Monday, 6 August 2012

Robert Harris: The Fear Index

There's something profoundly inessential about the books of Robert Harris. Fatherland has been taking up a lot of space on my bookshelves - I bought a remaindered hardcover edition - for many years without me ever feeling the urge to revisit it. Harris is one of those writers who gets An Idea and then crafts a narrative around the idea. He's a perfectly adequate writer, so the characters are workmanlike - they suffice for the work in hand - but once they've played their part in illuminating the Idea, they're not so interesting for their own sake.

I started reading The Fear Index a couple of weeks back, not expecting very much out of it, and by the end of chapter 2 I could tell that it wasn't going to be worth putting a lot of effort into getting to the end of it. It went to one side until I was coming back down from the Hidden City and grabbed an arm-load of books to have something to read while I was home. Having finished The Gone Away World, I figured to read something more disposable and resumed the Harris.

I've got a feeling that for Harris' target audience, there's a wow factor in the big reveal that drives the book. For anyone who's read any science fiction, ever, or even Frankenstein, the punch line's about as surprising as dipping into a historical novel featuring an Atlantic crossing in 1912 only to discover that there are icebergs. Genius creates computer trading system in order to exploit the extremes of algorithmic trading, only to have it become self aware; this story about computing is older than actual computing, if I had the patience to look it up.

It's very competently carried off; everything's in its place and there's a praiseworthy effort to respect the Aristotelian unities by having everything happen within a day. It's a profoundly screenplay friendly book, as you'd expect from a writer who's had most of his work turned into movies of one kind and another. In due course, it may become a movie, though it suffers a bit from a lack of relatable characters; the protagonist is the misguided genius at the centre of a hedge fund, which is a pretty hard thing to get someone to root for in the day and age.

Probably the most useful thing in the book is a half page about two thirds of the way through where one of the characters explains a hedge fund's working with an incredibly simply minded analogy. It would be a huge time saver if you ever had to explain one yourself, but that's a requirement that comes up less often than you'd expect. And once you look at the mechanics of hedging, it's hard to see how you could AVOID making money doing it; essentially, it's being a bookie with stocks and shares (and the like) rather than horses, and just like being a bookie, as long as you make sure that a) you're using other people's money; b) all your bets are balanced off against other bets so that you can't really lose and c) there are far more gamblers than bookies, it's pretty much a license to print money. 

Mind you, it wasn't just the familiarity of the premise that hung heavy on my patience this afternoon; it was the familiarity of the writing. It reminded me of that patch Philip Kerr went through when he wrote high concept potboilers, including one called Gridiron, which pretty much has the same McGuffin 17 years ago, albeit with a quasi autonomous building rather than a trading system. And both of them reminded me of Michael Crichton, albeit on a bad day. Michael Crichton was not a very good writer, but in his heyday, he was a welter of genuinely new notions; you didn't read his books and think "Hang on, I've been here before." Still, I've been complaining for a while that something needs to be done to up the quality control of the stuff which is being unearthed from Crichton's sock drawer and unleashed on an unsuspecting world. You could do worse than giving the scripts to Harris.

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