Time to catch up with a few more pieces from my recent back catalogue. And I start with this review of Bete by Adam Roberts, which was published in Vector 279, Spring 2015.
Voltaire had a term for it: contes philosophique, philosophical stories, ideas fiction. Since science fiction has been called ‘the literature of ideas’, it is clear that there is an overlap between the two. But one does not map exactly upon the other, rather contes philosophique tend to fall somewhere between science fiction and what philosophers call ‘thought experiments’. It is fiction used to explain and explore a philosophical idea; the usual fictional virtues of character, setting, plot, may be present, but they matter less than the presentation of the thought, the argument.
Adam Roberts is a modern exponent of the contes philosophique. Bête is a novel crowded with philosophical arguments about consciousness, identity, the nature of the soul, and the peripatetic plot winds about itself in a way deliberately designed to raise and raise again these issues. On the surface, of course, it is a novel about animal rights, but you cannot write about the animal without questioning what it means to be human, and that is what this novel is really about.
Our ‘narrator’ (I use scare quotes because, like so much in the book, this becomes questionable towards the end) is Graham Penhaligon, a no-nonsense farmer and butcher who once dreamed of becoming a poet. As the book opens, he is on the point of slaughtering one of his cows ready for butchering, and the cow is begging for its life. Animal rights activists have started seeding farm animals with minute chips that fuse with the animal brain and give it the power of speech. For many, perhaps most people in the country, animal speech raises uncomfortable questions about the intelligence of animals, whether or not they have a soul, and whether or not they should be farmed. But Graham, who seems to live his life in a state of ever-accumulating rage, won’t stand for any of that nonsense, as far as he is concerned it is the chip speaking not the animal. He shoots the cow (we meet the cow again later in the novel, sort of; although ‘sort of’ could be used to qualify any statement about the plot). Unfortunately, the whole incident is caught on film and becomes an internet sensation. Animal rights legislation is passed, with dire consequences for Graham, and for the country as a whole.
For a while things move quickly. We are briskly told that Graham loses his farm and his wife, enjoys a brief fame among those opposed to animal rights, then, as the economy falls apart, he becomes a tramp, moving from town to town doing a little illicit butchering here and there for those who still like to enjoy a joint of meat. Then things slow to the pace of his walking as he sleeps rough mostly in and around Bracknell Forest to the south and east of Reading. For a while he is accompanied by an itinerant preacher, who sees the coming of the bêtes as a sign of the end times. Then he meets and, to his own surprise, falls in love with Anne, but she has cancer and dies before we are a third of the way into the novel. After this he takes himself away into the depths of the forest, as far away from people as he can get, at which point the story becomes one of cold and rain, of scant food and scarce drinking water. In his very few encounters with the outside world, we see that humanity is retreating; towns are being abandoned, people are squeezing into a few walled and overcrowded cities, for good measure a new plague is ravaging the population. All of which is of little concern to Graham, who seems to regard people in much the same way he regarded his farm animals.
A word about bêtes: in so relentlessly English a novel, in which an outside world is scarcely even mentioned, it is never explained why a French word should be chosen to identify the talking animals. It makes them foreign, alien, but in a work that has more wordplay, puns and malapropisms even than is usual in an Adam Roberts novel, we have to take note of things like this. I suspect, therefore, that we are intended to hear an echo of bet in the word, the novel details a huge gamble about the nature of consciousness and the future of humanity. The internet allows the chips to talk to one another which in some ways makes the bêtes smarter than humans, but is it just the chips talking, as Graham believes, or is there a more native intelligence at work. Such issues are chewed over again and again in long and discursive conversations with the people Graham encounters and, increasingly, with the bêtes, often when Graham is drunk so that ideas become slurred and lost. Notably, the bêtes insist on addressing him as Graham, which he resents; though later, when a supercilious army officer calls him ‘Penny’, we realise how much self-identity is tied up in the names, and another philosophical strand is revealed.
There is a war going on, which he hasn’t noticed, and the bêtes, through Anne’s cat, Cincinnatus, want Graham to act as their ambassador in peace negotiations. They have a carrot to entice him, one that reveals where the sense of self in the bêtes resides, and that will entail a loss of humanity in Graham. In a sense, none of this holds up to scrutiny: the plotting is inconsistently paced and over-reliant on coincidence, too much happens off stage to allow a clear and coherent view of either the world or of the events within it. And there is so much foreshadowing in the novel that at times it seems there is more foreshadowing than plot. And yet this is precisely the strength of the book: the foreshadowing is constantly making us question the nature and character of our narrator. Such questions underpin the broader issues of where our consciousness resides and what it is about our consciousness that makes us human that are raised, discarded and re-examined throughout the book. It is, in other words, exactly what the very best conte philosophique should be.