Book review: ‘Beggars in Spain’ (the novella), by Nancy Kress

24 07 2013

Nancy Kress is a five-time winner of the Nebula Awards. She’s also taken out Hugo, Campbell, and Sturgeon Awards. Her SF tends towards near-future settings, and frequently makes use of genetic engineering, AI, and ballet. (The ‘ballet’ aspect suggests a thematic connection with the writing of Catherine Asaro, but this appears to be mere coincidence—although it does, obviously, provide me with a convenient although slightly stilted segue by which to refer to Asaro’s Primary Inversion, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.)


One of Kress’s Nebula wins was for her novella Beggars in Spain in 1991; it also won the Hugo Award for Best Novella the same year. The work was subsequently extended into a novel of the same name, for which two sequels (Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride) and a related novelette (‘Sleeping Dogs’) have also been written. My minimal, Ford-Prefect-level research not having alerted me to the existence of any of the novels, I purchased the original award-winning novella in Kindle form a week or so back, and have since digested it. What follows is the second in my series of book reviews for the self-imposed ‘XX Hard SF Reading Challenge’. (And I should add that I am interested in suggestions of new authors and novels for the challenge: please leave a comment if you know of a female author of hard SF of whom I should be made aware. The suggestion of Beggars in Spain came out of such a request: my thanks to Thoraiya Dyer for mentioning it.)

In Beggars in Spain, Leisha Camden is a Sleepless, someone who has been genetically engineered (at the instigation, primarily, of her entrepreneurial father Roger, who hopes for a child of exceptional talent and drive) to have no need, nor ability, for sleep. The story starts before Leisha’s conception through IVF (and, as it happens, the accidental conception also of Leisha’s ‘normal human’—sleeper—twin sister Alice), but most of the story is viewed through Leisha’s eyes, albeit in third person. Born into a wealthy Chicago household, and with around-the-clock nannying and tuition—Leisha’s preschool experience is of late-night lessons, delivered by ‘Mamselle’ while the rest of the household sleeps—her upbringing is never in danger of lacking for priviledge, but it is not without difficulties of its own. To the ‘sleepers’, the Sleepless are a possible threat, a tiny (but growing) band of elitist superhumans who are, it seems, destined to take over the world. To the Sleepless, who did not ask to be born this way, it is evident that they are widely hated for reasons that are beyond their control; it is also evident that it is incumbent on them to find a way to reassure the wider mass of common humanity that they are not the danger they might seem to be.

Kress’s novella is underpinned by plausible science (although I must confess that I don’t know my way around the human brain sufficiently to have a reliable opinion on whether her genetic modifications to the Raphe nuclei, on the brainstem, would be appropriate as a method for engineering humans not requiring of sleep), and does a nice job of predicting a near-future setting. As befits SF, it’s also a story of ideas as well as of character, with many of these ideas devolving around the philosophy of Yagaiism, the worldview of Kenzo Yagai, inventor of a ‘cold fusion’ energy generator that guarantees effectively limitless, affordable energy. Leisha’s father Roger Camden is one of the earliest adherents of Yagaiism (and an early investor in the technology, a decision which pays rich dividends), and Leisha naturally seeks to understand the struggles of the Sleepless to gain acceptance from the broader community through the Yagaiist (‘mutually beneficial contract’) principles with which she is familiar. The book’s title comes from a question posed by one of the other Sleepless: where is the benefit, to the benefactor, in giving money to the beggars in Spain? (Kress has explained that this focus is her attempt at finding a ‘third way’ between the libertarian principles of Ayn Rand and the communalistic societies of Ursula Le Guin’s fiction.)

While the science background and social exploration referenced above are important threads within the novella, they do not overwhelm the characterisation or the story arc. And though most of the narrative settles down to a portrayal of the action from Leisha’s ‘always-on’ point of view, Kress employs a few other POVs in the story’s initial chapters. The characterisation is handled without unnecessary flourish, and it’s to Kress’s credit that she gives even such an initially unsympathetic character as Leisha’s father Roger—a man unashamed in his desire to purchase for his as-yet-unconceived daughter all the genetic enhancements he considers useful, regardless of the legality of the transaction, or of the emotional cost to his current wife—as more than the simple villain or cypher to which his role could so easily have been restricted. Similarly, Leisha’s friends (Sleepless and otherwise) are a varied lot, increasingly cautious and argumentative as the story builds to a climax. The relationship between the disparate sisters (Leisha and her ‘normal’ twin Alice) is also handled very well, and forms one of the novella’s most satisfying strands.

