I can't even feign the vaguest interest in or understanding of hedge funds, and liquidating shorts and futures, and this despite Robert Harris's painstaking inclusion of some explanations in his latest novel. It all really did pass right over my head, but this is a thriller and this is Robert Harris so none of that matters because everything else more than makes up for a bit of financial ennui.
There is much debate around the social networking sites this week concerning Alice Oswald's withdrawal from the T.S.Eliot poetry prize, on the grounds that funding is coming from sources connected to hedge funds. Whilst I don't pretend to understand the implications or the whys I will always respect anyone who makes a decision of conscience, and to be frank, if you read The Fear Index you might be a little chary of hedge funds too... but then this is fiction... isn't it?
Dr Alex Hoffmann is the Midas man, I'd have him slightly on the autistic spectrum for his rather sparse social skills combined with a brilliant computer brain. He's married to Gabrielle, an artist and his complete antithesis in accordance with the theory of Opposites Attract, and yet in some ways Alex's skills are extremely creative. Transferable skills have seen him move from work on the development of the CERN Large Hadron Collider into setting up his own Geneva-based company, Hoffman Investment Technologies, utilising his own self-managing computerised algorithmic trading programme.
Yes, I can see everyone's eyes glazing over fast... someone's even yawning, slap yourself around the chops and hang on in there with me, we can do this. Look there's a really interesting picture of the Hadron Collider to perk you up ... alright I know it remains a mystery, even though Professor Brian Cox had a good go at explaining things on the news this week. Gosh, if I even vaguely understood the thing I'll bet I could have made some really intelligent analogies about the collision of exploding particles within Robert Harris's narrative arc or something, but you'll just have to read it and find those for yourselves.
Hoffman's life slowly unravels when it appears that someone has infiltrated his own security systems and stolen his identity. His money is being spent for him, he seems to be sending invitations to things he can't remember inviting people to and there are hints that he may be suffering from the early stages of some form of memory-loss or dementia. Meanwhile it would seem nothing but nothing can stop his algorithm from making money. The computer is in charge and with minimal human interference is left to decide all financial transactions, recognising and analysing market trends and sometimes, with split-second timing, buying and selling stocks and shares and making billions for the company. In the poorly regulated world of finance the algorithm's power goes unchallenged, to say nothing of its ethics, and then of course you start to question exactly whose ethics they are.
This is toxic and unimaginable wealth shared amongst the privileged few; wealth on a scale it is hard to take in and a financial world ruthlessly immoral in its pursuit of the next billion (which can be made in about ten seconds). Men blinded by the money-making process and of course it is all going to end in tears. But forget any potential for boredom here because this is a pacey thriller that had me thinking on a regular basis 'I can't believe I am enjoying this book so much.' It is about the enfeebling nature of technology too and about the dependency on systems that are fallible and can fail, but at a point when human intervention may have been eroded and disempowered to such an extent that any hope of recovery and extrication is impossible. So the book is full of possibilities in reality too, and given the state of the world's finances right now the scare factor is that none of it seems beyond the realms of the imagination, even for a financial market klutz like me, who is beginning to think she might be able to afford to buy Greece this week and Italy next with some spare Tesco Clubcard vouchers.
The twist when it comes is unexpected and clever, well it was for me, and left me knowing that I had just read a really good book and it was time to seek out some more Robert Harris because I'm a bit out of touch with his recent writing. Even though I was an early adopter of Enigma, Archangel and Fatherland Robert Harris seems to have mysteriously dropped off my radar whilst writing his Cicero Trilogy, Pompeii, Lustrum and Imperium (not necessarily in that order) and I never really caught up again, so I've Kindled some samples of those to see if I might enjoy them.
Books like The Fear Index feel essential in the grand reading scheme, those books that Alan Jacobs, in his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction suggested we all needed, books where I get lost in the story and look up and wonder what time it is. I guess that category will be different for each of us, but The Fear Index certainly did it for me.
Any recommends for more books like this to 'get lost' in ??