Adam Roberts’ 15th novel, Bete, begins with a cow talking to a farmer just as the farmer is about to pull the trigger on a bolt gun. What seems like the beginning of a joke, or a fantasy novel involving talking animals, becomes a heated conversation about the Turing Test and a plea from the “sentient” cow not to be slaughtered. It transpires that were in a near future where green political activists have been slipping into farms and embedding chips into the brains of animals thus providing them with intelligence. The farmer doesn’t buy the cow’s argument, stating that it’s not the cow begging for its continued existence but the chip. He fires the bolt gun.
If this were a short story it would have all the hallmarks of the type of quirky thought experiment often taught to first year philosophy students to elaborate on complex ideas such as fatalism, modality and the problem of God. (My favourite was always the “Story of Osmo” – Google it). But Adam Roberts’ isn’t willing to stop at the farmer, the bolt gun or the very dead cow. Instead through the eyes of the cantankerous Graham Penhalgion – for that would be the farmer’s name – Roberts’ imagines the radical changes that would occur to society, to the economy, to our relationship with the natural world if animals could tell us to fuck off.
Graham spends a good deal of the novel in denial. As a freelance butcher in a world where people have become squeamish eating real meat, he maintains the argument that the animals are not self-aware or sentient, that they are simply computers masquerading in animal clothing. As the last person to kill a chipped animal, or bete, he briefly becomes the poster boy for others who refuse to see animals as anything more than livestock or pets. But as more and more animals are chipped, Graham finds himself on the fringe of society; a man wandering from town to town, making a measly earning from those who still desire freshly slaughtered meat.
It’s only when he meets Anne, and her chipped cat Cincinnatus, that Graham again finds someone to care about. Anne owns a bed and breakfast (that never seems to have guests) which Graham returns to regularly, partly because the sex is nice, but also because he can relax with Anne, even though he detests her cat. It’s Cincinnatus, though, who warns Graham that a war is coming and suggests that he visits an enigmatic figure known only as the lamb.
Bete could easily have been a silly satire, an extension of the Dish of the Day gag from Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe. But while the book has its funny moments, it’s a novel that takes seriously the idea of animal rights and self-awareness. For decades scientists and philosophers have argued as to whether animals can be counted as sentient – which of course fuels a larger argument about what sentience actually is. With the introduction of the chip, by having animals actually talk, Roberts’ compels the reader to consider the difference between the “hardware” and “software” running our consciousness versus the physical hardware that allows a cow to beg for its life. For all those first year philosophy students in the audience it’s the Physicalism / Cartesian debate just with nuance, depth and… talking livestock.
But this novel is more than just an argument for self-awareness. Graham’s lonely wanderings, as he looks for freelance work or simply tries to escape from chatty pigs and sheep, means that this is a very rural novel. It’s not necessarily nostalgic about the British village and countryside, but with farming now the province of betes, humanity has migrated in their droves to the cities. And this give the book a sense of isolation as these small, bustling communities and villages are turned into ghost towns. I don’t know whether the abrupt death of British country life portrayed in the novel reflects what’s happening in the UK, but there’s certainly a vibe that the betes are only hastening a process that had well and truly begun.
I also really liked grumpy Graham. Yes he’s a reactionary, and yes he’s angry that the rug has been pulled from underneath him, but inspite of the rough edges he’s a surprisingly engaging character. Much of this has to do with his relationship with Anne. It’s a romance that’s deliberately free of sentimentality, and yet some of most powerful and personal scenes in the novel are those moments where Graham gets to let his guard down and open up to Anne.
Unfortunately, this relationship also embodies one of the novel’s weaker aspects. About halfway through the novel Anne contracts cancer and as Graham increasingly returns to the bed and breakfast he watches as the woman he loves fades away and dies. While Roberts’ thankfully doesn’t protract Anne’s suffering for the sake of drama, because we see Anne’s situation through Graham’s eyes were only given access to his hopelessness and anxiety rather than Anne’s pain. As a result, Anne’s death (which has this predictability about it the moment Graham falls in love with her) is more about Graham’s man pain then Anne’s suffering. It’s a sour note in an otherwise well realised relationship.
Overall though, Bete is a quiet, personal and very intelligent novel about self-awareness, the death of the countryside and rural communities and talking animals. Given the high quality of this book I can’t understand why Roberts’ doesn’t feature on more awards lists.