Monday, March 09, 2015


Went to the library and borrowed Adam Roberts' 'Bête'. What a fantastic read. Cleverly woven themes, good narrative style, great story and cool ending. (Reviews here, here and here.) 

Love the title. 'Bête'. It means 'beast'. Set in UK where computer chips embedded in animals gifted them the ability of speech and thought, and plenty of references to a period when "the NHS was actually free" and a Starbucks coffee cost €11, yup, euros. Humans no longer hunt and butcher animals for food, but grant them rights under the 12 points of the Great Animal Charter. Humans generally eat Vitameat. Only rockstars and millionaires could afford real beef. This book has less to do with the issue of vegetarianism and farming than to do with political and socio-economic concepts. If you feel like arguing with the book right from the start, hold it in and finish it. The ending is quite awesome.

The story is led by protagonist Graham Penhaligon, a hardliner farmer and butcher-turned-drifter and who in an ironic twist of fate, hit eventual 'enlightenment'. He wrestled long and hard, along with the readers if these animals hold a consciousness and awareness, called bête, or are they simply controlled via the great big intarwebs by computers. The book is split into three parts and I wondered why they were titled, Part I 'Two legs in the morning', then Part II 'Three legs in the afternoon', and the final Part III 'Four legs in the evening'. When I got to the final part, I understood why it became two legs to three to four legs. Also wondered when a quote or reference to H.G. Wells would appear. Well, right here, as a preface to Part III-

'The study of Nature makes man at last as remorseless as Nature'.
The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Graham Penhaligon raised cows and butchered them, and eventually was hauled to court for the 'murder' of a "canny cow" but charges couldn't be pressed because the head which held the chip was lost and unretrievable. The story is of his personal journey and beliefs, interspaced with meeting various characters and the second love of his life, her cat called Cincinatus, the shutdown of the internet and wifi, arrival of a fictional plague sclerotic charagmitis, the war between bêtes and humans which would lead to the meeting of the consciousness of this very cow he had 'murdered' who in the form of a Lamb now, would avenge itself by duping him to carry a virus to the human military leaders in the name of 'negotiation'. The first five pages of this book would already draw you into its world. I'm keeping the ending a secret. Read it to find out. Totally worth your time. Here, I extract Chapter One 'Turing-testing the cow',

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, 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. 
'Human speech evolved in the mouths of humans.' I told the beast. 'Cow-mouths have a completely different architecture. You shouldn't be able to get your lips and tongue around phonemes like Graham and Turing.' But I lowered the bolt-gun. Idiotic, of course, but it was unnerving all the same. When my daughter Jen was younger she had a doll called Snuggle Snore-Gal. Oh, she loved that plastic artifact from its nylon hairdo to its sealed-together pink toes. She talked to it, and the doll talked back to her. She clutched it to her every night as she slept. Then the doll somehow got dropped in bucket of Rodenticide. There was no way I could be sure Jen wouldn't secretly sneak the toy from whichever dump bin I threw it in and cuddle herself to toxic shock - she was stubborn, like that, my lovely Jen - so I decided to burn it. It was a ten-inch-high toy doll but it begged for its life with an ingenuous piteousness that wrenched my heart. A ten-cent chip made in India, stuffed in the kind of plastic doll they give away free when you buy ten euros of fuel, and I felt like a Nazi commandant. 
A cow is not a doll. A cow is larger than a doll.

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