Friday, April 16, 2010

Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress

Beggars in SpainNancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain was a pretty darned good novel. The story of a persecuted minority with special abilities (normal or paranormal) has been a tried and true recipe in the genre for years now, including such works as Van Vogt’s Slan, Vinge’s Psion, and even Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Kress has done a superb job of upholding the grand tradition, and added a few personal touches of her own to make Beggars a compelling page turner.

The premise is that bioengineering has made it possible to create a race of humans who no longer need sleep. The side effects are extremely high intelligence, joyful disposition, and retarded aging. We follow the fortunes of the first batch of these children, focusing on Leisha Camden, one of the Sleepless and her twin sister, Alice, whose genes are left unmodified, unplanned by anyone but the author.

As the Sleepless reach maturity, it becomes obvious to all that they will quickly outstrip any but the most extraordinary Sleepers in any field of human endeavor, and the persecution/prosecution begins. The Sleepless children are shunned socially, barred from athletic competitions, feared and abused by their natural parents, and finally become the targets of racial violence. Some of the Sleepless have predicted for some time that this would come to pass, and have created a segregated colony called Sanctuary, where the majority retreat after their visionary leader, Tony Indivino, is gang raped and murdered while in prison awaiting trial for "kidnapping" a Sleepless child from physically abusive parents.

The new leader of the Sanctuary Sleepless, Jennifer Sharifi, has a much more radical vision of a new culture composed entirely of the Sleepless, and eventually moves Sanctuary to a space station in orbit. The subsequent degeneration of Earth’s and America’s culture into the Donkeys, who perform all of the production and governing, the Livers, who live on an extravagant welfare plan, enjoying a bread and circus hedonism, and the Sleepless, who have isolated themselves from humanity as much as possible.

I’m not sure whether Kress is an accomplished or merely amateur Lincoln scholar, but she’s blended a number of quotes from the text of his speeches into the novel, using them both as chapter headings and letting characters quote them directly to further their political ambitions. She’s also introduced the interesting philosophy of Yaggaiism, sort of a contract theory of economics and interpersonal relationships, into her future United States, as a dominant factor in justifying both the actions of our protagonist and her enemies.

Kress explores some issues that are of vast importance to contemporary Americans within the context of this novel, including: The sometimes unhealthy coping method adopted by persecuted minorities of an overwhelming belief in their own racial or cultural superiority and how it can lead to fascist excesses. The battle between the classes, and the political demagoguery which exploits it to gain power. The question of just what the beneficiaries of a prosperous, industrialized nation should be obligated to give back, via voluntary charity, or government redistribution of the wealth through taxation, to those either within their own culture, or elsewhere in the world, who are less fortunate economically.

I really enjoyed this book, and stayed up way past my bedtime in order to finish it. The only flaw, from where I sit, is that she (perhaps deliberately) left things hanging slightly unresolved, and has written a sequel, Beggars and Choosers, which I must now invest in and probably be disappointed.

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