Thursday, 2 October 2014

Book Review | Bête by Adam Roberts

It began when animal rights activists inserted AI chips in the brains of animals. The plan was to give animals speech. After all, if animals can talk we are bound to treat them more like us. A creature that can argue the case for its own intelligence, its own rights, is a much harder creature to use, to kill, surely.

But where does artificial intelligence end and the animal begin? With speech and self-awareness, have these canny animals also gained souls? Would we choose to believe them if they told us they had?

And would they forgive us?


Reading Adam Roberts is like participating in a literary lucky dip. It's a bit of a gamble, granted, but every one's a winner, and all of the prizes on offer are awesome.

Different sorts of awesome, I dare say. Always smart, and ever so sharp, but sometimes you get something scathing, and sometimes something sweet. Sometimes his stories are obscenely serious; sometimes they're ridiculously silly. Bête represents the best of both worlds—the coming together of all the aspects of Adam Roberts: the author, the professor and the satirist, alongside a number of others.

His fifteenth full-length fiction in fifteen years—including neither his punsome parodies nor his several collections—is a book about the rise of animals with intelligence to match man's, and it begins with a cutting conversation between a cattle farmer and the cow he had thought to slaughter.

"Won't you at least Turing-test me?" (p.11) it pleads as the bolt-gun is pressed against its head. One imagines many would, in that moment—indeed, making this beast into meat will be a matter of murder within weeks—but Graham Penhaligon is... somewhat set in his ways, shall we say. Also: a bit of a bastard. He pulls the trigger, a few pages later, in part because the cow—a farm animal made canny by activists with access to AI augmentations—makes the mistake of quoting a Morrissey song.
You dislike me for killing it. You're no vegetarian, though, hypocrite, reader, my image. My friend. You don't object to the killing as such. You object to my manner. When hunter-gatherers get angry it is hot and swift. When farmers get angry it is bone-deep and slow. (p.16)
And Graham, I'm afraid, has "spent decades perfecting anger as [his] being-in-the-world" (p.105)—so sayeth Cincinnatus the cat, a bête beloved by the cancer-ridden character our former farmer falls for in the novel's next section, which takes place fully five years after its provocative prologue. Brief and bleak as Graham's relationship with Anne is, it goes a long way toward humanising Roberts' immediately unappealing lead: a miserable man, as mean as he is maudlin, however he does, as it happens, have a heart.

A wicked sense of humour, as well. Bête is a mock memoir, so the prose purports to capture the qualities of its darkly sarcastic protagonist, whose passing profanity often approaches the profound. Behold "the blue-purple upstrokes of the old standing stones, each topped with a foreskin of snow." (p.79) Winter is coming, anyone?

There are, in any event, so many such surprising sentences in Roberts' novel: strange arrangements, to be sure, but curiously beautiful too. These are never more evident than in the marvellous middle book of Bête, which has Graham—devastated by the inevitable (yet affecting) death of Cincinnatus' sick mistress—cast the last tatters of his humanity aside to live off the land.

Everything has changed when, a year later, Graham comes up for air. Nature, new if not necessarily improved, has waged war on the human animal. About time too, per this passage from Charles Patterson's call to arms:
We have been at war with the other creatures of this earth ever since the first human hunter set forth with a spear into the primeval forest. Human imperialism has everywhere enslaved, oppressed, murdered and mutilated the animal people. All around us lie the slave camps we have built for our fellow creatures, factory farms and vivisection laboratories. [...] We slaughter animals for our food, force them to perform silly tricks for our delectation, gun them down and stick hooks in them in the name of sport. We have torn up the wild places where they once made their homes. Speciesism is more deeply entrenched within us even than sexism, and that is deep enough. (p.100)
To which, by the by, our man replies:
"Bollocks. Sexism engages male brains because they want to reduce the complexity of female existence to something simple, to turn women into instruments for their own desires, and for that reason sexism is protean, as complex as human interactivity. Speciesism? Speciesism is just another way of saying I like the taste of bacon." (p.101)
Perhaps. But there can be no questioning the fact "that Nature has passively endured millennia of abuse at human hands and is now kicking back before [it's] too late." (p.165) Humans have been herded into cities by the apocalyptic last act; animals have taken charge of the farms, and turned our own weapons against us. It's all very Orwellian.

This, then, is not some novelty novel, but a fully-fledged philosophical fable for our age. Affectionate albeit barbed, far-fetched yet oddly plausible, and dark, but not without a certain spark, Bête is as smart and as satisfying and as challenging as anything any of the Adam Robertses have written. I wouldn't hesitate to recommended it—just promise me you'll keep it from the prying eyes of pets.


by Adam Roberts

UK Publication: September 2014, Gollancz

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