"I was more alone than I had ever been. I became habituated to the woods. Or Stockholm-syndromed by Nature. Is there a difference between those two things? Between becoming habituated to a thing, and being Stockholm-syndromed? It sometimes seems to me that the whole of human culture has been an elaborate process by which we have hostage-negotiated ourselves into a less violent life, deprogrammed ourselves from the cult of Nature. The short-future blinkered perspective of life lived in the wild; the constant wariness, the justified paranoia; from the habitual violence, the animist superstition, the culture-less-ness. Nature: it's not nice, it was never nice. Niceness is what we human beings built to insulate ourselves from - all that."
In 'Bête', Adam Roberts finds a new twist to put on the old SF favourites, what it means to be human, and our relationship with the natural world, by invoking the old children's fantasy favourite, talking animals. In the novel, animal rights activists implant chips into the heads of farm animals which give them the ability to talk, a creature that can tell you that it doesn't want to be eaten being harder to kill. However as the artificial intelligence of the computer chips merges with the animal intelligence of these bêtes, as the talking beasts become known, there are unforeseen consequences as they start to demand more than just the right to exist. Roberts uses this as a springboard to explore our relationship to those who are different with us, as well as the way we exploit, subjugate and destroy the natural world around us. He also explores our perception of animals, and the way in which our anthropomorphisation of them or their importance as symbols to us often stand in between us and the animal itself. All this is done with darkly comic glee; I found this to be the funniest and most compelling of Roberts' books I've read so far.
Part of what makes the book work so well is its narrator. Graham Penhaligon is a farmer who has been put out of work by the bêtes, a man with a short temper who has never trusted talking animals. Because of this, and because of his practical view of animals due to working with them and slaughtering them, he has no tendency to romanticise or anthropomorphise them as, say, a besotted pet owner might. This allows him to pick up from day one that the talking animals do not genuinely parse as animals; their concerns tend to reflect more those that humans might imagine animals would have, or, as they adapt, those of the artificial intelligence in the computer chips in their heads, than those of animals, and that the true nature of the bêtes is that of an artificial intelligence that has fused with animal intelligence to create something new. However this is not to say that Graham is an impartial observer; his passionate fear and hatred of the bêtes and his short fuse inform all his actions. This allows Roberts to play some interesting games with the idea of the unreliable narrator. A frustrated poet who was forced to take over his father's farm, Graham's speech is littered with cultural allusions and expletives. He is a deeply angry man whose relationships with other people are strained at best. The Graham narrating the book, however, is just as cultured but less sweary, more reflective and able to objectively identify his own flaws and shortcomings. This tips the reader off that the Graham narrating the story is not exactly the same as the Graham in the story, and not just in a 'matured by the course of the narrative' way, and hints at the answer to the riddle that frames the narrative.
'Bête' is a pleasingly ambitious book. From the opening scene in which Graham nearly shoots a cow for quoting Morrissey at him, to Graham briefly finding a meaningful relationship with Anne, to the sequence in Bracknell Forest that recalls 'Mythago Wood', to Graham's trek across a war-torn England to try to broker peace between the humans and the bêtes, this is a book that manages to pull off a range of tonally distinct ideas, with each one providing a link to the next so the whole thing holds together.
Some of this is due to the fact that Roberts never lets his key concerns out of his sight. 'Bête' has much to say about the relationship between humans and animals, in particular the English's fondness for them. As the Lamb wryly observes:
"Killing other humans doesn't bother the true Englishman. Not in the way mistreating a horse does."
But how much of our love for animals comes from our feelings for the well-being of the animal, as opposed to the animal's sentimental or symbolic value to us? How much would we genuinely want to listen to what animals want to say to us when we could be listening to what we want to hear from them? 'Bête' portrays the reactions of different people to the emergence of these talking animals. Much of the conflict between the humans and the bêtes stems from the fact that there is the barrier of how we perceive animals in between us and the animals. So we are willing to stop eating them if they ask us, but less keen for them to have full citizenship and human rights or start running their own farms as businesses because that crosses the line of what we expect from animals. Even Graham, for all his dislike of the bêtes and his practical, farmer's outlook on animals, experiences animals appearing as visions and dreams while he is in the forest. The leader of the bêtes, the Lamb, has a name rich in symbolism, as Graham realises when he hears his friend Preacherman talking about the rise of the bêtes in the terms of the apocalypse. The importance of the symbolism of animals is something inescapable links us back to our natural origins.
'Bête' also explores, through the bêtes, our relationship with nature. Roberts describes civilisation as a movement away from Nature and our natural existence, one which has seen us increasingly exploit and destroy the natural world around us. When we assess the damage objectively, it's not difficult to imagine that were Nature given a voice the first thing it would want to do is fight back. The book also explores how our perceptions of being close to Nature are coloured by our removal from it. Graham, as a farmer, and later as a homeless man living in the forests, has an existence closer to nature than most of us living in the industrialised first world, however this is different from the sympathy with nature that his animal rights activist son feels. However, Graham's perception, whilst more cynical, is perhaps closer to the truth by being less coloured by sentimentality, and is more reflective of humanity's centuries of agricultural existence struggling against the harshness of nature. The book's conclusions about humanity's relationship with the natural world are more powerful coming from him.