Feature

Novel of the week: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

In Harris's story of financial greed, a mathematical whiz invents a program that manipulates markets in order to profit from investor panic.

(Knopf, $26)

In theory, the financial world “should be a ripe subject for drama,” said John Gapper in the Financial Times. Instead, tales of money gained and lost tend to make for “dud novels,” bankers being no substitute for, say, spies or zombies. Bucking the trend is Robert Harris’s The Fear Index, a “fine dystopian parable” set in the arcane world of post-2008 hedge funds. The story revolves around Alex Hoffmann, a whiz with algorithms who outdoes himself when he creates VIXAL-4, a program that manipulates markets in order to profit from investor panic. For what happens next, imagine HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey hardwired to generate maximal returns, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. At times, Harris’s writing can get pretty “hokey,” as if he’s channeling “a bad Michael Crichton novel.” But at its best, The Fear Index is a Wall Street version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. As a “metaphor for the greed and heedlessness” that overtook the financial industry at the turn of the millennium, VIXAL-4 is right on the money.

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