Robert Harris can make a thriller out of just about anything. Even a guy sitting at a computer staring at numbers.
Sure, the British author began his fiction career with a traditional foray into alternate history, imagining what Germany and the world might have been like had Hitler survived and won the war. Since his World War II best-sellers (follow-up "Enigma" traces the British quest to break secret Nazi naval codes), Harris has delved into subjects ranging from the plight of an aqueduct engineer in ancient Rome sitting on the edge of Vesuvius to the deceptions discovered by a ghost writer for a British prime minister modeled on Tony Blair.
More recently, Harris has written two novels based on the political intrigue of Cicero and ancient Rome. The final book in the trilogy is expected next year.
At the moment, Harris is very much in a 21st-century state of mind with the recent American publication of "The Fear Index." Set in Geneva, the novel is a contemporary version of Frankenstein. This time the monster is artificial intelligence run amok in the ever-volatile world of hedge funds and global finance.
Dr. Alexander Hoffman, the protagonist of "The Fear Index," is the architect of an algorithm that is making his firm, and its clients, piles of money. He is the silent partner in the operation, never heard from in public, and viewed as a mysterious figure.
This setting gives Harris ample room to explore the fragile framework of the financial system, a world governed by relentless analysis, trades, and short sales driven by computers as much as anything. Hoffman is the kind of man who wakes in the middle of the night and grabs his version of a security blanket.
Here is Hoffman as Harris describes him early in the book:
“He reached for his mobile. It was one of a batch specially produced for the hedge fund that could encrypt certain sensitive phone calls and emails. To avoid disturbing Gabrielle – she detested this habit of his even more than she hated him smoking – he switched it on under the duvet and briefly checked the Profit & Loss screen for Far Eastern trading …”
From there, the mash-up of Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, and Victor Frankenstein takes flight, bolstered by unidentified malevolent forces, Hoffman’s frayed nerves and an invention that overwhelms everything in its wake. Hoffman Investment Technologies aims to make people, even its brilliant quantitative analysts, superfluous, if not obsolete.
Company computer screens bear the ominous slogan: “THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL HAVE NO PAPER/THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL CARRY NO INVENTORY/THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL BE ENTIRELY DIGITAL/THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE HAS ARRIVED.”
Harris has done his homework in the financial sector, spending time with traders, bankers, asset managers and masters of algorithm, among others. Then, too, he delves into the world of physicists at the Large Hadron Collider, the underground scientific instrument (and experiment) located on the Swiss-French border. Such attention to detail pays off with verisimilitude in the fictional boutique hedge-fund, the vertiginous risks and rewards inherent in hedge funds, and the mind-boggling wealth to be found in Geneva, not to mention including just enough scientific jargon to lay the foundation for a severe case of man-versus-machine.
During a recent round of US appearances, Harris discussed the origins of the book, his well-known literary brother-in-law (Nick Hornby), and what might be in store for Cicero. Following are excerpts, edited for length and clarity.
On what inspired the new novel: "The pressure of events made it seem a good time to produce a book that had been in the back of my mind for more than 10 years. I quite like breaking up the Roman books with more modern books. I did it between volumes one and two and my publisher agreed it might be a good idea to do it between volumes two and three. To leave the Roman trilogy, to let it mature a little bit more. I’m getting a little bit older, Cicero gets older. It seems to work to do it that way. But I’m going to produce the third volume for publication next year."
On researching the book: It started really in 1999. When I read the Bill Gates book, “Business @ the Speed of Thought,” about the digital nervous system, I thought, “My God, that’s a good idea, what an Orwellian idea that is.” Sat on that idea for a long time and then the Lehman collapse happened (in 2008) and I thought, maybe the place to set this is the financial markets, which were increasingly dominated by computer technology. And I thought I’ll need a relatively small company that this is happening in.
I asked a friend who works for Citibank if he could introduce me to anyone who ran an algorithmic hedge fund. He did so in London and they were very helpful. I think because I was a novelist rather than a journalist.
They were relocating to Geneva to avoid British tax and also because they could recruit scientists from the Large Hadron Collider to work in the financial world. I felt I had stumbled on something that hadn’t really been done in popular culture before which is the extraordinary extent to which physicists and mathematicians have taken over the world there. I went to Geneva and spent some time and gradually managed to get into my dim brain what a hedge fund did and what a short was and that was it.
