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Friday, October 17, 2014

The Fear Index

A new genre?

Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad

I am a huge admirer of Robert Harris's historical thrillers. The series based on the political career of Cicero is absolutely firstclass, in my opinion, and the truly volcanic Pompei held me enthralled.  Then, when Harris ventured into new territory with the political thriller The Ghost, I was just as impressed, so I had no trouble at all in picking up The Fear Index.

The book is gripping from the very start.  Geneva-based Dr Alex Hoffman is a brilliant scientist whose computer program, VIXAL-4, is making mega-millions for his company with its uncanny accuracy in predicting stock market trends. 

In the first moments of an explosive twenty-four hours, Hoffman finds that some mysterious benefactor has sent him a pricey first edition of a book by Darwin that explores human emotions -- terror in particular. Which is uncanny, because VIXAL-4 predicts stock movements by tracking human fear. 

Then, in the throes of an uneasy doze, Hoffman wakes up to find that someone has broken through his state of the art security system. And, when he creeps downstairs and outside in the garden, to peer through his own firstfloor windows, he finds a cannibal sharpening knives in his kitchen.

Someone is trying to destroy Hoffman -- not just physically, but with cyber attack, too. Have the algorithms that track fear turned on their creator? Is VIXAL-4 another HAL gone mad?  While the stock markets of the world go crazy, and the novel takes on a breakneck pace, Hoffman reacts with increasing desperation.

This is a new genre.  Call it an economic thriller, if you like.  It definitely borders on the best of science fiction -- the man vs. robot story might be old hat, but this is very, very different.  It is also very convincing, in the mode of Michael Crichton and Fred Hoyle.

I will never regard algorithms in the same way again -- even those on Amazon.

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