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Robert Harris's "The Fear Index" makes a thriller out of a man sitting at a computer

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This setting gives Harris ample room to explore the fragile framework of the financial system, a world governed by relentless analysis, trades, and short sales driven by computers as much as anything. Hoffman is the kind of man who wakes in the middle of the night and grabs his version of a security blanket.

Here is Hoffman as Harris describes him early in the book:

“He reached for his mobile. It was one of a batch specially produced for the hedge fund that could encrypt certain sensitive phone calls and emails. To avoid disturbing Gabrielle – she detested this habit of his even more than she hated him smoking – he switched it on under the duvet and briefly checked the Profit & Loss screen for Far Eastern trading …”

From there, the mash-up of Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, and Victor Frankenstein takes flight, bolstered by unidentified malevolent forces, Hoffman’s frayed nerves and an invention that overwhelms everything in its wake. Hoffman Investment Technologies aims to make people, even its brilliant quantitative analysts, superfluous, if not obsolete.

Company computer screens bear the ominous slogan: “THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL HAVE NO PAPER/THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL CARRY NO INVENTORY/THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL BE ENTIRELY DIGITAL/THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE HAS ARRIVED.”

Harris has done his homework in the financial sector, spending time with traders, bankers, asset managers and masters of algorithm, among others. Then, too, he delves into the world of physicists at the Large Hadron Collider, the underground scientific instrument (and experiment) located on the Swiss-French border. Such attention to detail pays off with verisimilitude in the fictional boutique hedge-fund, the vertiginous risks and rewards inherent in hedge funds, and the mind-boggling wealth to be found in Geneva, not to mention including just enough scientific jargon to lay the foundation for a severe case of man-versus-machine.

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