The last Adam Roberts book I reviewed, the collection of short stories Adam Robots (2013), was, I remarked, a "scholarly game" and, in more serious vein, this is too. Just as previous novels like Swiftly (2008) and Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014) riffed off proto-SF classic authors such as Jonathan Swift and Jules Verne, so Bȇte is George (Animal Farm) Orwell meets H. G. (The Island of Dr Moreau) Wells along with a host of others, not only from SF but rock music. As such, it's a mass of references, some of which I'm smugly proud to have caught and many of which I'm sure I’m missed (plus a few that I know I ought to recognize but for one reason or another don't). That it's a novel rather than an academic exercise in literary references lies in three brilliant coups.
It begins with dairy and meat farmer Graham Penhaligon about to slaughter a cow. A cow which is pleading for its life. A cow which is arguing that it is conscious, which cites a forthcoming legal verdict that is about to come from the European Supreme Court that beasts like it, with AI chips injected by a "Deep Green" ecological group, have been raised, thanks to those chips, to the status of "conscious, sentient, intelligent being." A Morrissey-quoting cow, for goodness sake! Citing "Meat is Murder" in defense of an argument that farming need not mean the slaughter of sentient creatures. "Please, Graham," begs the cow. "Don't call me Graham," snarls Penhaligon, and pulls the trigger (p. 7).
In the subsequent interview with the police, the macabre comedy increases as the law tries to decide whether a crime has been committed in the light of the fact that the head of the "canny cow" is missing. Forced eventually to sell his farm, Penhaligon drifts through the economic and social crisis which develops as the result of the increase of chipped animals and the new relationship this creates between humanity and the animal kingdom. First, this is played for laughs, if uncomfortable one: there is a joke about "the love that dare not bark its name" (p. 44) but Penhaligon quickly sees past the disingenuous argument of "humans have loved animals for hundreds of thousands of years" (p. 45: Roberts's italics) to the fact that this is not love for our pets. What we love is eating them, hunting them and butchering them. The novel soon gets darker.
Traveling the country as a kind of freelance butcher, killing for meat animals which are both "dumb" and enhanced (also made dumb by removing their tongues: "cancer of the tongue" is the excuse), Penhaligon passes a farm owned by sapient pigs and spends time in a boarding-house owned by a woman (Anne). They become lovers. Anne's "sapient" cat, Cincinnatus advises Penhaligon to go to a nearby village; whatever the reason (this is explained later in the book) Penhaligon refuses. Virtually a tramp—at one point living in a makeshift tent in woodlands, surviving on what he can forage—Penhaligon sees society collapse around him. His son Albie takes a job on a farm owned by animals. His daughter becomes increasingly embittered by her own family troubles. Anne dies of cancer. Cincinnatus warns Penhaligon that "war is coming." And indeed, the last third of the book verges on the apocalyptic, with an Ebola-like disease rampant and inter (and intra)-species war. The science-fictional fact of the AI chips gives us a dilemma which is never quite resolved throughout the novel. Are the bȇtes (the "conscious" animals: why the French word is never quite explained although the rather tortuous pun on the Who song "You Better You Bet" which is the novel's epigraph might be a clue) actually made into self-aware beings with a "soul" by virtue of the AI chip or are they "a series of algorithms with a database of authentic-sounding phrases and responses" (p. 12), at best semi-organic computers which can pass the Turing Test?
