“IT’S A colossal story, says author Robert Harris of the global economic crisis, which forms the backdrop to his latest novel, The Fear Index. “In its way it’s a much, much bigger story than 9/11. But because it lacks, as it were, the burning towers and the iconic images, we tend to underestimate it. The governor of the Bank of England said yesterday that it’s possibly the worst financial crisis the world has ever seen. So I’m pleased to have written this book, because I’ve always seen myself as a political writer above all else, and it seems to me that this crisis is where politics is right now.”
Harris began his career as a political writer as a journalist and BBC television reporter, publishing a number of non-fiction titles between 1982 and 1990. “All I’ve ever wanted to do in life is write,” he says, “but I needed to earn a living.” It was his work on Selling Hitler (1986), an investigation into the hoax ‘Hitler diaries’, that led him to write his first novel, Fatherland (1992).
“In the course of researching [Selling Hitler],” he says, “I came across all the plans Hitler had for what the world would be like in the Third Reich, and I thought that would be interesting to explore as a non-fiction book. Imagine taking all the sketches and the maps, and the architectural designs, and creating a kind of ‘guide’ to a world that never existed. And then I realised I really couldn’t answer fundamental questions about this world — if one assumes that the world would have settled down to a Berlin-Washington axis, what would have been said about the fact that all the Jews had disappeared? How would that be handled in international relations? Would it be treated the same way as all the people killed by Mao, or what happened in Stalin’s Russia? Would détente have triumphed?
“So... I ended up walking through the looking-glass into a fictional world. And when I got there, I enjoyed it so much that from that moment on, that was all I wanted to do. But it all came through the desire to use fiction as a tool to explain the politics of now and history, and in a way, I’ve always gone on doing that. I’m interested in power, that’s my furrow to plough, as it were.”
The power Harris explores in The Fear Index is that of money, its use and abuse. “I’m not preachy about this, particularly,” he says, “but as a novelist I think you can convey the reality as you see it. And I am quite fearful about the effect on democracy of a super-rich elite floating above everyone else, as it were, with access to extraordinary technological means of making huge amounts of money. How they can be controlled, or whether the system has actually slipped past the point where our politicians can manage the situation, or past the point where ordinary people can understand what’s going on.”
Although he made his reputation as an author of historical novels, Harris made the leap forward to contemporary events with The Ghost (2007), which featured an ex-British prime minister who bore a striking resemblance to Harris’s friend, Tony Blair, and also explored the abuse of power.
“Oddly enough,” he says, “the novel that has been the most personal is The Ghost, because that started out in my head as a kind of love-triangle, between a man who has lost power, a younger ghostwriter, and the young wife of the ex-leader. Each of those three characters interested me for themselves, so when everyone said, afterwards, ‘Oh, you wrote The Ghost as an attack on Tony Blair’ …” He shrugs. “Well, I can’t deny the similarities between that ex-prime minister and the fictional one, but it was the personal situation more than anything else that interested me.”
The Ghost was adapted as a film by the director Roman Polanski, a man Harris admires despite the controversy that has dogged him.
“Polanski is completely unique. I admired him greatly. I learnt an awful lot from him, and he was very generous to me. We had a lot of laughs, actually, I’ve never worked with anyone who was so funny. And he’s probably the cleverest man I’ve ever worked with. He can be pretty tough with other people, but I liked him. His experiences of Nazism and Communism and the counter-culture, I found all that fascinating.
“The whole issue of his being on the run [from a US-issued arrest warrant], none of that really raised itself for most of the time we worked together, because it was 30-odd years in the past and no one imagined for a second that that was all going to come back again. He’d just finished cutting The Ghost, was doing the final bits and pieces, when he was suddenly arrested. So for most of our working relationship, the issue didn’t arise. I mean, he talked about the case a bit, because a documentary had just come out about him, so the whole experience now seems coloured by what came after. But at the time, it just wasn’t an issue.”
The hero, or anti-hero, of The Fear Index is Dr Alexander Hoffman, a former CERN physicist who has abandoned particle physics research in order to apply his radical theories to the operation of hedge funds in international trading markets.
“Hoffman isn’t interested in money,” Harris points out, “which in a way makes him more tragic, and makes him more sympathetic in the end. Greedy people are pretty two-dimensional, they just want to make money and that’s it. Hoffman is interested in the science, in the possibilities of artificial intelligence, in creating some form of alternative consciousness, and that’s what motivates him. And his tragedy is that he does that, but what he creates is just a tool for making money, a shark-like machine for creating wealth, which eventually destroys him.
“Insofar as the book has a moral,” he says, “it is hubris. My Frankenstein isn’t an assemblage of a flesh-and-blood creature defying God’s law. Mine is a digital creation, which left to itself, can seize control.”
The Fear Index is ‘not a conventional thriller’, according to Harris, incorporating as it does elements of sci-fi and socio-political commentary. “A model for me was [George Orwell’s] 1984,” he says, “which is sort of science-fiction.”
Essentially, the sci-fi element is Dr Alexander Hoffman’s invention of a computerised artificial intelligence which tracks patterns of global fear in order to make billions of dollars for his hedge fund.
“It’s all about predicting human behaviour,” says Harris. “But the application of artificial intelligence to hedge funds, that’s already been developed, and is being worked on even as we speak. And if it’s very successful, you and I won’t be hearing about it. They’ll want to keep that a secret.”