Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

The novel “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress was published for the first time in 1993. It’s an expanded version of a novella with the same title published in 1991. It’s the first novel in the Sleepless, or Beggars, series.

Roger Camden is rich enough to pay for genetic modifications that allow creating what he thinks is his perfect daughter. He discovers an experiment that aims to create people who need no sleep and also obtains that genetic modification for his daughter Leisha. However, his wife Elizabeth also conceived another daughter whose genetic makeup is 100% natural.

As she grows up, Leisha becomes involved in the growing Sleepless community, who have a significant advantage over the Sleepers and are achieving success in all fields. The Sleepless are the perfect champions of yagaism, which theorizes a society based on contracts of mutual usefulness. In their view, the people they call beggars don’t enjoy consideration but among them there are those who hate the Sleepless for their advantages and are even willing to use violence against them.

In 1991, Nancy Kress published the novella “Beggars in Spain”, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards. The author continued that story and in 1993 she published the novel with the same title of which the original novella became the first part.

The basic idea is that at the beginning of the 21st century, genetic engineering would have developed to the point that wealthy people could purchase genetic enhancements for their future children. One big step forward is a series of genetic modifications that eliminate the need for sleep while ensuring some other mental enhancements and near-perfect health.

Genetic engineering is central to the story and the novel spans almost the entire 21st century with quite a few scientific and technological advancements. However, Nancy Kress is mainly interested in exploring the social consequences of the emergence of the Sleepless community.

The portrait of humanity that emerges from “Beggars in Spain” isn’t positive. Among the Sleepers, there are many fringes full of hatred towards the Sleepless just because they exist. Many humans, not necessarily 100% natural, react like apes and are ready for violence towards the Sleepless. On the other hand, many Sleepless tend to view Sleepers as beggars. Nancy Kress was inspired by Ayn Rand in creating Yagaism, and their leader Jennifer Sharifi also brings religious fervor to leading the Sleepless in their Yagaist community.

Leisha Camden is often caught between two fires because she’s a Sleepless but she remains bonded to her sister, who is a Sleeper, and other Sleepers. Her father was a fervent Yagaist and she assimilated her father’s ideas but ends up clashing with Jennifer Sharifi, as she doesn’t share her attitude which can be defined as fundamentalist. It’s a situation that forces her to explore the ethical and moral consequences of the actions of the various parties involved.

One of the problems with the novel is that often Leisha just watches what is happening and judges people and events. Jennifer is even worse in the sense that she is one-dimensional and if she were a Christian she would basically be a member of the American right-wing that exploits religion for her own ends. Subtleties and nuances are not strong points of “Beggars in Spain”.

Through the often difficult and painful choices Leisha Camden has to make and her relationships with Sleepless and Sleepers, Nancy Kress recounts the changes taking place in American society during the 21st century. Sometimes Leisha is at the center of important events but in other cases, she witnesses them from the outside. Sometimes the author tells instead of showing but in my opinion, overall, the story works.

“Beggars in Spain” is not perfect but in my opinion, its merits are definitely greater than its flaws. It’s the first novel in a series but it has its own ending, so it can be read as a standalone story. If you’re interested in the themes developed by Nancy Kress, in my opinion, it’s a must-read. It’s available on Amazon USA, UK, and Canada.

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