Bete by Adam Roberts

A philosophical debate on what makes us sentient.
Bete book cover

Bête starts with a dilemma; if the animal you are about to slaughter could talk back to you would you still kill it as that is your livelihood as a farmer? This is how we meet Graham, who is about to become famous for doing his job of butchering his animals to supply meat for consumers. This is a world of guerrilla warfare and animal rights started by the DBDG (Deep Blue Deep Green) organisation.

Bête is philosophical in tone, throughout the book there are tracts of philosophical debates about right and wrong, as what is good for one is not always good for the many. In this story though it seems that the many suffer time and time again in a dystopia of mass unemployment and skyrocketing prices, where most work is now done online and many manual skills are replaced by smart programmes. England is a nation of animal lovers and yet the situation never seems to rectify itself: do people want to speak to their pets? The book is very focused on the England that affects Graham, we do not find out if the situation in Bête is the same throughout the rest of the world, there does not seem to be any international travel and the world is never mentioned in Graham’s conversations with other characters.

Graham is not a sympathetic character and that makes it harder to like him - and yet he is not striving to be likeable, he is just going his own way, struggling on and swearing a lot. Does he grow and learn as a person? The answer is yes and no, although he never mellows so that anger is one of his defining characteristics.

Graham is surrounded by a rich cast of characters when he wants to be. Preacherman is his best friend, who was part of the programming team who gave a voice to the Bêtes and he turns back to religion for his salvation. Graham himself has no truck with religion... his life was ripped away from him, didn’t want to get with the times, but he can’t have been the only one and yet it does seem that more people would like to go back to finding new meaning to the words of Revelation than they do with trying to a find a solution to the world they find themselves living in.

Anne is the heart and soul of this book, and through her Graham allows himself to become the man he may have been if he had followed his dreams as a young man. Anne also introduces Graham to Cincinnatus, who Graham has an uneasy relationship with. Cincinnatus reminds me of The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, never giving a straight answer and being cryptic beyond belief.

There are layers of misdirection as well as a lack of understanding of the nature of Bêtes. Graham never tries to understand them as he is continually stubborn on this subject and will only converse with them when he is forced to. Bête means beast (animal) in French, I wonder why they were given this name? The Bêtes in this story are beyond that of mere animals, or is the name meant to keep them in their place?

There were certain parts of this book that I really enjoyed, but if you are coming to this as a straight sci-fi or fantasy novel then this isn’t for you, but if you are looking for a philosophical debate on what makes us sentient then you should give this book a try.

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