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Bête by Adam Roberts.

Gollancz, 2014, 320 p. Reviewed for Interzone 255, Nov-Dec 2014.

Bête cover

We know from the epigraph, “You? Better. You? Bête” – attributed to Pete Townshend but given Roberts’s own slant – that we are in for a tale full of word play and allusion; everything from Led Zeppelin lyrics to the riddle of the Sphinx, with nods to previous SF (at one point there is the shout, “Butlerian Jihad!”) as well as Animal Farm.

The novel begins with dairy farmer Graham Penhaligon, who has also trained to butcher his own livestock, having a verbal disagreement with a “canny” cow which does not wish to be slaughtered. This is shortly before such Loquacious Beasts (as the Act has it) are to be legally protected. The encounter makes Graham famous, after a fashion. The advent of speaking animals had come with green activists, “creeping around farms in the dead of night, injecting chips into the craniums (sic) of farm animals.” These bêtes at first spouted authentic sounding phrases, responses of animal rights propaganda, but quickly the chips, by now AIs, develop into something more integrated with their hosts.

It is tempting to find faint echoes in this set-up of Wells’s Dr Moreau but the comparison is too stretched to be truly viable. No vivisection is involved; the chips only have to be ingested to make their way into the host’s brain. Graham reflects that Moore’s Law made this sort of augmentation inevitable but he never believes that the animals are really expressing themselves; it is the computers in their heads doing so. Soon enough bêtes become legal citizens competing with humans for jobs. Along with the almost simultaneous development of synthetic Vitameat, one of the ramifications is that Graham’s farm is no longer viable.

He resorts to a nomadic existence, taking the odd slaughtering job, living (poorly) off the land, his peregrinations bringing him into irregular but recurring contact with Anne Grigson, with whom he falls in love. She has a canny cat, Cincinnatus, which loves its mistress but also exhibits a peculiar interest in Graham.

Graham is prickly from the outset. “Don’t call me Graham,” he tells the argumentative cow – and nearly everyone else whom he meets thereafter. He is especially so with the bêtes he encounters. These internet enabled, wifi-ed animals recognise him instantly, but there is always a hint of menace in it. A shambling incoherent human appears to know Graham but has been chipped; with “higher” animals schizophrenia is the unerring result of such a merger. Dogs, cows, horses are much more suitable.

This scenario gives Roberts scope to comment on humanity’s collective relationship with the biosphere, sometimes through his minor characters, ‘“Animals have feelings and thoughts – it’s just that only now have they been able to bring them out,”’ otherwise through Graham’s thoughts, “Speciesism is more deeply entrenched within us than sexism, and that is deep enough,” “Nature: it’s not nice, it was never nice. Niceness is what we humans built to insulate ourselves from – all that.” Cincinnatus provides the barbed observation, “Misrecognition. It’s what humans are best at.”

At times Bête takes on some of the characteristics of the post-disaster stories associated with British SF of the fifties and early sixties. Also stalking the land and causing AIDS-like panic is the disease, Sclerotic Charagmitis, where mucous membranes scar over, leading to death. The countryside is abandoned to the animals, people huddle together in the larger towns, the regime becomes repressive, but shuts off the wifi too late. There are tales of inter-species war in the north, animals immolated on pyres by the army. In his isolation, Graham does not witness any of this, though.

He makes much of language and his relish of it and notes his is a very English tale. Language is a field, he tells us, and farmers are used to working with fields. A strange aspect of the narrative, though, is its frequent use of archaisms. “And you have brought it me,” wroth, thrice. Sadly, this last appeared only twice.

But Anne dies from cancer, and Graham reflects that the loss of love brings resentment, bitterness, anger, envy. Fair enough, but I don’t quite buy his contention that, for adults, crying is always a performance, intended for an audience. The crux of the novel comes at Graham’s delayed meeting with the leader of the bêtes in the south, an AI in the brain of a very old ewe known (in a piece of somewhat heavy-handed symbolism) as The Lamb, which makes him an offer.

While the essential motor of the plot is that this is a love story, Graham’s relationship with Anne does not come over like a grand passion. Everything is a touch too intellectual; described, not experienced. Bête is good stuff, though, probably enough to ensure Roberts’s usual award nomination.

The following did not appear in the final review.:-
There is reference to a film scene which, though it can be parsed, will only make immediate sense if you’ve actually seen the film. The proof copy I read was absolutely littered with typos, easily averaging one a page. The best of these was “imagining I was in the gondolier of some balloon.” That “gondolier” conveys quite a different image from the one that “gondola” would. We also had “ruptures of the Achilles tension” and riveta for Ryvita. Plus:- lay for lie, apothegms for apophthegms, liquorish (the sweet stuff; not anything to do with alcohol,) and a span.

