Tuesday 28 July 2015

What's your point of view? Adam Roberts's Bête

Bete by Adam Roberts

Bête by Adam Roberts

"A man is about to kill a cow. He discusses life and death and his right to kill with the compliant animal. He begins to suspect he may be about to commit murder. But kills anyway ...
It began when the animal rights movement injected domestic animals with artificial intelligences in bid to have the status of animals realigned by the international court of human rights. But what is an animal that can talk? Where does its intelligence end at its machine intelligence begin? And where might its soul reside?"
There's that bit in Douglas Adams's seminal Hitchikers  - ably played by Peter Davison (and the story goes that he really wanted to be in the program but was playing the Doctor at the time and could only be in it if heavily made up)


Which is a slightly more benign vision of the future than Roberts's. What if animals were given intelligence and the means of speech - would killing them be murder?

For this book Roberts chose to write in first person point of view (POV). Since over ninety percent (according to some sources) of speculative fiction is written in close third person POV why would Roberts choose to embed the entire story within an "I"? Apart from one part (no spoilers).

Really - if you are going to ask fundamental questions as to the nature of consciousness what POV would you use?

Many writing guides and blog posts concentrate on the limitations of first person POV, and many seek to avoid it altogether. John Gardner in his The Art of Fiction seems positively censorious of it saying that it lacks grandeur, is claustrophobic and makes narcissists of us all.

But to explore consciousness would it be useful to head hop? Exactly because we cannot know what another conscious being is thinking, except through tell-tale signs, that makes it a good reason not to use omniscient, which is out of fashion nowadays anyway. However a great many beginning writers have trouble with limited third person, slipping often into a hybrid of limited and omniscient (and not only beginning writers, I've been told - although have not read them - the Harry Potter books have occasional POV errors). But this is obviously not Roberts's failing and not the reason he chose first person.

Although one can only speculate I believe he chose first person for a couple of reasons. The first I alluded to above, that it accentuates the fact we do not know what other people are thinking, and how much truer would that be for animal consciousnesses which we tend to anthropomorphise? The second is more to do with the plot, which I won't spoil, but suffice to say it turns on our narrators withdrawal from society.

The conceit of the book is such that it is not only the nature of consciousness that you can meditate upon whilst reading but also man's relationship with nature. As well as, by using our relationship with animals, an object lesson in how people treat each other.

Roberts has the skill such that everything that happens seems necessary. It is a plot that simply works, all the various cogs and wheels running smoothly in the background beneath your conscious notice. It is therefore a very satisfying book. Of course B happened, because A happened and therefore there could be no other development. That this plotting appears effortless belies the skill involved.

There are other limitations with first person POV that can trip the unwary or inexperienced writer - there is a "tell" trap. Everyone by now must have heard the dreaded words - "show don't tell" - which is a whole other post (and something else beginning writers struggle with). But there is a tendency for first person POV to fall into letting the character tell what happens, rather than being in immediate scene. The book immediately picked up after Bête, for reasons of book club choice, was Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids (20th Century…

And despite being a massive fan of Wyndham when younger I am surprised to see that there are some issues with the first person POV in this book, especially as the narrator often adopts a lecturing tone to tell the reader things, that would have been much better parceled out.

But nothing like that trips Roberts up, and it could have done. The information about the chips that give the animals consciousness and speech is revealed through conversation and certainly not all in one chunk. Compare and contrast, if you will, the second chapter of Triffids which is one massive info dump, told to you by the narrator.

Writing in the first person is usually the best way to establish a deep and personal understanding of a single character whereas the third person is, according to received wisdom, more free in storytelling potential, although, of course has its limitations too.

One potential limitation is distance, although with very limited 3rd person this is somewhat mitigated. There is the possibility that the reader will spot the author's voice hiding in there (the more omniscient the more likely) and this could be another reason Roberts chose first person. You are in one head and one only and the author's voice is severely muted. He is using the fact that you are constrained in one head to examine the nature of  only knowing what it is like to be being constrained in one head. 

The main character's constant refrain of "Don't call me Graham" when his name is, in fact, Graham is also a canny nod to the nature of naming and individuality and the sense of self, which is inextricably linked with how we think of ourselves. This makes me want to write an article upon identity now...

By exploring the "what if" of one potential future, and it there is a degree of plausibility to it, Roberts has very much embraced the speculative in Speculative Fiction. Highly Recommended.

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