Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Bête by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is an author whose career confuses me. Mostly, it confuses me because not as many people know of him and his books as I expect.  Maybe he's one of those authors read keenly by some dedicated British science fiction readers, and by other writers, but who remains perplexingly ignored by mainstream readers.

Like many of his SF novels, Bête is very high-concept. However, it is also one of the most accessible book he's written. (All of his books are accessible - but they all take a fairly serious, rigorous approach to their ideas. Bête stands out because there's a surreal sense of humour suffused through the book.)

The novel starts with a dialogue between a farmer and his cow. The dialogue is happening because of animal rights campaigners and the continued exponential cheapening and shrinking of microprocessors: chips have become so ubiquitous that even cotton buds are digital (and analyse the consistency and health implication of earwax). So, with computing having become that cheap, animal rights campaigners have developed chips that can be implanted in animals' brains. These chips interact with the brain tissue, and enable the animals to understand (and mimic) human speech - provided their mouths are capable of fine muscle control. The campaigners claim this gives a voice to the oppressed animals. Their opponents claim it is merely a trick - it is the chip doing the thinking and talking, the animal is merely a carrier.

The dialogue between our protagonist and his cow is taking place as he is preparing to slaughter it - an act which is temporarily banned by an injunction while courts sort out whether to recognise talking / chip-equipped animals (bêtes) as having rights. It's a gripping, entertaining, surreal scene, and it starts the novel beautifully. 

Soon, changes are coming. Bêtes gain rights, and so campaigners spread more and more chips into animals in order to protect them. The chips are designed to pass into the brain if consumed - so predators become chipped if they eat any bêtes.

Animal husbandry is the first thing to pass into history, and with it, our farmer's career and livelihood. For a while, he becomes a spokesperson for a future equivalent of the Countryside Alliance - right wing conservatives with a traditions-fetish and a sizeable measure of bloodlust. He's not really taking that job from conviction: as the last person to kill a bête, he is simply a convenient figurehead for them, and he needs a job. But that is just a phase, and quicker than anyone could have foreseen, his life changes into that of an itinerant butcher (travelling from town to town and providing butchery services), and ultimately, a vagabond. Later in the novel, a kind of plague is spreading among humans, which brings society down to its knees.

One of the striking things about the book is how verbose almost everyone is. Our farmer is also an aspiring poet. The bêtes all have a very verbose way of speaking - the result of the chips being developed by animal rights campaigners, who presumably spend a lot of time having lengthy pseudo-academic and philosophical conversations and taking themselves very seriously. Only the women we meet are sparse with their speech and interested in getting by / living rather than ideas and discussions, while all the men are opinionated and verbose. I don't know whether this was a conscious choice by the author, but it certainly gives the book a strange atmosphere: there's more ideas exchange between man and bête than there is between man and woman. In the book, men and beasts are thinkers; women aren't. Maybe women simply choose not to waste their energies on lengthy discussions about things they are unable to change, but it still makes for a striking, not entirely comforable contrast between the sexes in this novel. The sex of the bêtes is never really relevant to their speech - their consciousness is almost sex-less, or rather, its sexuality is very very different from that of humans.

Throughout the novel, the farmer meets people with different takes on animals, and animals with different takes on themselves (and people). The story mulls big questions around (artificial) intelligence, humanity, and identity / souls, while depicting a society that's sliding towards collapse. The sense of whimsy that defined the opening chapter is gradually replaced by bleakness and crisis. To some extent, the crises society is facing are a bit too catastrophic - the plague (sclery) in particular didn't quite fit with the rest of the plot, in my opinion.

Bête is an uphill read: it hooks you in with a magnificent start, keeps you reading with its unique take on talking animals and the surreally funny situations this leads to, but all the while it keeps adding to the burdens of its hero, its world, and your mind as you read it. 

I am beginning to think I might be stumbling onto the thing that stifles Adam Roberts' commercial potential: all his books are high concept, full of fascinating ideas, and smart. But they tend to have a certain hopelessness at their core - they spiral into a fretting, depleted mindset, which can take its toll on readers. This is a bit unfair: novels this smart deserve to be read, even if they aren't easy to digest. 

If you've never read any Adam Roberts novels, I think Bête might be the best one to start with, simply because it lightens the load of its thoughts with a wry sense of bemusement. (My second recommendation would be Salt, which is also very good).

Rating: 4/5

PS: If you enjoy Adam Roberts' novels, then I'd recommend another book which struggles to get the readers it deserves because it's hard to digest. You should try the very, very smart and masterfully written Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack. It's not as high-concept in terms of its scifi, but it's staggeringly predictive of what life in a global financial crisis and long recession is like. 

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