagonist, is a brilliant computer scientist who develops a program (VIXAL-4), an example of autonomous machine learning, that produces a thinking machine that learns and makes decisions on its own ultimately beyond the control of its creator. Sound familiar? Harris cues the Frankenstein subtext in an epigraph to one of his chapters. Succeeding epigraphs from Darwins Origins of Species and The Descent of Man indicate the evolutionary struggle of the survival of the fittest, now taking the form of organic life against machine intelligence. Alexs financial program trades on fear and then teaches human beings to fear, computes to maximize profit, and then disposes of the human agents who get in its way, its creator being the foremost. The impossible speed with which it makes calculations lends it a superlative calculating intelligence (artificial, but the more ruthless for this reason). The further irony is that it is invariably effective in making money the purpose of its creation.

There is an intriguing ironic parallel between Alex, the programs creator, in his apparent mental imbalance, and the programs strictly rational and utterly mad decisions. Approaching the apocalyptic and fiery conclusion to the novel, I heard echoing from Kubricks 2001 past, Open the pod doors, Hal. Alas, there is no compliance or grotesque rendering of the Daisy, Daisy tune to soften the response.

To be sure there is much more to the book than the complexities of computer trading. Alex faces many fear factors including an attack on his life, a conspiracy to steal his electronic identity and the possible loss of his adored and adoring wife, Gabrielle. The assault upon his marriage places Alex in an impossible situation, attempting to explain to Gabrielle betrayals that only he could have authored, but about which he knows nothing. Her defensive reaction has Alex glimpsing his creations deleterious effect, poisoning both the idealism of his mathematics and the trust in their relationship; what is most human is at risk from what is most artificial. Alex is victim, strategist, fugitive and misunderstood hero in the course of the novels convoluted plotting. He struggles for his life in a knife fight with an on-line partner in death, and manages to avoid the programmed machinations of a descending elevator. The plot also offers us, as an alternative perspective, Inspector Leclerc, an aging laconic Swiss detective who attempts to trace the source of the crimes against Alex as well as Alexs own criminal acts. He witnesses with the reader Alexs suicidal act (and survival) in the concluding inferno. Leclerc is excluded, finally, from real understanding. Alexs self-sacrifice, the reader understands, is undercut by the parallel survival of his self-declared nemesis, his creature, VIXAL.

The pace of the novel, the elements of suspense and surprise, make it compelling reading. Its premise appears frighteningly familiar in these days volatile markets driven by increasingly powerful (and independent) forms of machine intelligence. Harris leaves the reader waking up on the day after, none the more secure in the belief that it is over. Somewhere, not too far in the background, machine life computes to its own survival.


About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.



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But how's the writing?

The writing? How he says what he says never gets in the way. That in itself is a standard of sorts.

Three minutes of Robert Harris talking about the book:

Just finished it. Fun enough, but very forgettable. Da Vinci Codeish. I gather Edward thinks it contains a message to take seriously. Honestly, I doubt that. The most interesting serious bits are in a few of the short quotations sprinkled throughout. This book might belong to the techno thriller genre - gloom, doom, boom, and ominously glowing LEDs - but some of the technological details are pretty bad. More Dan Brown than Michael Crichton.

Yes, David, the epigraphs are interesting and are, I think, a playful way of expanding the significance of the story. As far as the seriousness of the book's themes: a thriller is a thriller. Reiterations of Mary Shelley's warnings are legion. Our monsters always look a bit like ourselves.

Perhaps the monster-in-the-machine theme is so popular because we know, at least subconsciously, that our capability for understanding is extremely limited. We're obliged to live within the limits of that little organic computer between our ears. Yet we can't help yearning to understand, to grow beyond our capabilities. But since that means taking a leap into the dark, and we fear the dark, the unknown, we imagine that it's filled with monsters.The better, more intelligent, more creative fiction writers, I think, don't fall into monster-in-the-machine despair. That's a trap for the timorous. Humans are at their best when they reach for sunlight, not for darkness.

"The better, more intelligent, more creative fiction writers, I think, dont fall into monster-in-the-machine despair""Frankenstein"is pretty intelligent and creative. So is "Neuromancer" by William L. Gibson. I just order "Fear Index"; a thriller inspired by the Flash Crash sounds like a lot of fun.

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