Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review of "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress

Please note: this review is for the novella "Beggars in Spain," not the later novel expansion.

What if a person no longer needed sleep?  How would they spend their nights?  And what if there were a number of people in the same situation—hundreds who could devote their evenings’ hours to whatever they desired?  And what of the society they exist within?  Would they be open minded?  Would they accept these people for who they are?  With mixed but predominantly positive results, Nancy Kress’s 1991 novella Beggars in Spain attempts to answer these questions.

The novella opens with the rich entrepreneur Roger Camden consulting a gene modification agency on the options available to he and his wife for the child they desire.  Wanting an exceptional daughter, Camden inquires into a new gene treatment available wherein the child will never need sleep.  The twenty test subjects thus far exhibiting above average intelligence, Camden presses the agency until he gets what he wants.  Nine months later, a bright and healthy daughter named Leisha is born, and from that point onward, the girl’s life is the reader’s.  

While at first jealous of others and their dreams, Leisha eventually comes to relish freedom at night.  Utilizing the time to enrich her intelligence, she becomes one of the top students at her school.  Not the only one, the other Sleepless likewise become top students, gaining exceptional marks and top positions.  But all is not perfect.  Jealousy, indignance, fear, and a variety of other responses are heaped on Leisha as she grows.  And the older she gets, the more involved she becomes with people—relationships, university, employment, and beyond—until she must decide whether her unique makeup is a blessing or a curse.

Examining American culture in a fashion a writer of science fiction never has, Beggars in Spain looks at Americans’ treatment of the haves and the have-nots.  On one hand are people eager to get an advantage, and on the other are the jealous who look to drag back to status quo those with extraordinary degrees of success—the resulting impasse a ripe subject for examination.  Even deeper than this is the examination of the factors motivating success.  Less an overt, greedy perspective, Kress approaches the subject philosophically, the result a nice study in characters.  Thus, Objectivists beware: Rand’s argumentation comes under heavy (and deserved) fire.

But for as sound thematically as Beggars in Spain is, there is a nagging problem regarding the main plot device.  Pseudo-science, no more no less, Kress never fully examines living without sleep.  To her, no sleep = intelligence, with little more than a slight curiosity about dreams the result.  There is no discussion of the physical aspects of weariness, nor more than a single scene of one of the characters living at night.  In fact, if Leisha and her peers were made to sleep yet were extra-intelligent for other reasons, the novella would not change.  That the overwhelming majority of the Sleepless use their nights to better themselves likewise seems a little… optimistic.  The percentage of people in reality who use the day’s hours to better themselves is not the overwhelming majority as it is in Kress’ story.  Having to be taken at face value, readers looking for an in depth, realistic, even scientific look at what life without sleep might be like will have to seek elsewhere.  Kress uses the idea only as a path to extra-intelligence. 

In the end, Beggars from Spain is a well paced story with a touching conclusion.  Examining and commenting on the fundamental American idea of autonomy and rights within society, the novella is also quite interesting from cultural standpoint.  Better developed than the main plot device, Kress looks at Americans’ attitudes toward, and reaction to, motivation and success in intelligent, realistic fashion. (The fictional newspaper quotes that appear are spot on.)  What she ultimately posits in the conclusion will remain cautionary, perhaps for as long as people are people.  For my money, Vonda McIntyre's "The Genius Freaks" and certainly Olaf Stapledon's Odd John are better examinations of the same topic.

(A note regarding the novel vs. the novella.  I have not read the novel Beggars in Spain, but from a quick scan of the contents I can see that the above-described novella is only the first quarter of the story.  Rather than filling in the details of the existing story and fleshing out the premise, characters, and setting, Kress instead chose to progress the storyline, undoubtedly taking Leisha on a rollercoaster ride of cultural and personal dimension.  Thus, it would seem I need to read more if I want the story of the Sleepless to continue.  Perhaps Kress will start to get into what the lack of dreams means…)

(This review has also been posted at

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