The Fear Index

6 January 2013

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Others have queued up to praise The Fear Index, which has been published about eighteen months now, and I’m not going to dissent from that view here. It weaves an engrossing dark thriller around (slight spoiler alert) a real event in 2010 – the flash crash – which wiped out 9% of the value of the Dow Jones Index in a few minutes, mostly through algorithm-based high frequency trading. (The chart below from Forbes shows the value of the index and the volume of trades during the crash). There is a long official US report, and a less compelling piece of futures work on high-frequency trading by the UK Government’s Foresight department. (The best account I have read is by Donald MacKenzie in the London Review of Books).

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Robert Harris started his career as a journalist and a non-fiction author, and these skills don’t desert him. I started mine as a financial journalist, and still follow the area, but didn’t spot a clanging note. I had managed to guess the villain ahead of the reveal (small spoiler alert) but then you need only to read a small part of the singularity literature to realise that advanced machine intelligence aspires to a condition of godliness. All the same, the twist at the end was still a surprise.

If I have a criticism, there were places where it was overwritten, especially in the first half. The entire retelling of the Hardy/Ramanujan taxi story, for example, was ponderous, but perhaps when you have been as successful as Robert Harris editors are less attentive, or perhaps they were publishing at speed because of the topicality of the flash crash. I also was unpersuaded by Hoffman’s decision to plunge alone into the low-rent hotel in pursuit of his tormentor. Shades of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter’s house: good for driving the story along, less good for its credibility.

On the other hand, there are moments when you hear an author’s voice coming through his characters. I enjoyed the moment particularly when the hedge fund investors, taken for their expensive lunch after the presentation of the new investment fund, are bitching about high marginal tax rates. Hoffman, the other-worldly genius who has written the software, and cares little for money, comments to himself,

“I was remembering now why I didn’t like the rich: their self-pity. Persecution was the common ground of their conversation, like sport or the weather was for anyone else.”

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