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Author Topic: 'The Fear Index' by Robert Harris  (Read 3150 times)

Manda Scott

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'The Fear Index' by Robert Harris
« on: Monday,17, October, 2011, 01:44:30 PM »
I read this book for two reason.  First, Mariella Frostrup said it was wondrous (Radio 4) and second, a friend in publishing said they were 'spitting mad' that Harris could turn out a 'half finished' book and have it sell by the bucket load when everyone else had to polish theirs to perfection and still didn't sell half as many.
So with that kind of bipolar recommendation, I had to have a look.
And my friend in publishing wins. Clearly Harris has reached the point of being uneditable because I wouldn't hand in a first draft with so many holes in it, so badly written and he not only hands it in, but has it published without so much as a red pen clean-up of the text. This doesn't quite make the Da Vinci Code look like Chaucer (as was once famously said of another 'literary' author) but it's not far off.  And it has the same kind of ring to it as Dan Brown: good idea researched to the nth degree and then *very, very clunkily* played out on the page.
The basic premise is clever: look at hedge funds and how they cleaned up during the 2008 crash.  Look at the super-computer geeks/nerds/quants and what they can do and extrapolate just a tiny bit (or maybe not?) to a computer that teaches itself how to make money better and then proceeds to do exactly that without any remorse or morals or ethics: how it drags people in its wake because if it can make $9 million in the time it takes to walk across the room and look at a computer screen, and you stand to get some of that, are you really going to stop it?

But the rest of the plot: the fear factor, in fact, is risible and so absurdly full of holes it's not worth trying to tie it together.  Our 'hero' (the ultra nerd who has made the programme that is doing this) is being targetted by someone who is clearly trying to drive him mad.  Or maybe he's mad in the first place and doing it to himself and doesn't know it.  That cloak is trailed half way through and goes nowhere except that we find he had a nervous breakdown when at CERN (Dan Brown fans note: to sell by the bucket load, mention CERN at least 3 times a page for a bit) and has a cupboard full of antidepressants so it might be that his mysterious night visitor who clonks him on the bonce with a fire extinguisher is, in fact, him.  Or then again not, because it's pretty hard to hit yourself with a fire extinguisher, so maybe he's just invited a madman into the house, given him the key codes to the super-effective security system and wants to die.  And wants to be divorced from his artistic wife (why she is married to a man in advanced Assberger's is not made clear except that he gave her a house worth EU60 million. Women, evidently, do things that defy logic. Who'd have thunk it?)

In the end (WARNING, SPOILER) it's the machine wot did it.  As 'research'. Really? Why?  What kind of research is it doing and what has it learned?  Who knows.  And frankly, who cares? 

Which is all very sad given that I loved 'Fatherland' and 'Archangel' and did kind of thing Robert Harris was a 'literary' thriller writer (but only if Laura Wilson and Andrew Taylor are literary thriller writers: and both are a) far more literate and b) far more thrilling) - now, he's sub par, below Dan Brown.  This feels like something he crunched out between rounds of 'Angry Birds' and then slammed his editor's head on the desk when the poor infant tried to suggest the odd tweak here or there.  Unless the first draft was worse than this, which is a truly terrifying thought.
I used to love Robert Harris and I still think, 'Ghost' was intelligent and clever and funny.  But I'm not planning to read another in a hurry - and Mariella?  Sorry, love, you just lost all credibility. 
Rome:The Art of WarMarch 2013. Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth March 2013 (paperback). Boudica: Dreaming series and The Crystal Skull
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Robert Low

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Re: 'The Fear Index' by Robert Harris
« Reply #1 on: Tuesday,18, October, 2011, 11:03:32 PM »
Full marks to you M - this is a travesty of a book, though not nearly as much as the one which has just won the Man Booker and is proof positive of everything I ever thought about that prize and the authors up for it. Julian Barnes, who once described the Man as 'posh bingo', was not above trying four times to win it. Now he has with Sense Of An Ending, the singularly most boring book known to Man.

The best thing about it is that the Sense of An Ending isn't far from the beginning - this isn't even a whole novel, but thank God for it. I could not have suffered much more of it and only read it because it was supposed to resonate with the Boomer Generation, born circa 45-49. This load of whining angst was not my effing generation.

What a complete waste of a 50,000 prize, when you realise that the likes of Jamrach's Menagerie was in there.

Rob


Annis

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Re: 'The Fear Index' by Robert Harris
« Reply #2 on: Wednesday,19, October, 2011, 03:02:37 AM »
What's Robert Harris doing writing bad thrillers when he's supposed to be getting on with his excellent Cicero trilogy?! Maybe the third volume is taking too long and he thought he'd quickly knock up something to pay the bills in the meantime? How disappointing.

