The Fear Index – Robert Harris

28 June 2012
Chapters 1-6
A third of the way through the book, and it’s started to get interesting. I’m speculating – and I’m guessing it’s because Harris wants me to – that this might be a variant on the short story from the fifties in which a supercomputer is built that is powerful enough to answer any question it is asked.

“Is there a God?”
The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of single relay. “Yes, now there is a God.”
Sudden fear flashed on [the man’s] face. He leaped to grab the switch.
A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.

We’ve just had super-nerd Alex Hoffmann explaining to his biggest investors how his company’s computers are linked into the ever-growing web of digital information, updated by the nano-second and manipulated by his algorithms without the need for human intervention. He and his partner show them how it works by taking them to look at the company’s trading screens. It seems to be betting big money on a downturn in a perfectly respectable budget airline company, and the company bosses are slightly bemused. And then – can you guess? – before the world’s media, one of the airline’s planes crashes spectacularly, bursting into a fireball and ‘rolling and rolling’ on its path of destruction. A coincidence? Maybe, as Hoffmann and his partner are quick to say.

Or… something else? Harris has already floated the idea of artificial intelligence – Hoffmann prefers to call it autonomous machine reasoning, or AMR – alongside the idea that human reasoning is being outpaced and left behind. Hence his autonomous, super-fast market-trawling algorithm. But the connectedness of the digital world floats the possibility – doesn’t it? – of a clever market-based algorithm talking to a lowly air-traffic algorithm and suggesting that it doesn’t need to give the plane certain information…. Well, we’ll see. ‘VIXAL’ has been betting big money on some other long shots in Chapter 6; maybe there’ll be more disasters in Chapter 7.

Harris has set other hares running. The theme of Hoffmann’s presentation to his investors is fear, and this links to the opening chapters. Somebody is messing with Hoffmann’s head by sending him a massively expensive first edition of a Darwin text, marked at a page of photographs showing what an expression of fear looks like. And somebody else – the same person, surely – has sent an intruder straight through his state-of-the-art domestic security firewalls. When he realises Hoffmann has seen him sharpening their kitchen-knives – gulp – he knocks him on the head with a fire-extinguisher. Hoffmann, arrogantly proud of his brain-power and trying to keep a scientific eye on his own behaviour, is nonetheless spooked by the effects of this concussion and the brain-scan that suggests there might be an inherent blip in there somewhere. More than either of these, he fears madness. He doesn’t want to go through all that again – ‘again’? – and it doesn’t help when he finds out the first edition was ordered by him via email from a bank account of his he didn’t know existed. Is he subject to some kind of waking blackout? Or is somebody contriving to send him nuts? I suspect the latter, but how would I know? And is there any connection with the sabotaged plane? (How could there be?)

What else is there to mention? An artist wife whose most powerful work is based on the MRA scan of her unborn foetus, the last of several pregnancies that ended in miscarriage. Her first big show in Geneva – that’s where this uber-successful couple live in the house that cost 60 million Swiss francs – is on the same day as Hoffmann’s presentation in the office which must cost nearly as much as that to rent. And then the air-crash happens – so all this stuff has happened between the early hours and late morning of the same day. And… Hoffmann, an American, is in partnership with an Englishman, Quarry – now there’s a name to conjure with at a time when his partner is feeling hunted – who is the company’s suave and charming front-man. He’s a serial love-rat, and Hoffmann’s wife hates him.

So, the attractions of money and power…. They’re similar themes to what Harris gave us in Ghost – and, as in that novel, they lead to an obsession with personal security. If the earlier novel is anything to go by, all the security measures in the world will come to nothing, a process we’ve already begun to see happening. Bring it on – this arrogant pair deserve it.

29 June
Chapters 7-13
The middle third, which I haven’t found as enjoyable as the first. Harris has to keep it pacy, so he has everything happening at once. ‘That this should happen now,’ thinks Hugo Quarry – it could just as easily have been Hoffman, his wife or the investigating police officer – and that’s the point. Since the air-crash we’ve had the art exhibition ruined when every single item is bought via a bank transfer from one of Hoffmann’s accounts, a struggle in a hotel room during which Hoffmann kills his attacker – I’m not making this up – and the algorithm apparently going as deranged as Hoffmann himself, selling up more or less all the hedges the fund has against an upturn in the market. If it does rise, they’re doomed, which is why Quarry is so exasperated: Hoffmann has gone AWOL. It isn’t 5 o’clock yet, so less than 14 hours have elapsed since the night-time attack.

