Leisha Camden is one of the first people whose parents have opted for what is believed to be a huge step forward in genetics. Her genetic material has been extensively altered but the most striking alteration is in the fact Leisha does not need to sleep. As a side effect of this alteration she is also unusually intelligent and psychologically stable. In the same treatment a second egg is fertilized. Leisha's sister Alice does not have the same genetic improvements and is in effect an unwanted by product. As Leisha grows up to be a promising lawyer, Alice is mostly ignored by her father. A situation that reflects a number of developments in society at large.
Early in the twenty-first century a new and clean power source becomes available that dramatically changes the world's economy. Patents on this invention makes the US enormously rich. At the same time a generation of bright, sleepless citizens in maturing ready to take advantage of their superior education and skills. Unfair competition the sleepers feel. Hatred and jealousy flare as society splits in a class of productive, rich and intelligent class and a class who's empty lives are supported by a minority an decreasing minority. Not a situation people on either side of the divide are happy with.
This reprint edition includes an introduction by Kress in which she explains something of her influences. Normally I am tempted to skip the introduction but this one is very enlightening. Kress uses ideas of Ayn Rand and Ursula K. Le Guin, in particular those expressed in her novel The Dispossessed. I have read neither Rand nor The Dispossessed (that last I mean to change sometime soon) but what I have read about Rand and Le Guin was enough to see some these influences. It might be interesting to read all three if you consider picking up this book. I'm not entirely sure I can overcome my hesitation to try Rand myself though.
Part of the novel relies pretty heavily on an ideology based on Rand's Objectivism. She does this in the guise of the teachings of Yagaiism, a school of thinking advocated by Kenzo Yagai, inventor of the cheap Y-energy (John Galt anyone?). It links dignity to what an individual can achieve through his or her own effort and that (voluntary) contract is the basis for society to operate. To put (part of) in in the words of Yagai himself:
"No, the only dignity, the only spirituality, rests on what a man can achieve with his own efforts. To rob a man of his chance to achieve, and to trade what he achieves with others, is to rob him of his spiritual dignity as a man. This is why communism failed in our time. All coercion - all force to take from a man his own efforts to achieve - causes spiritual damage and weakens a society. Conscription, theft, fraud, violence, welfare, lack of legislative representation - all rob a man of his chance to choise, to achieve on his own, to trade the results of his own achievements with others. Coercion is a cheat. It produces nothing new. Only freedom - the freedom to achieve, the freedom to trade freely the results of achievement - creates the environment proper to the dignity and spirituality of man."The some of the highly productive and increasingly threatened Sleepless are great believers in this philosophy. Combined with their increasing isolation, in most cases of their own choosing, a head on collision with a society where an huge part of the population is basically living of what a minority produces, appears inevitable. Where Leisha and Alice come to some sort of solution of the problems in their relationship, there seems to be no fix for what ails US society. I thought the rift in society was portrayed very much in terms of absolutes. Especially in later parts of the novel everybody seems to be either highly talented and absurdly productive, or a lazy, uneducated leech of society.
Book One - Leisha 2008 - Chapter 3
I must admit my reaction to the book is coloured in part by my dislike of Objectivism. I think the idea too extreme to be practical, especially on a planet as densely populated as ours. To an extend, it also fails to take into account the fact that people are social animals, which means dealing with people even when you don't want to or feel they are not entitled to your consideration. What really bothers me about it though, it not so much the idea itself, but the extremes to which some of its supporters seems to take it. Frankly, some of the things proposed based on Objectivist thinking make for disturbing future. A future that could very well hold some elements of the conflict described in Beggars in Spain.
Fuelling this movement is the side of society that lives of welfare without contributing anything. These people are described as a group that is quite happy to take what the government offers, and it offers a lot in the prosperous late twenty-first century USA. It kills any curiosity or drive they may have had to improve their lot or develop their talents. This is a well known criticism of welfare systems and one not entirely without merit but the extend to which this phenomenon is displayed in this book is hard to believe. These two elements and the way they feed on each other in the book makes for disturbing reading in several places in the story. Which, all things considered, shows how powerful Kress' writing can be.
Impressive this clash of ideas may be, for me the part of the novel that deals with the relationship between Leisha and her sister Alice is more interesting. Especially early on in the novel when the two are growing up and growing apart, Kress manages to create a very intimate view of what it is the be Sleepless and how much of a benefit this modification is and what this does to Alice's personality. We see most of it through Leisha's eyes. Especially the young Leisha does not seem to be capable of fully understanding the burden the inevitable comparison to her brilliant sister is for Alice. They are two wonderfully contrasting characters.
There is plenty of food for thought in this book. I've only covered some of the ideas covered in the book and barely touched upon the applications of genetic manipulation that are mentioned in the story. It was not a very comfortable read for me though. The way Kress describes a lot of these issues is pretty confronting I suppose and rarely in a way I agree with. Kress meant this as an exploration of ideas and not so much a statement of what is right in her eyes so don't let this put you off. Beggars in Spain is a thought-provoking read, one that will make you reconsider your own convictions. There are two more novels in this series. I'm curious to see where Kress intends to take all this in Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride.
Title: Beggars in Spain
Author: Nancy Kress
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 1993