If you want to get a finger-tip feel for one of the most important transformations in our world today, read The Fear Index, Robert Harris’s new thriller.
Harris has been widely praised for his adept portrayal of the hedge fund universe in which his novel is set. “The greatest pleasure of this book is that it gets the finance right,” cooed Felix Salmon, the Reuters finance blogger whose keyboard often oozes acid.
He is right that Harris’s hedgies are a welcome and realistic departure from the Masters of the Universe of most popular fiction. For one thing, these are the alpha geeks, the nerdy doctorate-holders whose testosterone is channeled into equations instead of frat-house swagger.
And Harris knows his superrich. As they are being wooed to make a billion-dollar investment, over a 1995 Latour in a fine Geneva restaurant, an international group of investors energetically discusses the ways that their national governments oppress them. Dr. Alex Hoffmann, the billionaire hedge fund manager protagonist who is making the pitch for their cash, reflects: “He was remembering now why he didn’t like the rich: their self-pity. Persecution was the common ground of their conversation, like sport or the weather was for everyone else.”
But the most valuable intellectual takeaway from this riveting novel is the element that has been widely dismissed by reviewers as familiar and unpersuasive: VIXAL, the intelligent machine at the heart of the story that torments its human creator and may be trying to rule the world. Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, gave The Fear Index a thumbs up, but deemed the machine takeover “silly and contrived.” VIXAL, the evil genius computer, “seems less like a plausible villain than like a metaphor for the greed and heedlessness that overtook Wall Street,” she wrote.