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A taut thriller about the world of multibillion-dollar hedge funds

A review of The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

We have yet to grasp more than a hint of the forces unleashed by the creation of the Internet and, more recently, the World Wide Web. The Fear Index dramatizes one possible chain of events that could upend human society.

This chilling novel is set in Geneva, home of CERN, the European scientific research center that houses the Large Hadron Collider and which spawned the World Wide Web in 1991. There, an extraordinarily brilliant and eccentric American physicist, Dr. Alexander Hoffmann,¬†exercised his passion for¬†artificial intelligence (AI) for several years until his experiments ran afoul of his superiors at the lab. Shortly afterward, Hoffmann entered into a partnership with Hugo Quarry, an English financier who volunteered to provide him with the virtually unlimited data needed to pursue his research. Their partnership, a hedge fund, is based on Hoffman’s evolving AI research. The fund quickly grew to multibillion-dollar proportions because of the accuracy of the securities-trading algorithms developed by Hoffmann and his band of eccentric young mathematical researchers.

Though this novel may come across as sheer fantasy, and Harris’ depiction of AI is off base in some respects, it’s grounded in reality. Many hedge funds do conduct automatic trading using algorithms to make decisions by the millisecond. And the events that dominate The Fear Index bear an unsettling resemblance to a very dark day in Wall Street’s recent history.

The action starts quickly in The Fear Index and builds steadily to a crescendo in a deply troubling conclusion. A synopsis of the action would make little sense. Read it yourself, and you’ll probably have trouble putting it down.

The Fear Index is British writer Robert Harris’ 14th book. His previous seven novels were Fatherland, Enigma, Archangel, Pompeii, and The Ghost (released as a feature film under the title The Ghost Writer). If those titles seem familiar, it’s no accident: every one sold well, some were bestsellers, and several were adapted for film or television.

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Filed under Contemporary Themes, Trade Fiction