Extract / Preview: Bete by Adam Roberts

Bete - Adam Roberts


Turing-testing the cow

As I raised the bolt-gun to its head the cow said: ‘Won’t you at least Turing-test me, Graham?’
‘Don’t call me Graham,’ I told it. ‘My wife calls me Graham. My mum calls me Graham. Nobody else.’
‘Oh, Mister Penhaligon,’ the cow said, sarcastically. We’ll have to assume, for the moment, that cows are capable of sarcasm. ‘It won’t much delay you. And if I fail, then surely, surely, go ahead: bye-bye-bos-taurus. But!’
‘You’re  not helping your case,’ I said, ‘by  enunciating so clearly. You don’t sound like a cow.’
‘Moo,’ said the cow, arching one hairless eyebrow.

‘Human speech evolved in the mouths of humans,’ I told the beast. ‘Cow-mouths have a completely different architecture. You shouldn’t be able to get your lips and tongue around phonemes like Graham and Turing.’ But I lowered the bolt-gun. Idiotic, of course; but it was unnerving all the same. When my daughter Jen was younger she had a doll called Snuggle Snore-Gal. Oh, she loved that plastic artefact from its nylon hairdo to its sealed-together pink toes. She talked to it, and the doll talked back to her. She clutched it to her every night as she slept. Then the doll somehow got dropped in bucket of Rodenticide. There was no way I could be sure Jen wouldn’t secretly sneak the toy from whichever dump bin I threw it in and cuddle herself to toxic shock – she was stubborn, like that, my lovely Jen – so I decided to burn it. It was a ten-inch-high toy doll but it begged for its life with an ingenuous piteousness that wrenched my heart. A ten-cent chip made in India, stuffed in the kind of plastic doll they give away free when you buy ten euros of fuel, and I felt like a Nazi commandant.

A cow is not a doll. A cow is larger than a doll.

‘My mouth is a lot more flexible than yours,’ said the cow.

‘My tongue is longer and much more manoeuvrable. Plus I have a four-compartment stomach designed to release cud for rechewing, so I can augment breath sounds with gastric gas release sounds. Human phonemes are a doddle.’

I sat back on the concrete floor. A breeze loitered somewhere near the entrance to the barn, as if uncertain whether to come properly in. A few strands of straw lifted themselves wearily from the stone ground and spun about and settled down. I looked across at where the cow was standing: its sherry- coloured hide; one conker-coloured eye swivelling to keep me in view; the rubbery chandelier of its udders. Then a cloud outside slid away from the sun and a great trapezoid shaft of sunlight appeared through the door, containing a trillion scintillant crumbs of dust. Somewhere outside, a long way off, I could hear the rest of the herd lowing. Such a fine old word for the noise cattle make! Rather over-dignifying that brain-damaged wrenched-from-the-chest  heave of a sound they make. But at least the ones outside were mooing. At least they weren’t quoting Antonio Damasio at me.

‘There’s nothing magical or spiritual about consciousness, Graham,’ said the cow. ‘Any cortical architecture which can support learning and recall and which involves multiple, hierarchically organized loops of axonal projections converging on nodes out of which projections also diverge to the points of origin of convergence is functionally conscious.’

‘Grass, yum,’ I said. ‘Moo moo.’

‘Ask me anything,’ said the cow. ‘Seriously.’

‘Let me tell you what has happened here,’ I said, getting to my feet again. A bolt-gun is a heavy piece of kit and it tugged wearisomely upon my arm. ‘Amongst us humans there are some who object to the eating of meat, and to the slaughter of cattle that diet necessitates. Over the years these activists have tried various strategies to interrupt the supply of meat to the market. I’m now standing in a shed talking to the latest of these.’