@Rob: Despite claims from the judges to the contrary, I feel sure that Barnes' MB win is a consolation prize for missing out several times previously. Dammit, I just knew Jamrach's Menagerie was too readable to win, even though it's a brilliant piece of writing :(

Manda Scott

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Re: 'The Fear Index' by Robert Harris
« Reply #3 on: Wednesday,19, October, 2011, 12:01:58 PM »
The sad thing about the Booker is that, while the literary clique are decrying it for 'dumbing down' it is never, in a million years, going to see any of the intelligent, literate, engaging 'genre novels' on the short list.  Andrew Taylor's 'Bleeding Heart Square' should have been there, but then so should 'The American Boy' years ago...

not sure I agree with you, Annis, about his Cicero series being great. It's good, but it's not up there with Hilary Mantel, or Rob Low or Robert Wilton - or, as I am discovering, Emma Darwin (never read her before, half way through 'A Secret Alchemy' and immensely impressed).  And his one on Pompey was deeply dull.  But 'Ghost' was clever and thought-provoking and funny and I adored 'Fatherland' and 'Archangel' so he *is* a good writer when he puts his mind to it.  Just not this time.

m
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Annis

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Re: 'The Fear Index' by Robert Harris
« Reply #4 on: Thursday,20, October, 2011, 03:51:57 AM »
I think Harris' Cicero series works pretty well in making the late Republican period and Cicero himself accessible to the modern reader. Cicero is a difficult subject - he's so easily seen as a prosy old bore.

Pompeii didn't excite me too much - for a bit of decadent drama it's hard to beat Ronald Bassett's The Pompeians, a novel written in the OTT macho "sword, sandals sex and sin" style of the 1960s.
« Last Edit: Thursday,20, October, 2011, 04:10:02 AM by Annis »

satyr

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Re: 'The Fear Index' by Robert Harris
« Reply #5 on: Wednesday,26, September, 2012, 10:29:50 AM »
I nearly gave up on this book before I had read the first quarter but I hate to stop reading a book part way through and I have enjoyed some of the author's other books.  I then read it purely as a thriller and disagree with Manda that it worse than Dan Brown as I did put one of his books down early and have never returned to read any of his other books. 

I do agree with Manda that the characterisation was very poor and the plot had huge holes in it.  If you succeed in forgetting logic and reality and moving to a "willing suspension of disbelief" then it is quite an exciting thriller. 

However, although it is well researched a couple of things really jarred and brought reality crashing back for me: supposedly the geeky 'hero' is amassing his fortune to research AI but he has chosen a very strange way to do this - he is using statistical algorithms that can 'learn'.  How do they learn?  AI is a notoriously difficult field but this type of program tends to be the easiest way to 'appear' to imitate intelligence but really uses pattern matching and 'scripts'.  It is the old split between syntax and semantics.  How do you get a silicon chip to develop self-awareness and an aptitude for deception (I avoid the use of the word 'consciousness' as 'hard' AI researchers would argue that it is a by-product of 'intelligence'.  The AI in this leaps from making money by predicting markets (acting as a tool like any Expert System) to becoming a self-willed entity without the use of neural nets or any other open-ended learning programs.  It jumps for a specialised domain into full intelligence when entire departments of the world's top Universities cannot do this?  It controls and manipulates a real world environment and plays psychological games?  Unlikely, to say the least.

I did find the 'playing the markets' fascinating as I was aware of the beginning but hadn't followed the implications through.  It does explain the 'removal' of human conscience from the actions in the markets - it has all become a computer game.

Peter Sandham

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Re: 'The Fear Index' by Robert Harris
« Reply #6 on: Wednesday,27, February, 2013, 01:02:26 PM »
Thanks for saving me from this one Manda. I too love Harris's earlier stuff (even Pompeii) but I'd avoided this for a while because the subject is my day job and I feared it would be another Hollywood cliche of a serious and legitimate profession. It was the "thriller" element that I was hoping would be good enough to gloss over the inaccuracies but looks like an all round turkey. 

Manda Scott

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Re: 'The Fear Index' by Robert Harris
« Reply #7 on: Thursday,28, February, 2013, 06:18:33 PM »
Your day job involves making $11 million as you walk across the room? 

I am awed...

 :nod:

But yes, best avoided, sadly.  With luck, whatever comes next will be back to his old standard - some of his early stuff was utterly fantastic...
Rome:The Art of WarMarch 2013. Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth March 2013 (paperback). Boudica: Dreaming series and The Crystal Skull
Chair: Historical Writers' Association