The knowledge and techniques Adam Roberts displays in his 15th novel, Bête, are as admirable as they are varied. At first glance, Bête is straight forward near future science fiction story. Look beneath the surface, however, and you’ll find a darkly comic satire of such wit and charm, and a very British dystopia with the best anti-hero for many a year.
For he is Graham Penhaligon and he is a farmer and he kills a cow. Not so much of a big deal, except Animal Rights activists have developed AI chips to install in animals. The cow pleads for its life but Graham has a farm to run and no sympathy. He believes that it is the chip that is pleading and not the animal. A video of the event is released and Graham becomes infamous. As British society crumbles and the animals begin to take control first of their own lives and destinies, and then tracts of countryside, Graham finds himself increasingly unwanted by society and unloved by his family. Anathema to the animals, he seeks solace in Anne, a guest house owner and fellow loner. She has a loquacious cat who ‘badgers’ Graham into an act against his better nature, in order to save the one thing left in his life that has meaning.
This is no animal farm. Fine, so the animals can talk, and may have sentience, but this is Graham’s story. He is a grumpy old man living on his wits and just wanting to survive in a world he no longer understands or believes in. True, the world has little time for him either, but he is pivotal to humankind and animal kind whether he likes it or not.
Roberts’ satire has more bite (there, I said it) than almost any other satirical science fiction writer currently plying a trade. His observations around the www of world wide web and religion are most amusing. And he has the ability to play with language in way that brings a smile to the reader and yet isn’t clichéd or predictable. Roberts even finds time to write passages where he openly questions common phrases and clichés. My favourite trope is the way he strings ideas together, just like they do in your own head, exemplified by the reference to Norman Bates in the final third. There’s some proper darkness too, as humanity and animals come to have different kinds of relationships – just ask the dog in Newcastle. Bête reflects significant chunks of British, or maybe even just English, culture too. There are plenty of nods to popular culture familiar to us today. The towns and other locations (boarded up Costa in Wokingham, a militarised dystopian Reading, living rough in woods, a dubious pub clinging on to the past, for example) suggest a particular mind-frame for the reader. This is dirt-under-the-finger-nails science fiction; flabby flesh, greying beards and desperation.
There is very little mention of the world outside England, so we’re not sure about how the spread of the sentient animals is affecting the elsewhere. I don’t think it’s an issue within the narrative because this isn’t a story about that. As the UK economy is in trouble, and money is ‘cents’ on chips, it would follow that Europe at least has problems too.
There are as many light gags as there are dark but Bête is ultimately a clever story of an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. Graham is quite simply an awesome and refreshing creation in a brilliant book. It has some serious things to say about how we treat animals and how we treat ourselves. Of course, it has comment on technology’s role in our future and some inventive religious ridicule. It has some decent things to say about family and relationships too. Bête is as unsettling as all the best science fiction should be. And how many fantastic science fiction novels can get away with that INXS gag? A triumph from a terrific science fiction author at the top of his considerable game.
Originally published on Book Geek: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookgeek/2015/06/10/bete-by-adam-roberts/