The second of Roberts's "coups" is Penhaligon himself. Aggressive, a stubborn rejectionist, a poet, an essential loner whose frequent "Don't call me Graham!" signifies his lack of contact, we see him in his damaged relationship with his son and daughter (by page 21 he is divorced), and his brittle relationship with Anne. As a viewpoint character, this makes him even more unreliable than the "unreliable narrator" is meant to be: sometimes we wonder whether he is simply the mouthpiece for Roberts's puns, but mostly his argumentative nature—and his arguments seem as much with himself as with other people—allows space for the moral debate of the plot to be expressed. He refers to his poetry several times as bad (we see no examples), but he responds to the world around him by both seeing it in literary terms and a experiencing it as farmer, a man of the land, of tradition and of nature. This enables Roberts to present his scattershot of intertextualities in a way which comes across as less a novel written by a Professor of English who knows a lot about pop music and science fiction novels and more a narrative embedded in the character of a firmly-conceived narrator. The conversation with Cincinnatus after Anne's death, though as tinged with Penhaligon's aggression as ever (he has just thumped a bureaucrat for—naturally—calling him Graham) is genuinely touching and painful. Through his eyes, the constant flow of references to things like Penhaligon's hair "like Wells's red weed" (p. 22), or "the ledzep rustle in the hedgerow" (p. 126) seem natural. When Penhaligon is called "supertramp" and advised to "Turn yourself round, right round, like a record" (p. 232) some will get this, others won't, and some will wonder whether "supertramp" is just an epithet or really is a reference to the band of that name (but that, I'm afraid, is the slipperiness of intertextuality.) A more interesting and genuinely slippery episode is where Penhaligon finds himself in a pub discussing the old days in a scene not actually like that famous scene when Winston Smith questions the old confused prole in 1984 but structurally similar enough to it to make you wonder.
Virtually all these references and intertextualities, by the way, are British, or at least deeply embedded in British culture. Many of them—the references to TV sitcoms like Dad's Army, the occasion when, on hearing a fiery preacher evoke the "saints," Penhaligon, heckling, shouts out the name of the football club who bear that word as a nickname (p. 249), are obscure.
So, although one way of reading Bȇte, despite the ostentatious non-Englishness of that word, is as a novel about Britishness and the way something "called" Britishness has always needed an Otherness which will itself become an integral part of a future Britishness, it's important to note that Roberts's third and more diffuse coup is the fact that the literary-referencing goes further than a mosaic of puns and pop culture echoes.
The dilemma at the heart of the novel, of whether to believe in the sapience of "chipped" animals, or at least choose (Pascal's wager?) to believe in the possibility that they are in possession of that combination of intelligence, sense of personhood and morality, and "worth" that we call "a soul" is underlined by more weightily mythological echoes. The language with which Penhaligon is advised to seek out "the Lamb" (p. 119: capitals throughout) emphasizes the religious emblem symbolized by a lamb. Graham Pehnaligon, tendon severed by the bite of a deer (another symbolic animal) becomes the Fisher King. "Harp and carp, Graham! Come along with us," urges Cincinnatus at one point, echoing the Elf-Queen in the border ballad "Thomas the Rhymer." The collapse of the internet (and therefore access to humanity's stored knowledge of science fiction: at one point there is a reference to "a Klingon proverb" with the admittance that there is little clear idea as to who the Klingons actually were) creates a vacuum which these more numinous references rush in to fill.
Perhaps the most ingenious trick Roberts plays is to combine the slogan of Orwell's Animal Farm ("Four legs good, two legs bad") with the Riddle of the Sphinx (the novel's three sections refer to the "four legs . . . two legs . . . three legs" of the famous riddle, but reordered in order to create a new narrative. Almost as good is Penhaligon's friend Preacherman's revisoning of the Book of Revelation as a prophecy of the new world which is coming into shape. "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" asked W. B. Yeats. Yeats's question may indeed, along with numerous other epigrams and quotations about the natures of "human" and "beast," be echoed and even answered in the last chapter of Bȇte. But by then we have a novel about not uncommon—indeed clichéd—science fiction preoccupations (what is the nature of "human"? What do we mean by "other"?) gloriously transfigured. The last, short section of the book, filled with apotheosis and yearning and straining for identity, needs reading carefully as it highlights some of the paradoxes I've identified above, but if I read it rightly its emotional charge fuses what I've described as Roberts's "coups" into what may be his best novel yet.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, and a widely published critic. For ten years he was Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the University's School of English. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham, and (with Peter Wright) Teaching Science Fiction in the Palgrave "Teaching the New English" series. He was the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.