Is it hard SF? Pretty much, with the proviso that (as I see it) the science is somewhat speculative, and also noting that much of the resulting speculation is sociological. (Not, as Seinfeld would say, that there’s anything wrong with that.) Are there infodumps, and are some of these infodumps disguised as dialogue? Guilty as charged, to a modest degree, and restricted mainly to the story’s opening chapter, which has the task of setting the scene and explaining the story’s scientific underpinnings. I’d have preferred that the infodumps be unadorned by speech marks, but I’m not going to sweat it. Science content in SF is a good thing.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the scientific extrapolation presented within the story is a bit too rosy. Outside of the strongly subjective viewpoint by which they are viewed through a sleeper society, there are no apparent adverse side-effects to turning off the sleep switch: the Sleepless are portrayed as significantly more focussed, more capable, more ‘joyful’ than those stuck in the broader mass of humanity, and there are other metabolic advantages presented also, as the story gathers momentum. My own innate skepticism leaves me unwilling to believe that a biochemical pathway so innately hardwired into all vertebrate life can be so succesfully subverted, without metabolic cost. If you believe that you might be untroubled by this play to optimism (or even if, as with me, it raises a few niggling doubts), I think you’ll enjoy Beggars in Spain.




3 responses

24 07 2013

I’m so pleased that you read the novella! Thank you for including it in your challenge.

I do think you’re being a bit unfair in your review, though. One of your favourite series’ ever is Banks’ Culture novels, which you call both hard SF and realistic.

Really, do you think the science of the Culture is more rigorous than that of Beggars in Spain?

Really, you think the optimism of Beggars in Spain is unrealistic, but the Culture is not? I think the Culture is WAY more optimistic.

Interested to hear how you would compare them.


24 07 2013

Thanks for the feedback, Thoraiya!

Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever applied the ‘hard SF’ tag to the Culture novels (and if I did, it’s something I resile from these days). Banks used a helluva lot of gadgetry in his Culture novels, but he did so without real concern for the scientific plausibility of the concepts. I look on the Culture series as a work of space opera, not genuine hard SF: it is, indeed, one of my absolute favourite examples of space opera, but in terms of science content, it’s pretty much just smoke and mirrors. (Bujold’s Vorkosigan series would be my other space opera favourite, and as Patty has noted in a previous comment, the later Vorkosigan books have a reasonable amount of scientific rigour.) The Banks work which comes closest to hard SF, in my opinion, is ‘The Algebraist’, and it’s still mainly space-opera.

My quibble about the optimism in ‘Beggars in Spain’ is purely on the science, not the sociological extrapolations (where Kress takes pains to show that there are substantial difficulties in the Sleepless/sleeper dynamic). It’s possible that the subsequent novels identify some scientific drawbacks not explored in the novella, but based only on the novella, I was surprised that every metabolic side-effect of the treatment–including the things that only surfaced years after Leisha’s birth–appeared to be positive, and that’s the reaction I was reporting. (I was reminded, while reading it, of John Wyndham’s ‘Trouble with Lichen’, which takes a similarly optimistic view of biochemical tinkering: while I enjoyed the Wyndham story, I retained a nagging feeling that he wasn’t playing fair with his readers. I’m not, by any means, a fan of out-and-out dystopianism, but I do appreciate a sense for science-based downsides.)

As to comparing the Culture with ‘Beggars in Spain’, that’s very much an apples-and-oranges thing … but I’d say ‘Beggars’ would clearly have more credible hard-SF credentials.


25 07 2013

Yeah, I agree it is more common for writers (of TV shows, especially) to take the “if we don’t get sleep we turn into ravening psychopaths” pathway, so maybe it is optimistic. I guess I assumed there were some new metabolic pathways opened up for waste breakdown or removal, or waking-brain-defragging-abilities inserted into them, and that if research had suggested such things were possible, she would have described them in detail, but research had not yet suggested them…I bet she could put way more science in if she was writing it today 🙂

I haven’t read “The Algebraist”. Excuse me while I detour to Goodreads to put it on the list 🙂

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