Bête, by Adam Roberts – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Bête, by Adam Roberts
London, Gollancz, September 2014, hardcover £18.00 (311 [+ 1] pages). download (2)

“As I raised the bolt-gun to its head the cow said: ‘Won’t you at least Turing-test me, Graham?’

‘Don’t call me Graham,’ I told it. ‘My wife calls me Graham. My mum calls me Graham. Nobody else.’

‘Oh, Mister Penhaligon,’ the cow said, sarcastically. We’ll have to assume, for the moment, that cows are capable of sarcasm. ‘It won’t much delay you. And if I fail, then surely, go ahead: bye-bye-bos-taurus. But!’

‘You’re not helping your case, ‘ I said, ‘by enunciating so clearly. You don’t sound like a cow.’

‘Moo, ‘said the cow, arching one hairless eyebrow.” (p. 3)

Graham Penhaligon is a farmer. Farmers traditionally slaughter their cattle and serve them at family meals. So Farmer Penhaligon kills his cow, despite its pleading to him to spare it.

And finds himself arrested for maybe-murder. Which he expects.

Bête is set in the near future, when the animal-rights movement – specifically an organization called Deep Blue Deep Green (DBDG) – is going about surreptitiously raising some animals’ intelligence – specifically, in this case, Farmer Penhaligon’s cattle – to force the courts to decide whether an animal with artificially raised intelligence is a thinking animal no different from a person, and thus a legal person. The courts have declared a moratorium on the killing of such animals while the legal debate goes on; which has been going on for seemingly forever, as such social movements tend to do.

Farmer Penhaligon is a middle-aged, quietly angry man. He is at least a third-generation farmer. His parents and grandparents were farmers before him. It’s all that he has known all his life; what society has taught him is approved and Right. He resents being caught up in a social movement to make him a villain and Wrong. And to be expected to put his whole way of life on hold while the national courts and Parliament and the European international courts intellectually dither for years. So he does what he has always done: kills and butchers the cow.

“I was halfway through this procedure when the police arrived. I suppose the DBDG Environmentalists had alerted them, or maybe the chip had called them direct. At any rate, there were two officers leaning on the gate, and they were polite in that disdainful way unique to British coppers. They called my name, and then they called it again, and I stomped out of the shed to face them. Inevitably disconcerting to be interviewed by the police when you’re wearing oilskin overalls that are literally covered in dripping gore.

Was I aware (that ponderous law enforcement voice) that Parliament had legislated? That slaughter of the so-called ‘canny cows’ was to be suspended? Pending the decision of the Supreme Court on the legality or otherwise of etc, etc? I said I followed the news.” (pgs. 10-11)

Since the courts are still dithering, killing an intelligent cow isn’t murder, yet. At worst, Penhaligon is guilty of “breaching the terms of the Canny Cow Stay of Execution Order; a fine, if you’re cooperative, but two months in prison if you’re not.” (p. 14) Penhaligon expects to pay his fine, or to serve his short sentence, and to get on with his farmer’s life. But it’s too late for that.

“My case had generated some media interest. A picket of Radical Vegetarians booed me as I left the police station. At least I think they were booing me. They may have been mooing at me. My phone, when the Law returned it to me, was clogged with messages from papers and iZines keen for a soundbite or an interview. It was a hot-button issue, I suppose. I was in no mood to talk to anybody; I got into the car too furious to drive, and Rosemary steered us both home.” (p. 15)

Bête – the word comes to mean an intelligent animal — covers many years. Penhaligon keeps his farm as long as is economically possible, and finally sells it to a woman who is murdered three months later, apparently by a rat bête. Penhaligon takes a series of odd jobs, is divorced, becomes a wandering loner. The novel becomes both his personal story and his story of the changing society around him.

“I remember having lunch in a pub. The news was being displayed on a screen that all the animals in London Zoo had been chipped. Eco-activists had smuggled chips into Monkey World, in Dorset, tucked into pallets of bananas. The chip was barely visible to the naked eye, and moved from the mouth to the roof of the mouth whilst the animals chewed, and implanted itself far back, afterwards growing calcium connective filaments that webbed into the brain. This latter process took a week or so, but soon enough the monkeys all became talkative bêtes. Three circuses had closed because their performing animals were, quote, making inappropriate invitations to audience members, unquote. A man was put on trial in Newcastle for bestiality: he had been having sex with his pet Irish setter, which was illegal under the meaning of the act. His barrister was able to call the dog as a witness; its paws hooked over the top of the witness box, its hindlegs shaking a little with the effort of standing. The hound confirmed its consent in the matter. The man walked free. On the court steps he made a long speech about the love that dare not bark its name, and of the need to petition Parliament to make the marriage between a human and a canny bête legal.” (pgs. 44-45)

This is only up to page 45 out of 311. Bête is a marvelously inventive novel, keeping you wondering where (and how far) society in general and Graham Penhaligon in particular will go. It is well worth finding out.

Bête may seem more like fantasy than science fiction because of all the talking animals. Raising an animal’s intelligence to human level would not give it the vocal apparatus to talk. Roberts has thought of that:

“‘My mouth is a lot more flexible than yours,’ said the cow. ‘My tongue is longer and much more maneuverable. Plus I have a four-compartment stomach designed to release cud for rechewing, so I can augment breath sounds with gastric gas release sounds. Human phonemes are a doddle.’” (p. 4)   Rats can’t talk, of course, but monkeys, dogs – you’d be surprised at what an animal can do once it puts its mind to it.

Bête is Adam Roberts’ fifteenth novel since 2001. He has been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award three times, and has won both the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award for Best Novel, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. The equally imaginative dust jacket is credited to Blacksheep, a London design company, rather than to an individual artist.

– Fred Patten