Busy, Busy

I’ve been busy on and off and haven’t had much time for blogging.

Bête  cover

I’m not mentioning Saturday’s result, I’m too depressed. Just as well I didn’t make the trip. I feel I ought to turn up at Easter Road for the League Cup game though.

My latest Interzone review book has arrived. It’s Adam Roberts’s latest, Bête. (It’s not that long ago I read his Jack Glass.) The review will appear in issue 255.

I think I forgot to mention issue 253 had come out.* That one has my review of Kieran Shea’s Koko Takes a Holiday.

*Edited to add. My memory is mince. I did mention it, when I reviewed the fiction in issue 250.

Jack Glass

I have a problem with the novel I’m reading just now.

It’s nothing to do with the subject matter, nor the writing.

It’s the title, Jack Glass.

For a Scot my age those two words conjure up mostly an image of a rabid Presbyterian preacher with black hair and goatee beard, rejoicing (I use the word advisedly) in the title of Pastor Jack Glass. Even when he came to wide public notice (late 1960s? early 1970s?) that Pastor tag seemed impossibly archaic.

Due to his anti-Catholic stance Glass was regarded as Scotland’s answer to Ian Paisley. He vehemently opposed the then Pope’s visit to Scotland in 1982. Given Paisley’s later taking part in government along with Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly Glass would perhaps have looked on Paisley as some sort of apostate (if he would ever have allowed such a Latinate word to describe any of his attitudes.) Glass, though, died ten years ago. So it goes.

None of this is likely to have impinged on the author of Jack Glass the novel, as he, Adam Roberts, was born in Croydon. I doubt if even his time studying English at the University of Aberdeen would have been troubled by knowledge or thoughts of the pastor, who, as far as I am aware, was never a household name south of the border. It is, though, a reminder of how cultural specificities can alter perspectives.

Politics in SF

There was an interesting article by Adam Roberts in yesterday’s Guardian Review about the two contrasting political strands in SF.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find it on the Guardian website – neither by searching for Adam Roberts nor for, “Who owns the political soul of SF” (Yes, the article’s title did have a missing question mark.) It is probably there somewhere, though.

By and large the article focused on the differing attitudes to the “other,” taking as its exemplars of either breed, Iain M Banks and Robert A Heinlein. (Ever since I worked out his political allegiances – see below – I always perversely liked to think of him as Roberta Heinlein as I’m sure that would have annoyed him.)

The gist of Roberts’s piece was that lefty SF tends to be inclusive and heterogeneous on encountering the alien, whereas right wingers reach for the ammunition. (I paraphrase, but not much.)

I remember well reading Heinlein’s short story The Roads Must Roll wherein as the principal mode of travel people are conveyed by moving walkways. Those who work on the system throw a spanner in the works. Heinlein overstates the case by making this sabotage rather than something more peaceful and, as the story’s title suggests, comes down firmly on the side of the owners and users. Despite Heinlein’s intentions, while I was reading it my sympathies were fully on the side of the workers who to my mind were being exploited. I realised then that as far as Heinlein would be concerned there was something wrong with me, I was less than human. My dignity (and those of honest toilers) did not compare with his dignity.

In my own novel A Son of the Rock the narrator, Alan, shockingly encounters the “other” in the shape of an old man. At first frightened, he eventually embraces the strangeness and makes it his own

Clearly, in Roberts’s dichotomy, Alan was (will be? – it is SF after all) – and I am – a leftist.

Sorry about that.

BSFA Awards 2012

The BSFA Award shortlist for stories published in 2012 has been announced.

For best novel we have:-

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)

Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)

Intrusion by Ken MacLeod (Orbit)

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit.)

Unusually I have read three out of the five already, two of those courtesy of Interzone and its kind reviews editor. Thank you, Jim.

My views on 2312 I posted on this blog only two days ago. Those on Empty Space will be forthcoming.

Intrusion I reviewed here.

As for the short stories I have read only one of them so far, the last on this list; and very good it was too.

Three others, though, are available to read on the net. Doubtless the BSFA will be producing its usual booklet.