‘You think I don’t understand the specific circumstances of my consciousness?’ the cow replied. ‘You think I don’t know how this thinking-I came about? Oh, Graham, of course I do! I remember what it was like before – what I was like. My upgrade contains within it large amounts of data, including complete files on the organization that implanted it. They’re called DBDG – it stands for Deep Blue Deep Green. I can give you an @-address if you’d like to speak to one of their spokespeople. If it’s a matter of financial compensation for the loss of earnings I represent, then they have access to subventions and credit streams.’

‘It’s not one cow,’ I said. I was speaking to myself, of course, not to the beast. ‘It’s my whole way of life. My parents were farmers. Their parents. You think a one-off lump sum compensation package can make me feel OK for abandoning all that?’

‘Farming is essential!’ the cow agreed, earnestly. ‘We need farming more now than ever! But farming needn’t involve the murder of sentient creatures! A death without reason, and death without reason is—’ It broke off, because I had pressed the little ‘o’ of the bolt-gun barrel against its head.

‘Quote Morrissey again,’ I said, with a little spurt of Samuel- L-Jackson exhilaration lighting up inside me. ‘Quote Morrissey at me one more time. I dare you. I double-dare you.’

‘Please, Graham,’ said the cow, in a small voice. ‘I don’t want to die. Not like this, not in this crummy shed with corrugated iron for a roof, and gutters in the concrete floor to drain my blood away. I know I’m going to die one day – everything dies, I know that. But not like this.’

I lowered my aim a second time. ‘You’re an artefact of Moore’s law,’ I told it. ‘Sooner or later processing was bound to become cheap enough to make this kind of stunt practic- able. Creeping around farms in the dead of night, injecting chips into the craniums of farm animals. DBDG are common criminals, that’s what I think. Damaging my livestock. I should sue. Trespassing on my land. I should definitely sue.’

‘If we’re talking legal sanction, Graham,’ said the cow, in a rather haughty voice, ‘then I must remind you, these cases are still before the courts. The main suit is being considered by the European Supreme Court later this week. It’s sub judice. Parliament has legislated for a moratorium on beast-murder until and at such time as. Until such time as, Graham. You know what I think? I think the court will decide that I am a conscious, sentient, intelligent creature. It’s coming, Graham! Slaughtering the likes of me will become murder within a matter of weeks.’

‘If that happens,’ I said, ‘then your DBDG  friends will presumably organize nationwide action, and inject these fucking chips into the head of every cow and sheep they can. And farmers like me will get an awl and dig them all out of your skulls.’

‘You can’t remove the chip,’ said the cow. ‘It grows into the brain tissue. It can’t be dug out – except, of course, that you kill me.’

‘In which case,’ I said, ‘farmers will go to jail for murder. Or they’ll go out of business.’

‘DBDG don’t want either of those eventualities to come to pass,’ said the cow. The skin of its flanks did that twitchy fly-scare thing cows occasionally do, like the bumpers in a pinball table. ‘We need more farmers, not fewer. You could switch to arable farming.’

‘I don’t have enough land to make that financially viable, cow.’

‘Market  gardening! Smart greenhouses! There are low- interest loans available to help you convert! Please, Graham, I’m begging you.’

‘Do you know what, cow?’ I said. ‘I don’t feel like I’m talking to a cow, even a really smart one. I feel like I’m talking to a spokesperson from the Deep Blue Deep Green organization. I think that ought to figure in the Turing test, too. Suchlike considerations.’

‘Moo, Graham,’ said the cow. It made its spine into a Ω-shape and launched into a half-ton four-legged tap show on the concrete floor. It couldn’t get away, because I’d wrapped a chain around its horns and fixed it to the wall. ‘Please, Graham! I don’t want to die!’

I raised the bolt-gun a third time. ‘Don’t call me Graham,’ I said, and pulled the trigger.



Bete - Adam Roberts
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 right 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.
As we place more and more pressure on the natural world and become more and more divorced Adam Roberts’ new novel posits a world where nature can talk back, and can question us and our beliefs.
Roberts is an award winning author at the peak of his powers and each new novel charts an exciting new direction while maintaining a uniformly high level of literary achievement.