On finding thrillers in unusual places: There’s nothing more interesting than the details of someone’s life. All my novels are characterized by one thing. I like to take a central character and show him at work. The code-breaker, a guy who runs aqueducts, the politician in ancient Rome or in this case, people who work in a hedge fund. I just like the detail of the daily life. What’s the office like, where do you sit, what’s the first thing that happens in the day, how does the day go on, who comes to see you. Because I have an enormous interest in the detail of other people’s lives. That gives my books a sense of rootedness in reality and then you can introduce something unexpected happens and away you go. I like to take people you wouldn’t really think people would write novels about: an aqueduct engineer, a code-breaker, a hedge-fund manager. It’s in those sorts of lives that I find more fascination than in a CIA operative or a Marine or something like that.
On the inspiration of Frankenstein in "The Fear Index": Especially once I went to Geneva, where Frankenstein was created. I felt that Geneva gave me the opportunity to write a modern Gothic novel and use the tricks of the old Gothic writers: Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker. All the sense of menace. It’s a literary genre that’s about the hinterland between the human and the other. The vampire, the werewolf, the monster, madness. It suited my purposes entirely because I wanted to write about artificial intelligence and money and the sense of something being created out there. It unlocked the book for me after 10 years.
On talking shop with Nick Hornby: Well, we meet a lot. We always go on holiday in the summer for a few days together and in between and inevitably we talk a bit about what we’re doing. Not a huge amount in the technical sense. I don’t show him a book I’m writing until it’s finished, nor would he show one to me. He’s more nowadays concentrating on screenplays than novels, but he published his first book, "Fever Pitch," the year that I published my first novel "Fatherland." Our careers have run in parallel that way.
We always exchange books, we read one another’s books with pleasure and enjoyment. Not least because they’re not necessarily the sort of books I’d ever sort of pick up. I’m not interested particularly in football (soccer) or music or some of the things he writes about, but I really enjoy his books. I don’t think he would be reading necessarily about hedge funds or ancient Rome. We broaden one another’s mind.
On shifting from journalism and non-fiction to novels with "Fatherland" in 1992: Well, my last big non-fiction book was a story on the Hitler diaries called "Selling Hitler." And in the course of researching that book I read Hitler’s table talk and came across all the grandiose plans he had for what the world would look like if the Germans won the war. And I thought this would make a good subject for a non-fiction book. As I tried to write it, I found increasingly I was moving into so much speculation as to what the world would have been like that in the end I had to invent characters and a story.
That was how it happened, really. I sort of just passed through the looking glass into the world of fiction and I’ve never come back.
On embracing fiction: I just feel that it’s so much more interesting to create an imaginary world. And in novels like the Cicero books ("Imperium," "Conspirata") and "The Ghost" and in this book I can sort of do things about issues that interest me, contemporary issues, but do them in a way that is more imaginative. I like that.
On shifting from World War II to ancient Rome: Well, it was a dramatic departure. After I finished the first three books – "Fatherland," "Enigma," and "Archangel" – I thought I would break the pace and actually write a book set slightly in the future. Set it in America at the end of the 1990s, but I couldn’t quite make it work. One of the ideas I had actually was the precursor for the new novel, which was a novel about a corporation using computer technology and taking the Bill Gates line that companies should have a “digital nervous system.” I thought that was a great idea. Somehow I couldn’t get a book to work.
And then I read about new research on the destruction of Pompeii. I suddenly thought maybe I could write an allegorical book about the modern world set in the past. That was how it came about. And once I found myself living in this parallel world of ancient Rome, I didn’t really want to leave it. I’d always wanted to write a political book and it seemed to me that to write about the Roman political system in detail – first of all no one had really done it and secondly I thought it would be interesting to recreate and also serve as a way of writing about politics in a universal way. That’s why I turned to it. ("Pompeii," a stand-alone novel, preceded the Cicero novels.)
On completing the Cicero trilogy: It has to cover a lot of time, about 14 years, I think. The only way I can do that is by concentrating on the relationships between the characters. I’m not getting bogged down in a year-by-year chronicle of Cicero’s life, which would be very boring. I will find the arc of the story in the relationships between the characters and in a sense the novel represents a continuation of volume two. That is, a duel between Cicero and Caesar. This volume will begin with Cicero in exile, then he returns, then civil war and then all of the things that happen after that. Caesar’s victory, Cicero’s retirement from politics, Caesar’s assassination, Cicero coming out of retirement and at the very end, for the last six months of his life, running the whole show again. Just as he did in his prime. There is a nice dramatic arc to it.
In the end, I want all three volumes to be bound together in a single book.
Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.