(2014) Adam Roberts, Gollancz, pbk, £8.99 / Can$15.99, pbk, 311pp, ISBN 978-0-575-12769-2
A scene with a talking cow that attempts to talk its owner out of butchering it is the first thing you encounter in Bête by Adam Roberts. The writer drops you right into a dystopia near future where miniature microchips have brought simulated intelligence to the fauna of our world. These are the Bêtee of the title, loquacious animals made that way by a burrowing microchip implanted in their skulls.
The humour of Bête starts dark and gets darker. Reading the back and forth between a cow and its executioner is a surreal experience and this sets the tone for our story and its unreliable narrator, the aforementioned farmer, Graham, whose plumage of flaws are displayed pretty quickly as his tendencies towards territorial agricultural archetype quickly put him on the wrong side of popular culture.
To begin with, Graham’s rapid fall into further dysfunctional depths contrasts with the society’s rapidly spreading conscience, but when the agendas of the simulated intelligences begin to assert themselves, matters quickly move towards crisis and dystopia. It is here that Roberts is at his best, developing a similar theme to the one visited in The Snow, but in an entirely different direction. The rambling of our narrator in an unfamiliar and ruined world that circumstances forced him to reject for a time, but that he returns to and finds new purpose and place amidst its despair is a path he has trodden before. In Bête, humour carries us through some of the plot contrivances. Graham is opinionated stubborn and irascible. His relationships with others reflect this as he finds himself making both wrong and right steps as he makes conversation, interacts, etc. In this, Roberts brings a strong human quality to the character and the supporting cast. Standard storybook scenes are transformed by letting the reader glimpse what the protagonist might achieve, but then allowing him to fail through a misplaced comment or two. Graham’s goals change, his focus can be short-term at times, or become more strategic when he feels settled, but in each moment he isn’t far away from an awkward fumble or mishap. This careful plotting seems unconscious on a first read, but it’s clearly crafted realism.
Why Graham agrees to help ‘The Lamb’ at a moment of crisis is as much down to his unpredictable nature as anything else. Roberts also highlights the dangers of dogma with his recurring preacher whose intervention ultimately, forces the conclusion – a strange remediation of the nativity scene.
The gruff and real tone of Graham throughout allows Bête to rise out of its genre. This is a thought provoking read written in a way that makes it accessible to a different audience. There is a mixture of Orwell’s two great works here; Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The former for its talking animals and competing ideologies, the latter for revisionism, simple pleasures found in terrible times and the delusions of rigid thinking. Both make use of science fiction and fantasy ideas to deliver a serious message, which is where Bête emulates them. The detailed ‘progress’ of society in coming to terms with the ramifications of its invention of artificial intelligence and application of this to animals is a stark warning to us all in considering the consequences of shallow thought.
Fans of Roberts will enjoy this piece, but it may also attract those who look past the delights of science fiction and fantasy on the bookshelf.
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