The Fear Index
Robert HarrisMeet Alex Hoffman: among the secretive inner circle of the ultra-rich, he is something of a legend. Based in Geneva, he has developed a revolutionary system that has the power to manipulate financial markets. Generating billions of dollars, it is a system that thrives on panic - and feeds on fear. And then, in the early hours of one morning, while he lies asleep, a sinister intruder breaches the elaborate security of his lakeside home. So begins a waking nightmare of paranoia and violence as Hoffman attempts - with increasing desperation - to discover who is trying to destroy him - before it's too late...
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Author Q & A
Reading Group Questions
Meet Robert Harris
Richard: Robert Harris used to write political columns for the Sunday papers. Their loss is our gain – since his best-selling debut, Fatherland, readers have come to expect something special from each new Harris title. The Fear Index is no exception.
Dr Alex Hoffman is, to the wider world, a nobody, a nonentity. But to those in the know, he is a living legend. He is also stupendously rich.
Hoffman has hit the mother lode with an extraordinarily sophisticated computer software, a brand-new concept in artificial intelligence (A.I.). It tracks fluctuating human emotions around the world – a kind of global mood thermometer – and uses the results to predict movements in the financial markets. Those predictions are almost supernaturally accurate. Hoffman and his partner – an investment banker – clean up. Their hedge fund, based in Geneva, is worth billions.
It’s a convincing story, rich in trademark Harris detail. Hoffman is an American physicist who worked on the Large Hadron Collider at Cern. His discoveries there caused a light to go on in his head and VIXAL-4 is the result; a supercomputer of awesome intelligence. Crucially to the tale, VIXAL-4 senses fear (hence the novel’s title) by constantly monitoring breaking news, and decides how that fear will affect traders’ decisions. There is something sinister about this, even more so when we quickly realise that VIXAL-4 may have developed the power of independent thought and decision-making.
Has Hoffman created a 21st-century Frankenstein’s monster? Or, worse, an A.I. as dangerous as HAL, the rogue computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey?
Judy: What I love about a Robert Harris story is that at the heart of them lies a genuine, tantalising ‘what if?’ With Fatherland it was ‘what if Hitler had won the war?’; with The Ghost it was ‘what if the British prime minister (a thinly disguised Tony Blair) were to face prosecution as a war criminal after the invasion of Iraq?’
The ‘what if’ in The Fear Index asks: ‘What if a computer were designed to be so intelligent that it moved beyond the control of its creator?’ That’s a question troubling physicists out here in the real world right now.
There’s another ‘what if’ too, of a more immediate and personal nature. What if our hero, Dr Hoffman, is murdered? The question arises right away, in the opening chapter. Hoffman is asleep next to his beautiful English wife in their stunning house on the shores of Lake Geneva. In the small hours, he is woken by banks of security lights coming on in the grounds. He goes to investigate and is brutally attacked.
Over the ensuing 24 hours, Hoffman must find out what or who is behind an escalating cycle of paranoia and violence. A dark force is out to destroy him. Meanwhile something strange is going on in the world markets: they fall into chaos and confusion.
This works perfectly as a fast-paced thriller unfolding in real time. But there are deeper themes here. Harris opens his chapters with intriguing quotes from influential thinkers from the past and present - Charles Darwin, Bill Gates, Richard Dawkins – and their thoughts on evolution and human behaviour.
But the shortest, and most pertinent to the beleaguered Hoffman, comes from the CEO of Intel Corporation, Andrew Grove.
‘Only the paranoid survive.’
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