Beauty and the beast! The lady or the tiger! Kirsty Logan's The Rental Heart and Adam Roberts' Bête - two thought-provoking books about well... you'll see.
Kirsty Logan's The Rental Heart (2014) is a slim volume that packs a whale of a punch. Although the collection's 20 stories are all (to generalise wildly) on the theme of 'love', it captures a huge variety of emotional nuance: from heartbreak to resentment to loneliness to pure, unwatered desire.
Logan's style is deceptively ephemeral - the stories are often phrased like fairytales or delivered like children's stories, but they're neither: they're meaty, visceral and, on most occasions, utterly ruthless. Virtually all are genre-inflected: Logan captures twenty worlds where relationships are unbounded by the 'rules' - physical or otherwise.
One of my personal favourites include "Underskirts", the story of a beautiful countess who hand-picks peasant girls to become her lovers. Told from a dozen different points of view, the tale is alternately horrifying and uplifting - is the countess the saviour or the villainess of the piece? The story spirals in closer and closer, with every perspective adding something new to the mix.
Another, "The Broken West", is less ambiguously forlorn. Two brothers search for their missing father - in the most heart-breaking of ways. Their own lives degenerate into a haze of self-destructive sex and alcohol, as their (impossible) quest takes its toll. As with "Underskirts", "The Broken West" describes the lingering impact of a single person's actions - a domino effect of broken lives.
"The Last 3,600 Seconds" is exactly that: an apocalypse story. But rather than a story of redemption or salvation, this is a story of the completely ordinary. These are two people who more or less fit together, are special only for their ordinariness - two of O'Henry's 'other' four million - sitting out the final minutes of the end of the world. It is, as with the other tales, both heart-breaking and strangely satisfying.
Logan's stories occasionally veer towards the abstract, but even then, they are never sentimental or twee. Similarly, as much as they address the notion of desire, they're never prurient. Be they about boys operated by coins, girls with antlers or completely ordinary people, Logan's stories have capture - in gorgeously direct prose - the powerful connections that arise between people. An excellent collection, and well-worth reading.
Adam Roberts' Bête is The Rental Heart's opposite in almost every way: meandering instead of terse, language that's ornamental rather than sparse, allusive rather than metaphoric, largely futuristic rather than historic, a sweeping scale rather than focused intimacy. If Logan's collection reminds us of Angela Carter, Roberts' novel implies a combination of Orwell and Richard Jeffries. Yet the two books unite in that Bête too is - ultimately - about love.
This may seem a rather forced interpretation: Bête is set in a world where green activists (or terrorists - depending where you stand on the story's events) develop a microchip that allows animals the power of speech. Although the initial wave of 'cunning' animals is small, the chips are easily replicated and passed on - before long, hundreds of thousands of 'Bêtes' on are on the prowl. As well as the expected results (our protagonist, a cattle farmer is suddenly out of a job as Britain goes vegan), there are great repercussions: what does it mean to be 'human'? Or a 'citizen'? To be represented, and, quite literally, heard?
Roberts is one of the modern masters of 'big idea' science fiction - a single concept, extrapolated and explored through all its various ramifications and permutations. And the talking animals of Bête are no exception - but like his literary predecessors, Roberts cleverly limits the story to something more manageable. Bête is, for example, a quintessentially British novel - along the lines of After London or even the works of John Wyndham, one gets the impression that the world extends only so far as the ocean. Graham Penhaligon, farmer-cum-poet is an archetypical throwback to the cosy catastrophes - perplexingly overeducated and mildly conservative. Bête is also a deeply personal novel, in that this is a book not about the world - or about Britain - as much as it is a focused on the significance of a single person, Graham. Nor does our protagonist ever waver from his self-interest: even when he engages with larger social or political movements, it is with a certain reserve. He is not a man for causes - even with 'humanity' at stake.
Instead, despite the sweeping scale of the core concept, Bête is essentially one man's journey - literally and figuratively. Graham wanders peripatetically throughout the countryside, often alone, often with a single companion. He is a stranger to man and beast, and, most importantly, a complete outsider to society. Graham essentially checks out of the apocalypse - dipping in and out of an increasingly-fragmented civilisation to buy beer. Instead, his is the story of occasional, but deeply meaningful, interpersonal contact: with another man of the road ("Preacherman"), with a strong-willed and charismatic lover (Anne) and occasionally with a particularly infuriating talking cat. Although the comparisons to Animal Farm are obvious, Bête is probably a closer relation to Down and Out in Paris and London. This is only tangentially a novel about sweeping societal changes and incidentally a science fictional quest - Bête is about fleeting but meaningful relationships, the aching loneliness of the outsider and, ultimately, the challenge of transcendental, all-consuming love. Graham filters his emotions through literary allusions and ceaseless sarcasm (q.v. Britishness), but there is no disguising their intensity.
Readers fond of Roberts' chillier hard science fiction may be disappointed by the latest turn in his work. Although the sweeping idea is still there, underpinning the setting, Bête is, instead of a removed think-piece, a deeply affecting and characterful narrative. Graham is an irascible, reluctant, foul-mouthed throwback to an earlier era of fiction - and Roberts' best character yet. Bête is ferocious, powerful and Roberts' best yet.