I suppose the implausibility is getting to me. Maybe it’s because I always make myself take breaks, whatever the novel: I might have been carried along if I hadn’t stopped after six chapters. Or – and this was certainly the case with Ghost, aka The Ghost-Writer – maybe the inevitable movie will offer fewer opportunities for stepping back and asking, ‘Oh yeh?’

Whatever. Harris, who has previously only occasionally taken us inside the point of view of characters other than Hoffmann, begins to do it more and more as this middle section goes on. He has to do it because the mystery of who is using his identity to mess his life up is only one thread. Another, as we’ve seen, is the startling behaviour of his precious algorithm – at a time when, for the plot to work, Hoffmann has to be out of the office – and the effect of all this on Gabrielle, Hoffmann’s wife. I wrote after six chapters that ‘this arrogant pair’ – Hoffmann and Quarry – might deserve everything they get, but things have become a little more complicated. We’ve had a rather convoluted bit of back-story beginning with how Hoffmann met the other two at the same New Year’s Eve part eight years before. It’s shown Quarry to be a money-obsessed chancer, Hoffmann himself as something of a performing monkey with, at first, no interest at all in the financial benefits arising from his ‘experiment’ – he developed his computer skills as a particle physicist – while Gabrielle is caught in the middle. I’ll come back to her.

As for the plot…. Hoffmann is making some discoveries. He is able to confirm that the art works were paid for from the same account as the Darwin first edition. He has caught glimpses of the middle-aged man who knocked him out in his own house the night before, and chases off in pursuit. He gets a text, consisting of the number of a room in a hotel near where he’s just lost sight of the man…. And it turns out that the man thinks it’s Hoffmann inviting him, on the somewhat far-fetched understanding that the mathematician wants the low-life to kill him. (Cue snuff websites, stories of the online cannibal in Germany. Yeh, yeh.) The man tries to kill him, there are two separate struggles, and, well, I’ve already said. And, like a character in a thriller, Hoffmann decides a) to try to make it look like suicide and b) to make his getaway with the would-be murderer’s laptop. Give me strength.

Meanwhile Quarry is having to cover up for Hoffmann’s absence, first at a lunch for all the big investors and then in the office. Leclerc, the stereotypically dog-tired and jaded investigating officer, interviews him, trying to get a fix on Hoffmann’s state of mind. There was a breakdown when he worked at CERN – that’s what Hoffmann was doing in Switzerland when Quarry came to find him – which raises the possibility that a lot of this paranoid stuff he’s coming up with is largely in his head. (We know better, of course.) As Quarry tells Leclerc how they met, Harris neatly fits together details of Quarry’s sexual arrogance with an explanation to the unworldly Hoffmann – and to the reader – of what a hedge-fund is. He describes how he noticed a woman looking at Hoffmann at the party. (Did I mention he’s handsome and keeps himself in shape? It helps in to-the-death struggles in hotel rooms. We’ve already had enough clues to tell us the woman is Gabrielle.) ‘Right, let’s say I’m convinced she’s wearing black knickers…’ and so on.

But he can’t stay gossiping to coppers all day, he has a company to run. He is called into the office of the risk manager who, along with the other directors, is spooked by what the algorithm is doing to their investments. Among other things, there’s a sort of explanation of the way it was betting against the budget airline: it must have picked up that a warning was posted on a jihadist website minutes (or seconds?) before it went into action. Pause for the characters to ponder on the morality-free monster they’ve created – or that the absent Hoffmann has created – and to be consoled by the $100 million it’s made for the fund today. However… the risk manager isn’t satisfied – he doesn’t get a share, as it happens – and Quarry gets the chance to show that he’s a rat in more ways than one. He’s rather energised by the experience of firing the man, who he’s never liked. It’s like a catharsis, he thinks.

