The Fear Index by Robert Harris – Deductions Of Dread

The Fear Index is a 2011 novel by Robert Harris describing the fictional background to a stock market crash of 2010. The book describes a scenario where a brilliant American physicist, Alex Hoffman, sacked from his job developing artificial intelligence for CERN starts a new career, stock market trading in Geneva. Building on experience at CERN, he creates a computer system, called VIXAL, which looks for signs of global anxiety, via gloomy news reports, or any other internet source. The system then uses this data to make predictions about what will happen to stock markets, buying and selling in them accordingly.

Hoffman’s computer system is designed to take the scary uncertainty out of trading. VIXAL decides what to buy and sell without fear, or any other emotion. It simply uses measures of anxiety to make logical judgements on what the stock market might do. But this lack of feeling actually creates a frightening situation when the system achieves independent control of itself. First VIXAL starts using the internet to try to engineer situations to provoke fear in Alex Hoffman – since it has been programmed to seek out this emotion. The machine is a bit like a ruthless writer working to provoke scary thrills in a reader, since this is a good way to sell books. Then the system sets up a stock market crash to generate massive profits from betting on a downturn.

It is precisely because the system cannot experience emotion that its evolution to self awareness is so potentially threatening. VIXAL does not know pity or empathy, and will simply act to protect its own interests. The parallels with Frankenstein are interesting, another Monster created on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley’s story is concerned with lost innocence. Similarly, VIXAL, in a sense, is innocent. It doesn’t mean any harm. However, the lack of malice is part of an unfeeling nature which makes the machine all the more dangerous.

In many ways this is a cerebral book, with its Frankenstein parallels, and quotes from Darwin and other thinkers introducing each chapter. But the thoughtful elements are combined effectively with a sense of emotion. Perhaps this is what novels at their best contribute – a view of the world which combines thought, and that other vital component in any understanding of human behaviour, emotion.

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin – Showing Instead Of Telling

Go Tell It On The Mountain is James Baldwin’s 1953 novel about a critical time in the life of a 1930s Harlem teenager. John is a bright boy, trying to come to terms with turbulent family life, and the expectations of future leadership placed upon him by the local African-American Pentecostal church. We also hear much about the background of John’s father and mother and other close relations.

So what will John do? Will he become a preacher as his family expect, or will he embrace secular life? Whatever decision John might make, a biblical quotation hangs over him. One night, John goes to his church, to help out with an evening service. Only a few people turn up, which causes one of the devout congregation to complain about the lack of commitment shown by youngsters these days:

‘The Lord ain’t going to bless no church what lets its young people get so lax, no sir. He said, because you ain’t neither hot or cold I’m going to spit you outen my mouth. That’s the Word.’

The Word seems to require that you settle on one thing or the other, but not wobble in the middle. Ironically, I’ve always thought the sign of a good novel is the way it wobbles in the middle. If you want hot or cold on their own, then you should maybe go for political or religious writing of the more fundamentalist kind.

Go Tell It On The Mountain prevaricates, in all kinds of novel-like ways. Just a few examples – preachers, who are supposed to be examples for their flock, are deeply flawed, hypocritical individuals, while ordinary people who lack outward respectability, running dodgy bars perhaps, have great qualities. There are graphic descriptions of injustice perpetrated by racists, set alongside the seemingly inconsistent theme that there is no black and white where justice is concerned. Fittingly, given the importance of that quote about God spitting fence-sitters out of his mouth, the word ‘mouth’ appears repeatedly, 47 times I discovered – excluding all the many additional mentions of lips and tongues. The mouth is an image of temptation, argument, communication, deception, peace – overall an image of contradiction, which runs throughout Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Go Tell It On The Mountain was an interesting, sometimes harrowing read, which demonstrates what good novels might give us – an appreciation of subtlety in the face of everything that wants to paint the world in black and white. Novels are really the antithesis of sermons, showing rather than telling it on the mountain.

To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis – Messing About On The River Of Time

To Say Nothing Of The Dog is an award-winning science fiction novel from 1997 by Connie Willis. It’s a time travel story where people from 2057 end up in a late Victorian world, highly reminiscent of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat. Jerome’s novel is one of my favourites, about three young men enjoying the early days of tourism, taking a rowing jaunt on the Thames.

The journey described in To Say Nothing Of The Dog seems rather different to a boating holiday. Oxford University historians travel through time using ‘The Net’. They run into the fiendish complications of time travel, where changing any detail of events causes an ever-widening ripple effect. The plot revolves around efforts to stop unintended changes to the past causing a disastrous unravelling of history.

Now the plot is complicated – concerned with restoring Coventry Cathedral and saving cats. I won’t go into it. Suffice to say there’s a sense of desperate chasing about, trying to get details lined up, when all such effort is repeatedly thwarted. A better approach seems to involve allowing history to fix itself. This is reminiscent of the holiday taken by Jerome’s three Victorian gentlemen, who attempt to sort out various tangles involving tin openers, or aggressive steam launches, while in the background, the peaceful river runs on regardless. This allows for laughs, as well as philosophical reflections on fate and free will.

Connie Willis’s book has some very enjoyable and amusing sections, particularly once it finds itself on the Thames in the 1880s. That said, I did get the feeling that the writers who acted as influences – Jerome, and also P.G. Wodehouse, would have condensed the 490 pages down to an elegant 200 or so. Nevertheless it doesn’t really matter what I say. To Say Nothing Of The Dog has been very successful, winning multiple prizes and readers. It is now simply part of sci-fi history. Comments that it could do with tightening up, are a bit like saying the Wars of the Roses might benefit from some editing. You can’t change history. It’s best to go with it. Do that and there’s a good chance you will enjoy To Say Nothing Of The Dog.