four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
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0

744702.pngWith wide-ranging best sellers that include Fatherland (1992), Enigma (1995), Archangel (1999), Pompeii (4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2004), Imperium (3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2007), and The Ghost (4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2008), former journalist and reporter Robert Harris has been in the first rank of thriller writers for two decades. His latest novel examines technology’s evolution and its frightening consequences.

The Story: "Our algorithm thrives on panic," Alexander Hoffmann tells his investors about the VIXAL-4, a cyber program that detects panic, "because human beings behave in such predictable ways when they’re frightened." Brilliant and mercurial, Hoffmann used to work on computer systems at Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider. Now, he’s an investor with a knack for making vast sums of money on hedge-fund transactions done at the speed of light. Hoffmann’s game is on the up and up, his secret a sophisticated computer program that uses the VIX—the volatility or "fear index" of the title—to buy and sell stocks. But when he receives a strange gift in the mail and the security of his mansion is compromised, Hoffmann doesn’t know if he’s losing his mind or if he’s become a target. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the stock market …
Knopf. 304 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780307957931

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Harris has fashioned in The Fear Index a thriller that’s part Kafka, part Orwell, part Darwin—with just about all parts exciting and pertinent. VIXAL-4 will haunt the reader long into the night, making him wonder who or what is driving his stocks." Gerald Bartell

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"On a number of levels, Robert Harris is at the top of his game in The Fear Index. … At novel’s end, I am unnerved about the future of my stock portfolio but a much bigger fan of the author." Steve Duin

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Readers may find themselves lying awake at night unsettled by the story of what happens when Hoffmann devises a software program that exploits human fright for profit. … The principal narrative, of Hoffmann’s ordeal, unfolds at a breakneck pace." Tom Nolan

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Weaving copious research into a breathless narrative, much as he did in his historical best sellers, Fatherland and Pompeii, Mr. Harris in the opening chapters does an agile job of limning the elite world inhabited by Dr. Alexander Hoffmann. … Oddly enough, Mr. Harris turns out to be considerably more adept at making the complicated fiscal strategies employed by hedge funds comprehensible to the reader than he is at persuading us that VIXAL could have actually made the leap to artificial intelligence." Michiko Kakutani

San Antonio Exp-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Think Frankenstein and the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and WarGames, and you will be on the right track. … The strength of the book comes from the exploration of contemporary issues involving financial markets." David Hendricks

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Harris] has assembled a fiendish little tale that has the body of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with the head of Stanley Kubrick’s HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey bolted on top. … But if the novel sells itself short anywhere, it’s in the author’s clearly conscious decision to sacrifice character development for the sake of story pace." James Endrst

Critical Summary

Robert Harris throws himself into the research for his novels—the amount of background material in the World War II and Roman novels is impressive, to be sure—and The Fear Index is no exception. Weaving a plausible, edgy tale centered on technology and its uncomfortable limits is right up the author’s alley (read Fatherland, Enigma, and Archangel); in that sense, as well as the sly nod to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and other pop-culture monoliths, Harris succeeds. Perhaps because of the high-concept plot, eclectic enough to have critics evoking Orwell, Kafka, Darwin, Kubrick, and WarGames, the characters don’t always jump off the page. In the end, this is a minor flaw when considering Harris, whose work is engaging, smart—and, in this case, just good, scary fun.