Immersion by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld no. 69)

The Flight of the Ravens by Chris Butler (Immersion Press)

Song of the body Cartographer by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Phillipines Genre Stories)

Limited Edition by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine)

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville (Rejectamentalist Manifesto)

Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)

Goodbye 2012

I don’t usually do end of year round-ups – mostly because most folk write theirs before Christmas and that offends my sensibilities. The year ends on 31st Dec, not before.
Whatever, I looked through all the fiction books I read this year and found twelve that stood out. In order of reading they were:-

PfITZ by Andrew Crumey
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown
the Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
New Model Army by Adam Roberts
Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
D’Alembert’s Principle by Andrew Crumey

That’s four by women and eight by men, which is a pretty high strike rate for the distaff side compared to my fiction reading as a whole, 12:45 – is that shockingly low or a reflection of publishing? Four were SF, eight not; though that ratio alters if you count the fantastical – the Lord, the Obreht, the Bulgakov, and the Crumeys which feature stories from a city made up within one of the two. Only the Robertson and the Pamuk lie wholly within the realm of the naturalistic.

I don’t propose to rank the twelve in any way.

Reelin’ In The Years 53: Forever Autumn

In a passage in Adam Roberts’s New Model Army (see my thoughts on it a few posts below) one of the characters thinks of Jeff Wayne rather than HG Wells when he hears the words, “War of the Worlds.” He at once mentions Richard Burton, David Essex and the Moody Blues. Well, as another song has it; two out of three ain’t* bad.

The character can be forgiven for the mistake, though. His mind wasn’t working properly at the time and it is understandable. Richard Burton and David Essex were both heard on the recording but it wasn’t all the Moody Blues who contributed to Jeff Wayne’s endeavour but their lead singer, the distinctively voiced Justin Hayward, certainly did. While Richard Burton was the spoken voice of the journalist Hayward took over for the singing and thus gave us the haunting Forever Autumn.

Justin Hayward: Forever Autumn

*Sorry for the inelegant language in the quote there.

New Model Army by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2010, 282p.

 New Model Army cover

You know that you’re reading something a bit out of the ordinary when the first sentence of a novel is “I am not the hero of this story.” Whether or not this statement is reliable is a question that can only be answered by reading the whole but, coupled with the narrator’s knowingness about how a novel ought to be structured, shows a strong authorial awareness of his craft. It is a consciously literary sentence and the novel as a whole bears out its promise. I didn’t much take to Roberts’s 2011 novel By Light Alone but was more impressed by his much earlier Stone. A back cover quote on New Model Army from Kim Stanley Robinson says, “Roberts should have won the 2009 Booker Prize.” (That would have been for Roberts’s prior book Yellow Blue Tibia which I have yet to read. New Model Army has literary claims to have won it in 2010. I can see why it was not considered, though.)

The New Model Army of the title, whose members have named it Pantegral, is – like other NMAs of its sort – a truly democratic one. Enabled by the internet – its communications and information web is referred to as a “Wiki” throughout – to communicate and discuss in real time, they vote on proposals on tactical and strategic matters and act on the majority decision. This contrasts with the hierarchical, feudal structures of the traditional state army against which it fights – and repeatedly defeats.

The battle sequences are believably described though the background to the war that is taking place in a disintegrating UK is a trifle – if amusingly – far-fetched. In addition the ease with which the NMA’s members access advanced ordinance wasn’t fully obvious, the rest of life in England, which is where the first segment is set, seems little different from the present where such access is limited to say the least. (Or I hope it is.)

An echo of Stone is in the narration. Here the narrative is a kind of memoir addressed as if to a US colonel by whom Block is being interrogated and who wishes to use him as a weapon against NMAs. Unless we are to infer that later Block returns to the US this doesn’t quite work in the second long section when Block falls into the hands of an Alsatian NMA known as Schäferhund, nor in the very much shorter third segment.

New Model Army has important things to say about why wars occur and the nature of humanity – what we do in general and why we do it. Treating not only with the evolution of humanity beyond feudalism into the “giants” of the NMAs but also with the literary perennials of love and death, it packs a lot into its 282 pages.

(Unfortunately there was a span count of 3, though; plus 1 “lay.”)

Clarke Award Stushie*

It seems Christopher Priest, whose BSFA Award listed novel The Islanders I am reading as we speak (or read, or converse, or whatever-the-hell-it-is-we-do-on-the-internet,) has attacked this year’s Clarke Award shortlist.

Go on. Read it. It’s an entertaining rant however unfortunately open to the charge of sour grapes at not himself being on the Clarke list it may be. (Priest tries to cover this angle by saying he would withdraw his novel from any consideration if the Clarke list were to be rethought as he proposes.)

I would insert the turbulent Priest joke here but someone used it decades ago in one of the BSFA’s journals and I actually think Priest has a point. Perhaps several.

My impression of the BSFA shortlist novels I have read is that last year wasn’t a particularly good one for SF novels – though my sample is admittedly small. And I agree that to have China Miéville win the Clarke Award for a fourth time would suggest that no-one else need bother writing SF (nor fantasy) as we could all then give up and go home.

