WoGF Book Review: Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

This is my fifth book review for the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge at Worlds Without End.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy KressI’ve always been intrigued by stories about sleep, or not sleeping, probably because I tend to need so much of it.  From my perspective, being able to function on less than 8 hours of sleep seems like a superpower some days.  The things I could do with all that extra time…

Somehow, those stories all seem to be about how there’s always a cost.  The technology goes wrong.  The super-soldiers who can never sleep again are driven insane.  Beggars in Spain is the first story I can remember about it not only working, but turning out better than anyone dreamed.  The Sleepless are so much better than the rest of humanity as to be like a separate species.  Which, of course, is the problem.  The rest of humanity, the Sleepers, don’t deal well with being inferior.

I love the way the conflict begins so intimately, with two sisters: Leisha, Sleepless, and Alice, Sleeper.  Their mother wanted an ordinary daughter; their father wanted an extraordinary one.  The conflict that grows between the sisters mirrors society at large, and as Leisha grows into her role as a lawyer we see all the little injustices: her teenage friend barred from competing in the Olympics, her own college dorm room trashed.  The escalation: Sleeper parents abusing the Sleepless children they had thought they wanted, but found they didn’t understand; a Sleepless friend killed in prison; boycotts against Sleepless-made products and services; the Sleepless withdrawing into Sanctuary, and finally leaving the planet.

All the well thought-out ramifications were fascinating to me, and somehow logically leading to a future dystopian America where 80% of the population lives on the dole and does nothing, the other 20% do all the work and keep the economy going, and their taxes pay for everything.  It takes care of the hatred from the normals, sure, but I must have a bit of Sleepless in me, because I can’t imagine being content to just not do anything.  It feels so un-American—after all, don’t we pride ourselves on being a self-made people, where anyone can bring themselves up out of poverty if they just work hard?  But that’s me looking back at our roots through rose-colored glasses.  When I manage to set those aside, this dystopia is disturbingly like looking through a window to our future.  We’ve become a culture that worships Free Stuff.  If we somehow found a way to wrest the money from the richest 1% to keep the rest in Big Macs and iPads, 80% of the country probably would applaud the system and never go to work again.

I don’t know, maybe that’s too cynical of me.  But then again, what is science fiction for but to take all the little flaws of our now, and follow them to the bitter end, revealing perhaps a worst possible future if we continue down the path we’ve started.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Sleepless value individual effort and achievement above all else.  It’s a value I can understand, even mostly agree with, but in the end the characters most dedicated to that belief end up committing the most horrifying acts.  It’s the above all else that makes the difference.  I think the moral must be that any one value cannot stand as the sole pillar of civilization—the same way that any viewpoint, isolated and left unopposed as in Sanctuary, will only become more extreme.

Highly recommended, thought-provoking book.

Advertisements