Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress

Avonova, 1993, 407 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-71877-4

All together now: Science-Fiction is all about studying the effects of change on human beings.

More succinctly put: What if, rationally?

The best novels of the genre usually spring from a good single premise. Something that, preferably, hasn’t been done before. Then, the best novels explore the repercussions of this premise over human society, preferably using sympathetic characters to illustrate the repercussions on a personal level. Finally, the best novels do this seemingly effortlessly, with a lively style and a wonderful story to tell.

While Beggars in Spain isn’t perfect, it certainly adhere to most of the criteria above. The result is an above-average pure science-fiction novel.

The premise is one of the most simple yet fascinating encountered lately: Due to genetic engineering, the gene responsible for sleep is eliminated from a few children. This leads, obviously, to individuals with far more time for work, study or play but also, more surprisingly, to happier, smarter, more balanced individuals. There are no disadvantages. Their abilities are such that they quickly graduate at the top of their classes, get good jobs and generally outperform their sleeping colleagues. As could be expected, this leads to strife and conflict between the Sleepless and the Normals. Beggars in Spain is the tale of Leisha Camden, a Sleepless which allies with neither side and tries to moderate the conflict.

Nancy Kress has been the “Writer’s Digest”’s own fiction columnist for several years, and the technical mastery that has landed her this column is so well-practiced in Beggars in Spain that it shines by its transparency. The prose is simple yet effective. The plot goes effortlessly from one significant event to another. The characters are sketched rapidly and developed as Kress goes along; despite a rather large cast of characters, the personae dramatis is rarely confusing.

But if the characters are good, the plotting is only average. The novel is divided in roughly four parts, each of them chronologically distinct from the other. This gives the impression of four linked stories, not a single novel-or maybe a novel like those old-fashioned family sagas, spread over several generations and at least half a century. In any case, it does seems like the most interesting conflict of the novel is at the beginning, where the first sleepless have advantages so important over the remainder of humanity that sparks develop between the two groups, not the curiously anticlimactic three-partitioned conflict near the end.

It’s important to note that the believability factor of Beggars in Spain is, all things considered, quite low. This would have been less of a problem if Kress hadn’t attempted to couch everything in plausible-sounding biology. Her argument that sleep was an obsolete evolutionary trait is senseless (otherwise natural selection would have eliminated the oft-sleeping lions, etc…) and come perilously close to sinking the novel. But, again, the “What if?” predominates and the premise of a sleepless, all-around better human must be accepted. (It might have been better to assume quicksleep -thirty-minutes naps once every forty-eight hours or so- rather than sleeplessness.) Another curious oversight is the absence of comment on how boring it would be to live through the night every night and see all friends go to sleep; what is there to do?

Still, don’t get the impression that Beggars in Spain is not worth your while. In fact, the various nitpicks are signs more of a stimulated intellect than a desire to dismiss the book. Kress vaulted in the big leagues with this novel (it was nominated for the Nebula Award, as I recall) and the ultimate result is a fascinating examination, according to the rules of the genre, of a very intriguing “What if?”.

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