Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

June 18, 2009 at 2:38 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

If you had an extra seven or more hours every day, how would you spend it?  My guess is different people have different answers to that question, but in Beggars in Spain everyone seems to have just one: work like a dog.  The premise here, that genetic engineering might allow people to have children who don’t need to sleep, is fine.  But Kress feels that the kids would use the time they otherwise would have been sleeping to study advanced subjects, learn additional languages, and otherwise broaden their intellectual horizons.  I won’t speak for anyone else, but growing up when I had a snow day and thus didn’t have to go to school, I didn’t study Chinese instead, I just played in the snow with the neighborhood kids, played video games, or watched television.  Certainly if you had, say, a hundred kids without the need to sleep, there’d be some overachievers who would use the extra time academically.  But Kress says outright that all of the “sleepless” kids are academic geniuses.

I think there was a sentence or two in there that mentioned some possible side effects to the sleep-prevention genetic modification, implying that maybe these kids are smarter or at least have different interests than ordinary kids.  But if you want to write a book about super-smart kids, go ahead, but I expect to be told plainly that genetic engineering has made these kids super-smart.  The book focuses entirely on not sleeping as the crucial difference.

So that was one problem I had with the book.  As things went on, I tried to accept the Sleepless characters as having genetically enhanced intelligence and just deal with it.  Unfortunately, there’s a second area of sociological speculation where Kress lost me.  Despite the fact the number of Sleepless kids is very low, in the hundreds or at most low thousands, much of the book’s middle section concerns anti-Sleepless hysteria and discrimination.  Despite the intellectual benefits that I found so illogical, Sleepless as adults are not really distinguishable from the sort of careerist workaholics that already litter New York, Washington, and other centers of power and finance.  Some concern about a strange group with connections to power is quite understandable, but the cycle of violence and distrust depicted in the book seems way out of proportion with the amount of contact the average person would have (none), the real economic influence of Sleepless given their incredibly small numbers (nearly none), and the difference between Kress’ Sleepless and big-shot lawyers, financiers, and CEOs (pretty much none at all).  Sure, people grumble about the rich in America, some people even complain about “Jews controlling everything” and such, but these are very low-temperature hatreds and in the latter case it’s backed up by fifteen hundred years of tradition.  Let’s not forget that Sleepless are utterly visually interchangeable with normal people, too, so there’s no way to, say, ban them from your shop even if you wanted to do such a thing.

Apart from my inability to suspend disbelief in these areas, the book is pretty good.  It’s especially good in the last section, which deals much more directly with issues relating to genetic modification of intellect, albeit with a very predictable storyline.  All told it’s an accessible examination of genetic and social engineering, issues I wish would come up more in science fiction.

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  1. […] One (PDF) by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s) — Last year I read Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress’ 1993 novel about using genetic engineering to create smarter […]

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