It is very interesting to read Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain now, some ten years after its original release (a new trade paperback version of the title was published this past December). Written in the days before the completion of the Human Genome Project and before bio-ethicists would write movingly of how one day soon we’ll all be modifying our own DNA in the bathroom, it remains a powerful, evocative tale of both the possibilities of genetic alteration and the seemingly inherent human drive for conflict and conquest.
Beggars in Spain is the story of Leisha Camden, the beautiful, intelligent daughter of wealthy financier Roger Camden. When he heard of the possibility of a genetic alteration that would allow children to be born without the need for sleep, Roger leapt at the chance – he had trained himself to sleep as little as possible, and he thought that such a modification would give his progeny an incredible competitive advantage. Roger’s wife Elizabeth is less enamored of the idea, but they go ahead with the procedure nonetheless. Unintentionally, however, Leisha is somehow paired with a “normal” twin sister. Roger wants the twin aborted, but Elizabeth refuses.
After birth, the two girls – Leisha and her sister Alice – are treated differently by their parents and others. Elizabeth relates to Alice and treats Leisha with distance and disdain; Roger’s reactions are the polar opposite. When Elizabeth finally leaves Roger and he marries the doctor who facilitated Leisha’s genetic modification, their lives change even more.
Leisha grows up to be beautiful and amazingly intelligent. She’s one of a relatively small number of children who were all genetically modified not to require sleep. All of them are exceptionally gifted, attractive, and seemingly completely unfazed by the barriers that face so many of the “sleepers” around them.
At the same time, however, they are treated with growing distrust and resentment. It is this tension which is the real crux of the book: the ever-rising tide of antipathy between the Sleepers and the Sleepless. As the Sleepless grow into adulthood, their amazing mental talents mean that even though they number only a few thousand, they are without question the elite of the elite. The Sleepless themselves almost unconsciously make judgments as well – frequently, one of them will mention how a particular scientist has done something pretty well “for a Sleeper.”
The story tracks across nearly a century as humanity adjusts – slowly, resentfully, and not all that successfully – to the genetically superior Sleepless. It is amazingly well-told, with deft characterizations and many poignant sequences between Leisha and many of the other characters, especially her sister Alice. Although it was slightly problematic that new characters kept being introduced, especially late in the book, the story’s rather episodic nature is actually something of a necessity given the timeline. Further, Leisha is a compelling character – committed to the notion of peaceful co-existence even in the face of overwhelming opposition – and Kress does a good job of manufacturing a number of foils for her strong-willed protagonist.
Still, it was intriguing to note how Kress portrayed genetic modification as essentially an unmitigated success, save essentially for the reaction of those who were on the outside looking in. And the cultural reaction to the Sleepless that she fashioned was somewhat difficult to swallow – while many other genetic modifications flourished, she suggests that people quickly lost interest in generating Sleepless children (this even after it is revealed that the Sleepless are, for all intents and purposes, gifted with remarkably long life as well). We’re to assume, however, that while a Sleepless was prevented from participating in Olympic activities, someone who had some other genetic modification would not be excluded as well? This sort of dichotomy doesn’t play particularly well, especially given recent developments in genetics and the prospect that in the near term it might even be possible to conduct genetic modifications at home (there’s a scary thought!).
All in all, Beggars in Spain is one of those literate science fiction books which is more about culture and social mores than it is about spaceships, aliens, or the other common trappings of SF. It’s an intriguing story, well-told, that speaks to the prospect of genetic modification in a largely positive fashion while recognizing the very real peril of societal schism as a result.