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Bete (SF) - Adam Roberts ****

For a long time, my taste in science fiction writers was limited to the favourites from my youth. The likes of Asimov, Blish, Brunner, Clarke, Heinlein, Kornbluth and Pohl. About as trendy as I got was Zelazny. But lately I've discovered two who have re-invigorated my love of SF - Iain M. Banks and Adam Roberts, both combining style and entertainment with superb ideas that really make you think.

The opening of Roberts' novel Bête had me spellbound. The cow that a farmer is about to kill is pleading for its life - and the scene is handled brilliantly. So too are conversations exploring the borderline between AI and consciousness. If an animal is made apparently intelligent by an implanted chip, is it the chip that is intelligent or the animal... or neither?

Some of the rest of the book worked well for me as well. The surreal conversations, packed with popular culture quotes (some of which I got) were fascinating. However, I'm not a great fan of disaster novels - I loved Wyndham as a teenager, but rather grew out of the callousness of the whole concept; the action that takes place throughout Bête is a disaster novel scenario, even if, this being Roberts, it is given all sorts of unexpected twists. So it's my fault, rather than the book's that I was fascinated by that opening scenario and the main character (especially as a friend is an ex-organic dairy farmer), but for me, it would have made a brilliant short story or novella, rather than requiring the rest of the book.

So Bête is not one of my favourite Roberts novels, even though the bits that really got to me comprised some of the best SF writing I've ever seen. Let's be clear, every Roberts novel is worth far more than most post 60s SF - and I strongly encourage anyone who likes science fiction, or the philosophy of AI to read this book. It simply wasn't in my top five.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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