BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Genetic engineering produces a race of humans that do not require sleep, thus they become more productive and, through economic pressure, disrupt the fabric of society.
PROS: Thought-provoking ideas; lots of things happen; fast-paced plot.
CONS: The last parts of the book felt slightly weaker, but I have to admit that I was only able to read it piecemeal over many days, which weakened my perception the storytelling.
BOTTOM LINE: A book so good, you’ll want to read the sequels.
One of the reasons I enjoy reading science fiction as a genre is that it presents interesting hypothetical situations. Even better is when those situations give rise to thought-provoking issues that begin to emerge when you carry the ideas through to logical conclusions.
Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress is a book so stuffed with thought-provoking ideas that you’ll want to stay up all night reading it. It would be fortunate, then, if you were genetically altered to not need sleep, like the new sub-race of humanity called The Sleepless. The emergence and evolution of the Sleepless is centerpiece of this novel. But let me back up a minute.
Beggars in Spain is an extension of the superb novella of the same name that won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards in 1992. (Part one of the book is the “Beggars in Spain” novella.) It deals with genetically engineering humans that do not require sleep. I read the novella recently and here is what I had to say about it:
The low-key but tense opening scene of Roger and Elizabeth Camden specifying their designer baby (and insisting on the alterable trait of sleeplessness) soon moves to the defining early years of Leisha and her twin sister Alice. Leisha is the Sleepless adored by rich patriarch Roger while Alice is the unplanned Sleeper adored by bitter mother Elizabeth. The twin sisters are not treated as equals in this dysfunctional family, a situation forced by Roger’s domineering presence and money. The Camdens subscribe to the Yagai school of philosophy which is predicated on the belief that spiritual dignity and joy is obtained through supporting oneself through mutually beneficial trade. This worldview clouds Leisha’s vision as the Sleepers’ hate and prejudice against the Sleepless mounts and the Sleepers begin to turn against the Sleepless when they get the better jobs, make more money and (as they soon learn) achieve extreme longevity. The pressure on Leisha to retreat to the Sleepless-built retreat named Sanctuary is enormous. Eventually, she succumbs to the “dark side” and sees the Sleepers as the enemy. But is there a lesson to be learned? Are the ideas behind Yagaiism flawed? Is the symbolically-mentioned beggar from Spain, who has nothing to offer in return, unworthy of compassion? Kress’ realistic characterizations also add much richness to the story. Nicely done!
Needless to say, I liked the novella enough to want to read more of the same. The remaining three parts of the book continue the saga of the Sleepless even further, through phases both logical and dramatic. Leisha, having achieved longevity, remains a central figure in each part of the book. Despite Leisha’s hope, the rift between Sleepers and Sleepless widens even further. Lines are not completely clear, though, as are some Sleepless are sympathetic to the Sleepers and vice versa. Driven by hate, people are determined to see destroyed those that are different from themselves. All of this tension leads to the migration/segregation of most of the Sleepless to an orbiting satellite where they reinforce the idea of community and their superiority over the people that created them. The Sleepless leader of Sanctuary, Jennifer Sharifi, soon becomes fanatical about Sleepless superiority to the point of creating biological weapons to use on Earth (among other dastardly deeds). To make matters worse, the Sleepless try some genetic engineering experiments on their own kind and create a race of Super-Sleepless, endowed with perfect memory and superior intelligence. In an ironic reversal, it is Sleepless that are now seen as beggars in the eyes of the Super-Sleepless.
Genetic engineering, it turns out, is a fantastic springboard for thought-provoking issues, as evidenced by even more of them in the later parts of the book. For instance, with humanity divided between Sleepers and Sleepless, how do you pick a jury of peers when a legal case involves a Sleepless? If you are forced to pick a side, which do you choose? What happens when technology advances faster than the law can accommodate? Does the sense of community outweigh the value of life when that life cannot contribute to society as a whole? What happens to anti-Sleepless prejudice when a method is discovered to turn anyone into a Sleepless? Is it fair for the government to overtax the Sleepless? What effects would a race of hyper-productive humans have on the economy? How does life change when all men are decidedly not created equal?
It was interesting to see the evolution of the rift between the differing human factions. It happens realistically over decades and thus comes off as frighteningly believable. This is first represented by Leisha and her sister Alice, then by the Sleepless and the Sleepers whose division is driven by economic realities, then spreads between Sleepers, Sleepless and Super-Sleepless alike. This evolution created a slow, smooth background buildup of tension throughout the narrative. As the extended family of Leisha and the population of Sleepless grew, so did the contention between characters. When Sanctuary plans to secede from the U.S. and threatens to unleash biological weapons, the U.S. government labels them terrorists and refuses to sit idle. Surprisingly, much of the political and economic discussion, which I normally don’t like in my fiction, was actually captivating. Any book that can do that while also providing thought-provoking content is certainly worthy of high marks.
I am looking forward to reading the two sequels to Beggars in Spain: Beggars and Choosers and Beggar’s Ride.