Questioning the essence of humanness

2011-12-28 00:00

HAVING looked forward to this latest thriller by the versatile and often brilliant Robert Harris (Fatherland, Archangel, The Ghost, as well as Pompeii, Imperium, and Lustrum, superb fictional realisations of Ancient Rome), I felt so flat after the first reading that it seemed necessary to start again to see if the disappointed first reaction was valid.

It was, even though the story centres upon a sparkling good idea, that is, that it might be possible to develop a form of artificial ­intelligence, an algorithm, able to track human emotions. If this technological leap were taken, it would be possible also to predict events arising out of, say, fear, which is, of course, the driving force behind global financial movements. The brains behind it all are those of visionary scientist Dr Alex Hoffman, who develops just such an algorithm: his hedge fund, based in Geneva where he lives, makes him, his partner and their shareholders billions.

Exciting stuff. Unfortunately, though, Harris is almost as single-mindedly focused on the originality of his idea as Hoffman is on his algorithm, and the human interest vital to good fiction tends to take a back seat. Hoffman is so detached, so obsessive, so almost robotic, that there’s nothing there to like or generate sympathy — indeed, one wonders why his sensitive, artistically gifted wife stays with him. So, when a series of inexplicably nasty things occur (such as when he tangles bloodily with a sinister intruder who has somehow breached the elaborate security of his ­palatial home), it’s hard to care much.

Clearly someone, for some undisclosed reason, is out to destroy him, and his attempts to discover who and why spiral him into a nightmare of violence and paranoia. In the climax, Hoffman and the reader confront some deep questions about the essence of humanness, and in its aftermath we are left with some of the very disquieting “what-ifs?” that must have been keeping Harris himself awake at night. This book may not be up to Harris’s usual high standard, but even so, it’s readable, intelligent and thought-provoking and certainly worth a look.

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