Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
Published:  Morrow AvoNova, 1993
Series: Book 1 of The Sleepless
Awards Nominated: Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell, Locus SF (The novella version won the Hugo and Nebula awards.)

The Book:

“Wouldn’t it be a great if human beings didn’t have to spend a third of their life asleep?  That’s exactly the advantage the “Sleepless” have, along with a number of others, such as eternal youth, perfect health, genius-level intelligence and, in some cases, wealth and beauty.  The Sleepless began as an experiment, and they have become an incredibly powerful minority within mere decades.

However, as the Sleepless develop a collective social and intellectual identity, the tensions between them and ordinary ‘Sleepers’ continue to rise.   Sleepers fear and envy the wealth, success, and general physical and intellectual superiority of the Sleepless, and this envy occasionally bubbles over into sheer hatred.  For their part, the Sleepless are supremely confident that their lives have more inherent worth than those of Sleepers.  Rather than dealing with the Sleepers, whom they refer to as “Beggars”, many of them want to secede from the world altogether. “  ~Allie

Beggars in Spain is the September selection for the Calico Reaction Blog’s Alphabet Soup Challenge.  I’d never read any novels by Nancy Kress before, but I have vague memories of enjoying some of her short fiction.

My Thoughts:

To my mind, Beggars in Spain felt very much like two books joined together.  The first part of the novel featured the creation of the Sleepless, how their existence altered society, and the clashes between Sleepless and Sleeper humans. The second part of the novel was, in some ways, an iteration of the plot of the first half of the book, with different initial conditions.  Despite the feeling of déjà vu, I actually enjoyed the second half of the novel a little more than the first.

The novel covers quite a lot of time—several generations of Sleepers—and has a correspondingly large number of characters.  Unfortunately, few of them are ever really developed past a single defining characteristic.  The characterizations of antagonists were especially flat and exaggerated.  Antagonists were typically portrayed as representatives of a specific philosophy, and they followed their chosen tenets to the letter, regardless of logic, rationality, morality, or even their own goals and motivations. Of all of the characters, I was most interested in two that were introduced in the second part of the book, Miri and Drew.  I felt that those two characters had the most depth of character. They were capable of some change and growth, and their flaws and disadvantages significantly impacted their lives. Their existence is a major part of why I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first.

In contrast, the main character, Leisha Camden, felt like too much of a Mary Sue character to me. Leisha was a Sleepless baby who was born into a fabulously wealthy family, and who was genetically gifted with exquisite beauty and world-class intelligence.  As a side effect of her Sleeplessness, she has perfect health and will never physically age past the appearance of roughly thirty years.  Her parents doted on her, making sure she grew up believing that she was more important than other people.  She went to Harvard and then moved into a highly successful career.  However, she spends most of the book whining about how all the jealous people are oppressing her. In general, Leisha is pretty representative of the Sleepless, though they do not all initially come from such great wealth.  Her major difference from most of the other Sleepless is her opposition to the idea of creating an isolated Sleepless community, and her desire to improve relations with Sleepers. 

In general, I was never really able to buy the idea that the Sleepless were being oppressed. The readers are told over and over that the Sleepless are being persecuted, though few details of any persecution are shown.  In contrast, we are also repeatedly shown that the Sleepless are the privileged class.  The Sleepless may not hold political power, but they have a vast economic and technological edge on the rest of civilization. Crimes are committed against both Sleepers and Sleepless, but only the Sleepless have the power and resources to protect their own. In the latter half of the book, a new persecuted subgroup, the “Supers” are created.  Their plight seemed much more believable to me, due in part to the obvious vulnerability of their group.  I also found myself more sympathetic to their situation, possibly as a result of their general lack of the extreme level of arrogance that characterized the Sleepless.

On a related note, I found the contrast drawn between Sleepless and Sleepers to be incredibly unrealistic.  Naturally, Sleepless would be more productive, as they have more time to work.  Since they also seem to come with intelligence enhancements, it makes sense that they would be more successful as well. However, it seemed like the mere existence of the Sleepless caused all Sleepers to instantly regress to a culture of non-productivity and entitlement.  Despite the fact that non-modified humans built the world the Sleepless were born into, they are suddenly almost entirely incapable of contributing anything of worth to that same world.  For this reason, most of the Sleepless take to referring to non-modified humans as ‘Beggars’, and Leisha and her entourage refer to them as ‘Livers’ (since all they do is live).  I think it would have felt a lot more realistic if the novel had stuck to addressing the problems arising from the differing levels of natural aptitude, rather than causing non-modified humanity to suddenly become Eloi.

Lastly, I was a little bothered by the intense focus on the U.S., at the exclusion of all else.  The creation of the Sleepless, and the existence of genetically modified humans in general, would have caused dramatic changes in societies all around the world.  However, the rest of the world barely gets a nod at any point in the novel.  The characters focus very heavily on quotes and ideas from American history, to the point of constantly quoting Abraham Lincoln and men from the American Revolution.  There’s a lot of talk about the American mindset that did not seem particularly accurate to me.  Granted, I was nine in 1993 and I haven’t lived in the U.S. for a few years, so my opinion on ‘the American mindset’ might not be entirely accurate.  I suppose I was a little disappointed that a novel titled Beggars in Spain, did not, in fact, involve Spain at all.

My Rating: 2/5

Beggars in Spain brings up a lot of interesting questions about what effects designer super-babies would have on society. The plot stretches over a large amount of time, so there are many characters introduced.  Unfortunately, the characters seemed mostly flat and unconvincing, and the antagonists were particularly over the top.  The properties of the Sleepless made them seem like an exercise in wish fulfillment (they have immortality, eternal youth, beauty, intelligence, money, health…), and the main character, Leisha Camden, felt especially like a Mary Sue.  Given their extreme level of privilege, it was very hard to credit the Sleepless claims of being terribly oppressed.  While I felt that the second half of the story was an improvement over the first, my ultimate impression of the novel was one of disappointment.      


  1. Heh. When I finally reached that point in the novel the title was lifted from, I was like, "Really? That's it?" I definitely wanted something more profound rather than a parable, you know?

  2. Yeah, I agree. Also, I really wish I could have enjoyed this one more. I do like Nancy Kress, and the premise sounded pretty neat.

  3. I think this was based on a novella she won an award for, which may be why it had that weird split you mentioned. I almost bought this in a bookstore sometime back, and I've eyed the audiobook on Audible once or twice, but after hearing about the whinyness...well, may be a more interesting book to read about instead of reading.

  4. Thanks for your comment!I believe the first fourth of the novel is actually the novella. It focused mostly on Leisha's early life, and her relationships with her family (Sleepers) and friends (Sleepless). I've wondered if I would have found the story more engaging if it had kept that tight focus, instead of broadening to include so many under-developed characters.

    The novel spends a lot of time on philosophy (mostly Objectivism), and I've heard it compared to Ayn Rand, though I think that Kress disagrees with Rand on some details. So, maybe it just has a very specific target audience. For me, in any case, it ended up being a much more interesting book to read about than to read.