Thursday, February 6, 2014

Beggars In Spain by Nancy Kress

My Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 3.90 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.96 / 5.00

As mankind’s understanding of genetics progresses it becomes possible to choose not only the appearance of your child, but also to give it improved abilities. Some parents choose enhanced intelligence or strength, but others opt for the newly developed ability to grant a Sleepless existence. At first it is believed that the extra time available will make the Sleepless more productive, but it soon becomes clear that they are also gifted with higher intelligence and near perfect health. At first, they are welcomed into society, but their ‘unfair advantage’ leads to jealousy and their unusual lifestyle creates tension with even the most tolerant of Sleepers. As they inevitably rise above their Sleeper contemporaries, excelling in all fields of study, innovation and business, the animosity becomes more overt and many of the Sleepless chose to withdraw to the closed community of Sanctuary.

Leisha Camden is one of the very first Sleepless and is in the unique position of having an unplanned Sleeper twin, Alice. As the two children age, it becomes increasingly apparent to Leisha that she and Alice can never truly understand each other. We follow Leisha as she makes her way through life, encountering bigotry, unconditional love, betrayal and conspiracy. Largely because of her attachment to her sister, she always tries to integrate with the Sleeper community and argue against withdrawal from mainstream society. Unfortunately, she is in a tiny minority and the divisions between Sleepless and Sleeper threaten to tear the US apart.

I have to thank Kristin’s Women In SF&F Month at Fantasy Cafe for this recommendation. The event has provoked me into reading more female authors and I am so very pleased that I chose this title as one to attempt this year. For a list of the authors recommended in the event for the last two years, you can check out my Page. I chose to read this title as part of Worlds Without End’s 2014 Masterworks Reading Challenge, which helped me to select which lady authors to try.

This title won a number of awards when it was first published, including the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella, so I was expecting quite a lot going in. I was not disappointed. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I devoured this book and was constantly delighted by the ‘hard’ Science Fiction on display.

The premise sounds very intriguing: an exploration of the strains placed upon American society by the development by a group that is unquestionably not “created equal”. I mention the Declaration of Independence here, because it is a cornerstone for much of the political and sociological debate in the book. The concepts of freedom, responsibility, equality and community are explored in depth throughout the story and the characters repeatedly refer to the Declaration of Independence as well as the writings and speeches of Abraham Lincoln. I found this far more interesting than I would have imagined, because it sounds like it would be rather dry and dull. However, the author keeps such discourse to a minimum and presents the arguments in such a way that they hold the attention and provoke contemplation of the issues involved rather than causing the eyes to glaze over and the mind to skip over these sections. I feel educated by this book, and that is not something that I can say very frequently.

The choice of the near future as the setting was a wise one, as it allows the author to use our contemporary world for much of the detail whilst adding some interesting futuristic developments. One that I would very much like to see in real life is the revolutionary cold fusion technology that has made energy both cheap and clean. The choice of the inventor to patent and license his technology within the US places the country at a massive commercial advantage, although the effects of his generosity are somewhat unexpected. His philosophy of the relationship between the individual and their community, called Yagaiism, is popular and adopted by many of the Sleepless because of its logical basis and apparent fairness. However, it does not answer the question of what to do about the Beggars in Spain of the title. If one sees one beggar it is easy to give that individual a small quantity of money. However, what happens when there are a hundred beggars, or a thousand?

The essential fairness and morality of societies and communities are explored as the need to be productive becomes decreasingly important or even desirable in a world where technology allows almost all manual labor to be mechanized. By the time that Leisha reaches the age of about sixty, American society is mostly made up of Livers, who do absolutely nothing but party and have a fun time. They are entertained, fed and cared for by the Donkeys, who run the government and business. Livers can no longer read and are only interested in politics because politicians compete to buy their votes. In this society, the Yagaiist ideal of the individual being a productive member of their community has been truly destroyed. I found this an interesting extrapolation of modern society in the US, with its allegedly growing subculture of the permanently unemployed. However, the Livers are not condemned as a drain on the economy: they are the most important section of society because they hold the majority of the votes.

There are other parallels with the modern US not just the mind-dulling entertainment that is piped into the Liver homes. The Sleepless are a neat analogy for the super rich in today’s America, with their gated communities and total separation from their ‘inferiors’. Their lack of interaction with the Sleeper community fosters a mutual distrust that eventually erupts into violence and open bigotry. This also reminds me rather forcefully of the violence surrounding the Civil Rights Movements of the 50s and 60s. In both cases, the differences between the two groups are impossible to change because they derive from their genetic make. Their inequality is inborn and therefore impossible to reverse. This is not to say that the groups cannot work together to forge a more equitable society, just that they are powerless to change who they are.

Ironically, the Sleepless that withdraw to Sanctuary finally create a race superior to themselves in their intelligence and intellectual capacity. These Supers are also excluded from the Sleepless community in some ways and begin to resent the inequality with which they are treated. And so the cycle of bigotry and alienation continues, although the Supers are far more tolerant than their Sleepless creators and more determined to live in a free and far society where all are accepted as they are.

The personal stories that are woven together this story are almost less important than the overall discussion, and yet the principal characters are interesting and sympathetic. Even those with whom I disagree are not two-dimensional baddies: they have perfectly understandable motivations and objectives, even if they do terrible things to accomplish their goals. There are many touching moments, and a heavy emphasis on familial relationships that humanizes many of the genetically enhanced characters. It could have been very difficult to identify in any way with these vastly superior humans, an yet their underlying vulnerability and desire to fit in and be accepted makes them sympathetic in the most part. This is especially true of the children.

I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants to read some quality Science Fiction that explores one of the most relevant questions of our time: what should we do with those who cannot, or will not, be productive members of society?

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