Which leaves Gabrielle. In fact, she’s the one who’s planning to do the leaving. She can’t quite believe Hoffmann’s explanation of the purchase of all her art works – he’s crass enough, she thinks, to believe it would be a romantic gesture rather than a stupid stunt – and she wonders about his state of mind. Because, reader, I’ve just remembered something else that’s happened today: a former CERN colleague of her husband’s, invited apparently (but not in fact) by him to the art show, has just told her about the breakdown. She’d never known before. Near the end of her chapter – Harris is giving his main characters chapters of their own by this stage – she sends up a silent prayer: ‘Dear God, don’t take him from me in that way.’ And it’s at that point that she finds the card given to her by the ex-colleague. Maybe she’ll be able to find out from him what we already suspect: the stories of Hoffmann’s fragile mental state are greatly exaggerated. But, hey, they help the plot along.

30 June
Chapters 14-19 – to the end
It turns out that VIXAL – and, clearly, Harris has invented the acronym to look a bit like ‘viral’ – is not only making decisions for itself, it’s cloning itself. And it isn’t the only thing that feels cloned: the action of the last four or five chapters feels that way too. The last time I read a blockbuster – The Hunger Games – I was so struck by the number of familiar tropes it contained that I looked it up on tvtropes.com. The nice people there save you from having to do all that plot comparison stuff by doing it for you. I haven’t done that on this one because, well, having finished this novel about the power of the web I want to strike a blow for doing it by brainpower. Off the top of my head: the secret cloning of computer systems, as in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; a scientist’s realisation that his creation has grown beyond his control, as in – and Harris has made it easy by quoting it in the epigraph to Chapter 1 – Frankenstein, obviously; the vain attempt to switch off a malign computer as in that short story I mentioned ages ago and literally dozens of others, from a 1960s Star Trek episode to 2001: A Space Odyssey and all points beyond; the arrogance of bankers from The Bonfire of the Vanities and a hundred others including, recently, a lot of non-fiction; the hero whose story is so outlandish everyone thinks he’s mad, framed for a murder by whoever is doing all the nasty things; the incompetent cop who will never see beyond the most obvious explanations; the wife who realises, dammit, that she loves the hero despite everything; the teaser ending that suggests the machines really are going to win….

That’ll do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all highly readable, and you have to admire any author who can write a page-turner as pacy as this one. But, by the end, all that was stuck in my mind was a chase across the grittier parts of a city, in which, through a combination of lucky breaks and determination, the hero stays far enough ahead to do what he needs to. Lucky breaks like the crowbar he’s holding that prevents the lift from crushing him – which leaves him far away from the 5th floor when the cops arrive to arrest him, the driver who’s just leaving the car-park where he happens to be and who, Grand Theft Auto-style, is only too willing to let the nutter with the crowbar have his BMW… and when he gets to the building housing VIXAL’s clone servers it hasn’t thought to disable the face recognition entry system, despite having shown itself to be capable of killing whoever gets in its way…. And so on.

But I’m doing what I always do. As I wrote earlier – sorry to keep repeating myself – no doubt the movie will make it harder to step back and complain about plot loopholes and implausibilities. Maybe I should wind back and tell you whatever I’ve missed out about the plot.

After the to-the-death fight in the seedy hotel room, Hoffmann takes the would-be murderer’s laptop to where he used to visit a therapist. She’s not only there, but free to talk – and he is able, against her will, to check something out: his side of the email exchange he’s supposed to have had with his would-be murderer is cut and pasted from transcripts held on his therapist’s computer. Clever bugger, this VIXAL. He finally gets back to the office, where things aren’t quite in meltdown yet, and has a lightbulb moment: he suspects, rightly, that there are cameras in all the smoke alarms and tears one out of the ceiling. The security officer is called – and reports that Hoffmann himself ordered them – via email, obviously – to be placed there. Ah. Meanwhile, the markets are crashing in America, a situation Hoffmann and his colleagues suspect to have been set in motion by their baby. (‘Baby’ is a word Harris sometimes throws into the mix. Gabrielle, near the end of the book, realises that this is exactly what it is for Hoffmann. It makes it all the easier for her to suspect that all his talk of a malign algorithm is a smokescreen.) Everyone agrees it’s a good idea for Hoffmann to turn off the computer systems. Which he does – and nothing happens: the trading is carrying on as before. Time for another lightbulb moment, but we don’t realise what Hoffmann’s going to do this time, because…

