Beggars In Spain

Nancy Kress
Beggars In Spain Cover

Beggars In Spain -- Disappointing

Tar Daddoo

What is the Science Fiction Premise?

Beggars In Spain offers a world in which "designer genes" -- preselected genetic traits for one's children -- is feasible and increasingly common among the wealthy. The focal point of the novel is selection for the trait of sleeplessness, which ensures that one's child will no longer need to sleep. In addition, the story includes an extremely low-cost energy referred to as Y-energy, a form of cold fusion. There are an assortment of additional Science Fiction ideas, such as orbital colonies, but sleeplessness and Y-energy are the key Science Fiction premises.

Is the science of the premise explored?

The notion of sleepless people is central to the story and is discussed in some detail at the beginning of the story. This discussion is somewhat dissatisfying since it does not address the importance of sleep (even as understood in 1993 when the story was written). The discussion is mostly dismissive of any of the roles that sleep and dreaming play in human thought and well-being. Moreover, a considerable number of positive attributes accrue to the sleepless for no obvious reason. They are generally smarter and more productive, as if simply having more time in a day would ensure these traits. In addition, they are said to be happier and more well-balanced though the explanation behind this is neither clear nor compelling.

As for the Y-energy, we are provided almost no explanation of how it works and what its rules of operation are.

It does not appear that the author is particularly interested in either of these Science Fiction premises. Sleepless humans are superior in most of the ways that our society tends to reward. Y-energy ensures a world in which struggling and striving are not as essential as they once were. Once these conditions are established, the science is no longer important. (There is one exception to this that arises very late in the novel, but it is still not addressed very deeply.)

Is the impact of the premise on an individual explored?

We certainly are shown the consequences for the Sleepless of their situation. There is accelerated accomplishment, a feeling of alienation from Sleepers, and envy on the part of many Sleepers.

As for the Sleepers, we can get some insight into their feelings that the Sleepless have an unfair advantage. With a few exceptions, the reactions of Sleepers are treated as stereotypes. For the exceptions, their reactions are more nuanced, but in some key cases a bit inscrutable.

Is the impact of the premise on society explored?

The central focus of Beggars In Spain is the manner in which society adapts to cheap energy and the Sleepless adapt to a Sleeper-dominated society. I cannot really say more without revealing too much about the story.

How well written is the story?

The book is well-written. The prose flows smoothly and the story is engaging.

Can I recommend the book?

I do not feel altogether comfortable recommending this book, despite its engaging story. My first problem is that the author does not seem especially interested in the science. The Science Fiction premises are simply a means to contrive a world with certain properties, i.e., super-humans and cheap energy. This is nothing new in Science Fiction, but it is always a bit disappointing, especially when one of the Science Fiction premises is novel and deserving of a first-class exploration.

My second problem is that the unfolding nature of society over the eighty or so years of the book is based on a view of humanity that I do not altogether share. In a sense, the book reveals an implicit science of cultural adaptation. Any Science Fiction novel that shows society changing in response to new technology does this and, indeed, most novels do not bother to explain the theory behind the imagined changes. When there is no explanation of the changes, the reader falls back on his own views of what seems feasible. If the changes seem consistent or only slightly different from what our naive theories predict, we can maintain our suspension of disbelief. If -- as happened for me with Beggars In Spain -- society has turned into something I would never have predicted based on the evidence offered, it becomes difficult to stay engaged.

Finally, it appears that even the author does not believe in the implicit theory of culture portrayed by the novel. Some of this can be seen in the behavior of the individuals on whom the author chooses to focus. They seem anomalous in light of the general tendency of the society. More important, however, are some of the authors assertions in the preface to the novel.

It is my practice to read prefaces after reading the novel, which I did for Beggars In Spain. I believe that a novel should stand on its own without biasing comments from the author or anyone else. [Just remember, I did not force you to read this:-)] In the preface, I learned that the novel actually began -- and won awards -- as a novella. I also learned that the author was using the novel to explore world views that she does not share. This means that a "straw man" world view was stretched from a 100-150 page novella to a 400 page novel. I cannot prove it, but I would speculate that exploration of a world view that you do not believe in should be short and sweet. Like a magic trick, you do not want to linger too long on the part that makes no sense..

Tar Daddoo