Beggars in Spain

Rating: +

Nancy Kress

This SF novel asks how society would react if genetic engineering created a class of people who didn't require sleep. Side-effects of sleeplessness include high intelligence, emotional stability, and good health, making the "Sleepless" highly productive an successful, even beyond the advantages of 24 hour alertness. The story focuses on the life of one "Sleepless", Leisha, one of the first babies engineered to have this new enhancement, and the only to accidentally be born with a normal, sleeping twin. Leisha and her Sleepless peers are initially accommodated in society, but as their undeniable superiority becomes clear people begin to resent and even hate them. As they near adulthood, normal "Sleepers" protest their equal competition in business, education, and research given their unequal and unnatural advantages.

The hatred of the Sleepless is meant to be understood as more than racism, in the sense of dislike of the different. The Sleepless are "better" in some very measurable ways, and they quickly become some of the most powerful and richest people in the country. More of the hostility comes from their success than from their biological differences. The philosophical conflict of the book is whether those genetically engineered for superiority should be embraced by a society for the advantages they give to everyone, or if they should be rejected as forcing Sleepers who previously would have been powerful into mainstream jobs and lives. At the same time society is rejecting the Sleepless, the Sleepless in turn are questioning whether the Sleepers have a right to the knowledge and products of the Sleepless when they offer nothing in return. The title of the book comes from this question of what one owes "a beggar in Spain".

The ultimate answers to the "deep" questions in the book don't cover much new ground, though it does offer a different context in which to consider them. However, it does a very nice job of pointing out the strong value put on fairness in our society and the degree to which this fairness often turns out to mean nobody should be too much better than anyone else, particularly if one is getting ahead by being smarter. Anti-intellectual biases are key to the hostility against Sleepless - at heart, they are hated because it isn't fair they happened to be born smarter, and without a need to sleep.

The book isn't just about large society trends, though. Leisha and the other Sleepless have interpersonal conflicts within their own small sub-society, and the most interesting parts of the book are watching their individual responses to the hatred against them. The expected range of reactions are shown - separatism, attempts to pass as Sleepers, and various attempts at integration. Even within her own family, Leisha's differences aren't accepted by all. There's a reason the story is mainly told from the perspective of the only Sleepless with a Sleeper twin, but predictable as the contrasting of their characters is, it is still effective.

In all, I thought this was a very good book. I've heard that the novella it was based on was better, but I liked many of the plotlines I suspect were not included in the shorter version. I haven't decided if I'm going to read the sequel, since I think the book ended at a good point, but I'm very glad to have read this. A strong '+'.


Review written July 2002.


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