… enter, as catastrophe is unfolding on every trading screen, the man Quarry fired earlier, promising to report all this to every watchdog he can find. He goes out, and Hoffmann follows him, grabs his attention just as he is stepping into the lift – so he doesn’t realise there’s no lift there. Pesky critters, these algorithms. When Hoffmann goes down to the basement – you should have seen the mess – the lift descends to get him next. But you know that. Cut to the road out of Geneva, to the building at the address that Hoffmann has discovered earlier he is supposed to have leased. He’s taking 100 litres of petrol with him, because he’s going to do what he couldn’t do before: get rid of the clone. He tries to shut it down, as he did back at the main office, but this time diesel generators kick in. Yep, petrol it will have to be.

Cue blue lights, a small army of armed coppers, followed by Leclerc, Quarry and Gabrielle…. And so on. Everybody has decided Hoffmann is having a psychotic episode, has killed not only the man in the hotel room but the man at the bottom of the lift-shaft. It doesn’t improve their opinion of his behaviour when Gabrielle and Quarry, having been allowed in to talk to him, see what he’s done with the petrol. He sends them out, does what he’s intended to do all along – whoosh! – and finds himself shut in. The last page describes his multiple fractures and second-degree burns after he’s jumped from the roof….

But not until Harris has taken us back to the office for an update. Catastrophe, yes? The company is a dead duck, yes? Of course not. By blinding us with numbers in the billions, Harris has prepared us for the news that the algorithm’s extraordinary behaviour accounts for less than 1% of the trading that took place just before the markets went into automatic shutdown. Nobody will ever notice – and they’ve made a $4.1 billion profit out of the crash. They’re all rich. They were already rich. And… VIXAL is still operating. It must have foreseen all this, and there’s another clone somewhere else. In case we haven’t got it yet – cue the ‘Now there is a God’ moment – the screensaver on the company’s computers has been changed. Instead of ‘The company of the future will have no paper’, and three other such Gatesian slogans, it now reads ‘The company of the future will have no workers’. Quarry smiles. He doesn’t get it.

I suspect it’s in homage to HAL in 2001 that, at the very end, the one singing children’s rhymes is Gabrielle, to her bashed-up, smashed up husband as he lies in his hospital bed. HAL sang ‘Daisy, Daisy’ as it was powering down. But, Harris seems to be reminding us, it isn’t the computers that need to worry about being turned off these days.

19 July
Footnote
I’ve already mentioned the epigraph from Frankenstein, and as soon as I’d finished Harris’s novel I decided to read Mary Shelley’s. The parallels are even more striking than I’d realised. It has the OCD scientist absolutely certain of his own project, the warnings of danger that he ignores, the amoral and often murderous intelligence he creates, thinking of it as his child, and unleashes on the world. Frankenstein is also prone to breakdowns, and is fearful of being called mad if he tries to explain what is going on. In Harris’s story the main character lives in Geneva, Frankenstein’s home town. He’s called Hoffmann – and there is a suggestion that some of the inspiration for Frankenstein derives from one of Hoffmann’s tales, ‘The Sandman’. I’ve said enough about the invented intelligence that breaks away from its inventor’s control, a staple of science fiction practically ever since Shelley’s novel was written.

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2 Responses to The Fear Index – Robert Harris

  1. Hugh Osborn says:

    The general theme of a computer attempting to transcend human control is much better
    done in William Gibsons neuromancer but this is much more classic cyberpunk SF.

  2. Peter Smith says:

    Re the Footnote, the parallels go deeper. “Frankenstein” was written when Mary Shelley was visiting the Villa Diodati (the name of the seedy hotel in the book) in the village of Cologny (which became the expensive suburb of Geneva where Hofmann and his wife live). She was accompanied by not only by Percy Shelley and Lord Byron but also Dr Polidori (the name of Hofmann’s psychiatrist) and Claire Clairmont (the Hofmanns’ house is called Villa Clairmont). The story of “Frankenstein” is narrated by the explorer Robert Walton (the name of Hofmann’s former colleague from CERN).

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