I disagree, though, with his interim assessment of Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone. See my review here.

Charles Stross (whom Priest castigates in his piece) has linked to a comment thread engendered by Priest’s rant and has also seized upon the criticism as a marketing opportunity (see link to Stross’s post.)

Among other things Priest complains Stross writes “och-aye” dialogue. “Och-aye” dialogue. What’s wrong with that? People do not necessarily speak RP, or estuary, or USian, now or in the future. Get over it.

By the way, I used to receive a yearly invitation to the Clarke Award do but I could never go – it’s in London and I always had work that day and the next. Those invitations dried up some while ago now, though.

*Stushie is a Scottish word for contretemps.
stushie [ˈstʊʃɪ], stishie, stashie
n Scot
1. a commotion, rumpus, or row
2. a state of excitement or anxiety; a tizzy. Also spelled stooshie, stoushie.

By Light Alone by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2011, 407p

 By Light Alone cover

I recently read Roberts’s Stone and was fairly impressed but have so far missed out on his more recent BSFA award nominated novel Yellow Blue Tibia and the earlier quite well received New Model Army. When By Light Alone popped up on this year’s BSFA Awards novel list I decided it was time to sample more.

In By Light Alone global warming has raised sea levels to the extent that a portion of “our” world has been submerged. A wall shields New York from the raised waters. More importantly the Neocles bug has enabled humans to photosynthesise, to be capable of producing blood sugars merely by breathing and drinking water. “Proper” food is scarce, a luxury available only to the rich, who take great care not to be inoculated and differentiate themselves as much as possible form the poor underclass “longhairs” – now kept jobless as there is no need to pay them. These spend hours exposing their fanned hair to the sun for sustenance.

A rich New York family on a skiing holiday in the Caucasus region has their daughter kidnapped. It is nearly a year before she is returned, changed. The novel explores the effects of the kidnapping on all involved. It is divided into four sections, each with a different viewpoint character.

The first and third parts are seen respectively through the thoughts of George Denoone, the father, and Marie Lewinski, the mother. (They are married but she has kept her own name.) The treatment in these two sections is more like a “mainstream” novel than SF. They reveal the pair and their acquaintances to be thoroughly tedious and self-regarding people, and hence fail to engage the reader’s sympathy. Of course they are meant to be aloof, being rich, and to be unwittingly treating their servants with disregard, but crucially we are not made to feel their emotions. It is as if we are seeing them all through a veil. George in particular is an extremely passive and unthinking character, annoyingly so. Indeed so disengaged is he that, in what is effectively an info dump, another character has to explain to him the ramifications of the Neocles bug.

The second section gives us the returned daughter’s viewpoint, which is more immediate and engaging. It is not until the fourth section, though, (pg 261!) that the novel starts to pick up. The focus here is on Issa, a longhair in the Caucasus. Some of this part of the book reminded me in its tonal qualities of Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine (which is a much better novel.) Even though this section is explicitly tied into the rest at the end – by a connection fairly obvious from the off – overall By Light Alone does not fully cohere, feeling disjointed and unbalanced. It is really four shorter stories juxtaposed; not a unified whole.

I also had some problems with the scenario. Roberts does recognise the need of pregnant women for nutrition beyond mere sugars; indeed he makes this almost a plot point as they take jobs to gain the necessary food to bear a child. The males are presented as useless, not even drones. However, trace elements are necessary for everyone; not just the pregnant. The odd insect or soil which longhairs are said to eat at times would not suffice to assuage this. He also has the longhairs quickly lack energy in the absence of sunlight. Were the process in fact so inefficient it would not be worthwhile. After all plants survive throughout the hours of darkness quite well, their cells respire just as animal cells do. Indeed plants produce surplus sugars – and build them into starch.

Roberts plays on the fact that throughout human history the default state is that of poverty. The plight of the jobless longhairs is presented as an extension of this. (It is hardly Roberts’s fault but a reminder that “the poor are always with us” is not the most uplifting message to be hearing in a time of recession/austerity.)

In addition more attention could have been paid to minor detail. A character named Ysabella has her name spelled in four different ways inside the first twelve pages, though admittedly two of these are diminutives.

Roberts’s explicit referencing, twice, of a certain Arthur C Clarke phrase is a nod to the SF constituency but the SF elements of the book tend towards the perfunctory. While I am all for bringing more rigour in characterisation and the like to the SF novel By Light Alone might perhaps be falling between two stools. I really cannot see it being among the five best SF novels of last year.

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