Beggars in Spain (Novella) by Kress, Nancy, 1991

Beggars in Spain (Novella) by Kress, Nancy

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Beggars in Spain may be the best SF novella that has ever been written. Since its original publishing date in 1991 it has been expanded by Kress into not only a best-selling and critically acclaimed novel, but a very successful series of books. On one level this is the story of how the world's economy is affected first by the development of a very cheap method of producing energy then by the genetic modification of humans so that they no longer need sleep. But on a more interpersonal level its the story of one of the "sleepless," and how she realizes that the world needs even more than the enormous gifts that she and her kind can provide. Five out of five stars.

Early in the 21st century geneticists figure out how to engineer a human being so that all of the "necessary" functions performed by sleep can be accomplished while awake, and tweak the genome of certain babies in a way that eliminates sleep entirely. Camden, an extremely wealthy Chicagoan investor hears of the process even before it is announced publicly and pushes the board of the corporation that has developed the process to apply it to a zygote he and his wife have created. The process is successful, but Camden's wife gives birth to fraternal twins, one modified and one unmodified. Leisha, the modified twin needs no sleep and as a result excels in her studies and is viewed as a strange sort of prodigy. While Leisha becomes his father's darling, her twin Alice is valued only by her mother. And this dichotomy basically sets the tone for the entire novella, which is in part about how society reacts to the threat that these new super-beings present. Its not a physical threat at first. They become an economic threat that others see as one that may eventually take over government and change ways of life. It only becomes physical when normal humans start to understand the hardiness of the sleepless' genes. Since the sleepless are entirely new, it is only gradually that people start to realize things about them that eventuallyturn the tide of public opinion against them, such as the fact that their modifications are dominant, and thus will be present even after mating with a sleeper. Even more disconcerting is the realization that as a direct result of the genetic manipulation, the sleepers are pretty much happy and well adjusted psychologically, healthy and strong physically, resistant to just about all sicknesses and, strangely, immortal to natural causes and will never age.

This book also tells a very interesting personal story as well. The cheap energy source mentioned above was invented by a Japanese man named Kenzo Yagai. Yagai was also a bit of a philosopher and wrote quasi-libertarian papers that gave rise to the Yagaist school. The Yagaist taught that everyone had something unique to offer to the world, and that putting any restrictions on an individual's ability to either produce their special gifts or restraint on their ability to freely contract for the right to trade that gift did violence to the soul of that individual, and by extrapolation, to the entire public body. With the invention of an extremely cheap source of energy Yagai's preachings became the philosophy of those in power. Having come from an Earth that was largely dominated by enormous communist blocks that had laudable goals of public ownership and even distribution of wealth, but by definition basically enslaved everyone, his ideas caught on and spread. The sleepless (roughly all four thousand of them) embraced Yagaist thought. And why not? They of all people had the most to trade. But they did so really without considering, for example, the plight of the average Spanish beggar, who had nothing to trade at all. Yagai rationalized that even if the average Spanish beggar could not participate directly in the trade he or she would benefit from the overflow of energy in the system. Theoretically he was correct, but fluctuations in the system and greed of those who could directly trade, and not to mention the figurative enslavement of those without resources tended to erode and threaten the entire system because those beggars would be excluded and powerless.

But despite that big set-up Beggars in Spain is not about what happens to the poor in a transformed economy. Its about what can happen to transform the views of even the most strident proponents of the Yagaist system when the things that they need are beyond cost; when needs are so immediate, dire and expensive that no amount of credit will enable acquisition of critically needed resources. That situation is exactly what is created by the Sleepless' very existence. Over the 20 or so years of the story the sleepless matured into single-person economic powerhouses with substantially more wealth, influence, ability and knowledge than any other normal person. In the beginning they were taunted by schoolmates, in the middle legislation was passed to even the playing field, and in the end they were hunted, beat and murdered out of fear and hatred. For protection and peace the Sleepless constructed a city in the mountains called Sanctuary. Leisha, along with a battered seven year old sleepless, must get to it before being discovered and imprisoned for "crimes" she has committed in the name of preservation of herself and her people. To get this done she reaches out for help to her sister, an ex-lover and a few others, all of whom help despite strained relationships. And it is from this help that Leisha has her moment of epiphany. She is never actually reduced to begging, but her position is analogous, and by this she is transformed. The novella ends at this point, but the novel goes further.

This novella has been heavily anthologized, and is available under its own cover. I think its so good because it deals with important topics, and because Kress really created a wonderfully told thing of beauty here. Like a snowflake under a microscope its intricate complexity really impresses. The novel is a knock-out of a book, but this novella is so strong and so well done on its own that I personally think both warrant repeated readings.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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